The racy curves on this 8-string are designed for someone’s particular anatomy.
customer-specific shape. Photos courtesy of Crimson Guitars
When I started building instruments,
one of the top bass players in
Germany was among my first customers. I
first saw this burly musician onstage when I
was 13, surrounded by an audience of bass
players watching his every move. Needless
to say, I felt very honored to have him as a
client and I wanted to get everything right.
One thing that had always bored and
bothered me was the two-dimensional slab design
of most basses, which I considered
non-ergonomic. So I built what I thought
would be an ergonomic bass, but I somehow
ignored his girth. After he received the
instrument, he told me it was all fine except
for a bump on the back that was slightly
hurting his chest. Fail! I should have made
him one of those 2-D slabs instead of pursuing
an ergonomic shape that would have
been more appropriate for someone else.
“Ergonomic” is a term commonly used
to sell instruments—particularly to bass
players, as our instruments are far heavier
than guitars and we’re known to be more
open minded when it comes to unusual
shapes, new designs, and cutting-edge
Here’s how the International Ergonomics
Association (IEA) defines the term:
Ergonomics (or human factors) is the
scientific discipline concerned with the
understanding of interactions among
humans and other elements of a system,
and the profession that applies theory,
principles, data and methods to design in
order to optimize human well-being and
overall system performance.
Another scientific area that’s closely tied
with this is called anthropometry—a combination
of the Greek words for “man” and “measure.”
In other words, this science refers to
the measurements of the human individual.
So what does this mean for the ergonomic
bass? First and foremost: It doesn’t
exist! The idea that one instrument can be
optimized for all musical styles, situations,
and players is an illusion, and many new
luthiers have to learn this the hard way.
The mass market mainly offers two dimensional
slabs, while the more adventurous
3-D shapes are typically creations of the
high-end or boutique market, where the
price range allows a builder to really work
on an instrument by hand, crafting it to
your personal needs. This appears to be a
perfect example of “you get what you pay
for,” and it’s very likely to stay that way. It’s
not that modern CNC machines couldn’t
deliver racier shapes. Rather, it’s that these
shapes simply don’t work for the masses.
Any ergonomic shaping only makes
sense if it takes the individual player into
account, and last month’s example of two
players holding their instruments rather
differently is a first hint that their views
on ergonomics would also differ to a great
extent. Many ergonomic ideas focus on
back shapes that please your belly and better
hold the instrument in its playing position.
That’s a good thing, as long as you
use the new design the way it was intended.
Hang the bass on a long strap below your
belt and all ergonomic shaping will turn
into the contrary, as the bumpy backside
starts to knock against your legs!
The main ergonomic factors are weight,
balance, size, and shape. Some of these factors
work universally. A light instrument
will always be healthier and balance is not
a matter of strap length. Other than these,
shape is the one item of individual preference.
So everyone looking for a healthy
playing environment should seek out a
lightweight, well-balanced instrument. By
contrast, all the optimized features can only
be crafted for an experienced player who
knows what he or she needs.
This raises the next round of questions:
How do you find someone who can translate
your wishes into a real instrument? And
how do you explain your needs? Do you
send the builder your measurements—as
if you’re buying a bespoke suit—and then
merely factor in finger size and strap length?
Thoughts to ponder until next time.
is a German
physicist and long-time bassist, classical
guitarist, and motorcycle enthusiast. His
work on fuel cells for the European orbital
glider Hermes got him deeply into modern
materials and physical acoustics, and
led him to form BassLab (basslab.de)—a
manufacturer of monocoque guitars and basses. You can
reach him at