‘Ergonomic’ is a term used all the time in marketing guitars and basses. A big brand might tell you that their latest model features an ‘ergonomically designed body’, or something like that.
But with some modern guitars designed today, the word is used in a different way. We don’t say that these guitars are ‘ergonomically functional or ‘crafted with ergonomics in mind’, rather that this model is an ergonomic guitar.
These guitars and basses often look different, for sure! But if it’s not just another marketing term, what does an ‘ergonomic guitar’ actually mean? What are the advantages of an ergonomic guitar?
The difference between an ergonomic guitar and a ‘traditional’ or ‘standard’ guitar involves the whole of the guitar’s design. But the most obvious difference is the body, so let’s start there.
The guitar body
As with guitars in general, there are many different designs and approaches to the ergonomic guitar. Let’s take the Claas Guitars Moby Dick as our example of an ergonomic model. From this, we can come to understand what makes a guitar an ergonomic one.
At the foundation of the Moby Dick’s design is the neck joint – I wanted to develop an extremely sturdy bolt-on neck joint, which meant that the upper part of the guitar would meet the neck a lot higher up (read more about our special NECORE neck joint here). On a standard single-cut guitar, for example, the upper part of the body meets the neck at about the 17th fret. On the Moby Dick, it meets the neck at around the 10th fret.
This immediately changes the body shape, with more wood, and so more weight, existing further up the neck. There is then less wood where your arm rests when playing, and so the top of the guitar looks as if it is ‘shifted up’ towards the neck. The lower bout of the body then has a slightly elongated curve.
With a radical design feature such as our neck, almost every part of the guitar body is designed differently in order to create an ergonomic instrument. But the neck does not dictate the design. Rather, every aspect of the instrument must be considered both individually and in relation to the instrument as a whole. You must think about the individual part and the overall design at the same time, all of the time. Even with a more standard neck joint, the guitar body – whatever the style or type of guitar – must undergo a totally new design to be ergonomic. This is why true ergonomic guitars and basses often look so different to traditional designs.
But why? What guides such a redesign of the guitar?
The features, contouring and overall design of an ergonomic instrument are governed by three key considerations:
These three considerations guide the design of an ergonomic guitar – and any ergonomic object. An ergonomic computer keyboard, for example, is designed to work perfectly with the movements, shape and positioning of the human body, in order to help relieve unnecessary physical stress and be easier and more comfortable to use. This is exactly the same for the ergonomic guitar.
If a guitar isn’t perfectly balanced, the player can make micro-adjustments to correctly hold and play the instrument. These movements and changes in posture create points of tension and stress in the body. What does this mean? It can make the guitar harder and less enjoyable to play, and can even contribute to the kinds of cramps and physical stresses that musicians fear. Even without contributing to serious issues such as back pain, carpal tunnel or RSI, an improperly balanced guitar is simply less enjoyable to play.
Many of us have become used to imperfect, poorly balanced designs, and so it feels normal. But there may actually be a far more comfortable playing experience out there than many of us realise – we just need the right instrument.
The Moby Dick’s body is made with this at its core. The lower bout is elongated to maintain perfect balance when the guitar is worn on a strap or played sitting down. This means you can keep your correct posture and playing position whether on stage or in the studio – no gripping the neck or sub-consciously steadying the guitar. Both while you’re performing and in between songs, the Moby Dick will rest on a strap without aid. You can fully relax your hands, arms and back when not playing, keeping them rested and preserving your stamina for the rest of the set.
On some guitars and basses, your picking hand can rest too low or too high. This can make picking less comfortable over time, and make it more of a strain to play long, fast passages. The Moby Dick lets your arm sit in a relaxed, natural position, letting you pick the way you should with ease. And when it comes time for a little two-handed tapping, the body doesn’t sit awkwardly or force you to stretch or lean. It feels comfortable the whole time, just like it should.
