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 racy curves on this 8-string are designed for someone’s particular anatomy.
A very 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 technology.
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.
Heiko Hoepfinger 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 firstname.lastname@example.org..