The purpose of ergonomic design is to avoid unnecessary physical stress and strain, and to help keep your movements as efficient as possible. That’s the very opposite of the classic guitar solo freeze-frame: twisting your torso, lifting the guitar up, and tensing your whole body to reach that final high bend on the 22nd fret. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a kickass look, and there’s nothing wrong with ripping a proper solo! But it’s nice if you don’t have to tense and twist your body to bend on the top frets and reach every note on the guitar.
On the Moby Dick, the extra deep cutaway again maintains perfect balance, but also gives you unhindered access to every single fret on the ‘board. This means you can reach up and hit those screaming high-note finales with breaking a sweat, or tensing up. But of course, if the occasion calls for a rockstar pose, who am I to argue?
It’s worth remembering that the benefit of an ergonomic guitar is not just comfort. Have you ever watched lessons from guitar virtuosos like Paul Gilbert or Steve Vai? They all repeat the advice that you should always keep your body relaxed and comfortable. Don’t tense your arms to try and alternate pick faster, don’t tense your wrist when sweep picking, and don’t let your shoulders tense up on long, fast passages. They’ll tell you this isn’t just for comfort or avoiding strain – it’s to make you a better player. You have to keep your body relaxed and comfortable to play at your best and to fully progress your skills. This is another key aim of ergonomic design: to increase efficiency and functionality. By helping to keep you in comfortable, natural postures, an ergonomic guitar can contribute to this, and so aid your playing.
The overall design
The body of the Moby Dick went through years of revisions to perfect it, all to achieve these benefits. But as I’ve mentioned, the ergonomic designer must think about the entire instrument at once, not just individual parts. You can have a perfectly balanced and shaped body, but it will not be an ergonomic guitar if a large headstock creates neck dive, or a chunky neck joint cramps your hand at the upper frets.
So, what else makes the Moby Dick an ergonomic guitar?
Our unique neck joint not only aids sustain and stability, but is part of the ergonomic design too. By having the bolts attach the neck to the body along the top part of the guitar, it is easy to access every fret without straining or altering your playing position. Moving from open chords to a solo can be done simply by sliding your fretting hand from one position to the next. The body doesn’t need to move or tense in any other way.
The length of the neck, its weight and the point at which it joins the body are essential factors in keeping the guitar balanced. The body, a top wood and hardware all contribute to this weight and are a part of this equation. We take this into account with every Moby Dick model, making sure that it will sit perfectly on your lap or against your body when on a strap.
Before I come to my definiton of an ergonomic guitar, let me clarfiy one more thing. The look and “emotional feeling” of a guitar is very important. When I was younger I owend a Gibson SG and a Dean ML because both were guitars played by my all time idol guitarists Angust Young from AC/DC and Dimebag Darrell from Pantera. I loved both guitars and I loved how they made me feel! Those are not bad guitars!! But when I started with the Moby Dick, I wanted to think about the ergonomic design from a physiological point of view and thats how it came about.
By taking the Moby Dick as our example, we’ve answered our two key questions:
What is an ergonomic guitar or bass?
An ergonomic guitar is a guitar designed to be perfectly balanced and comfortable to play. It helps to keep you in a relaxed and proper playing position when both sitting and standing, which helps you to avoid unnecessary physical stress and strain. This also helps to increase efficiency of movement, and so aids your playing. Overall, it aims to create a more comfortable and enjoyable playing experience. It helps if it also looks really cool.
What are the benefits of an ergonomic guitar or bass?
An ergonomic guitar aims to feel comfortable to play, including over long periods of time. It helps to reduce the kinds of stresses and strains that musicians really want to avoid. It may also help you to play better and faster, as it helps you to keep a relaxed posture and so increases efficiency of movement. It might also help you to look really cool.
If you’re still not convinced about ergonomic guitars and basses, my final word would be this: try one. We all get used to certain guitar designs, and we of course love them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the best, or the perfect fit for all of us. Try an ergonomic instrument, keep an open mind, and experience the difference.Which ergonomic guitar to try? Well, I would recommend the Moby Dick, of course. You can find out all about it here.