Second bass build - Effortless playability

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by JLW, May 11, 2018.

  1. JLW


    Dec 5, 2006
    San Francisco, CA
    Okay, so the first bass build can be viewed here. This was more just trying to get an understanding of the fundamentals. Although, I did add some cool touches to it with the laser-etched top and the piezo bridge pickup :D

    Now, just to give you some background, I'm an industrial designer by trade. I've worked on designing all sorts of products ranging from faucets to sunglasses to headphones to furniture. My basic job function is to make stuff that fulfills a user's needs, looks cool, and is cost-effective to manufacture.

    This thread will outline the process of a prototype bass design that I intend to work on. Back in the 1950s, almost all of the decisions made around Fender's first bass guitar were centered around reducing cost. There is nothing wrong with this. There's no point in making something that is too expensive for anyone to afford. But it was done at the expense of user comfort.

    My goal is to improve ergonomics for the electric bass using improved body shapes and neck profiles. My target "customers" are serious bass players who practice a lot. Music students specifically. People who practice for 2-3+ hours per day. I'm not talking noodling, either. I mean disciplined practice with the express intent of improving on the instrument. These players need an instrument that does not lead to RSI (repetitive stress injury) so the thing just needs to fit like a glove. Another submarket that I intend to target is 45+-year-old players who have health issues and are struggling to play their current instrument...people with carpal tunnel, back problems, etc. etc. If they don't find an instrument that caters to their ergonomic needs, they face the possibility of never playing again.

    Please note, I don't think I'll actually mass produce or sell this product, but it's useful for me to have an idea of these parameters. They will greatly inform the design....otherwise the design decisions will be made too subjectively.

    I am fully aware that there are a few luthiers who have designed instruments in this particular segment. But I still hope to bring my own perspective to the table. Even if it's a mild improvement, I'll be happy.

    So to start, let's analyze the problems. I know this stuff is probably really obvious to you more experienced luthiers, but it's important for me to lay out the problems so that my decisions for building are well-informed.

    1. left and right hand bending=carpal tunnel. One problem is that basses need to sit at a 45 degree angle relative to the floor in order to make sure that both wrists are in a neutral position. If they sit parallel to the floor, you get some very awkward bending due to strap height. Even still, some body shapes and neck profiles are not very easy to work with ergonomically.
    badlefthandtechniqueSMALL.jpg badrighthandtechnique.jpg

    2. Poor posture in general. This is largely due to bass players having to look at the fret board while playing. When you have poor posture, the muscles in your neck and your shoulder cramp up. That tightness eventually makes its way down to your wrists, which leads to issues with playing the instrument.

    3. Here's an example of "proper" technique. But even still, notice how out of the way this guy has to go to get his bass in a good position. His legs are splayed out, one leg is much higher than the other, and there's no way for him to see what he's playing in this position:

    Now that I've outlined the problem, I'll start to post some preliminary solutions.
    I'd love your feedback and input on this.
    Last edited: May 11, 2018
    lucas303 and EatS1stBassist like this.
  2. JLW


    Dec 5, 2006
    San Francisco, CA
    So I've built about a dozen or so prototypes so far.

    Right now, the one directly in the middle is probably the closest I've gotten to a comfortable body.

    Below is a picture of the body. Notice how I can lay my feet flat on the floor. I don't really have to bend either wrist awkwardly. The bass naturally wants to sit at a 45 degree angle, allowing for a more neutral wrist position. With some body contouring, this thing will be very comfortable:

    Next is the neck. I decided to go with a neck that starts out as an offset V-neck towards the lower frets. By doing this, it allows for a more comfortable pinch grip I KNOW THAT I WILL GET A LOT OF RESISTANCE ON THIS, but I feel that this design is much more ergonomic. The main gripe that people have with a pinch grip from a technique standpoint is that it limits your ability to play fast passages. It also hurts with your ability to apply pressure while fretting. But this neck is flat and slim in the right areas, which makes it way easier to play with a pinch grip on the lower register of the neck. The higher register of the neck gradually becomes more like a "normal" neck and gets rounded off:

    PS aren't my pants cool?
  3. I think what you are trying to do is really cool, but I also think you are doing way too many assumptions about posture that are not exactly right. I'm probably the worst person to talk about the right the proper technique and position, but I can tell you that the 45º angle is not necesary to have your wrist relaxed. It looks like you are thinking more on the classical guitar technique (and some of them use a setp like stool ro raise theleft leg).
    Usign the bass like you do in the picture, resting on the left leg, would be really umcomfortable for me.

    Again, I like the idea and the approach, but I think you need keep researching and analyzing data before moving ahead
  4. JLW


    Dec 5, 2006
    San Francisco, CA
    In what way do you think it would be uncomfortable? If you have a bass near you can you try it and tell me what you think?

    Also, I think it's important to mention that this bass will still work when played on the right leg. It's still more comfortable than other basses because the instrument is contoured a little better (basically they're just deeper contours and they're placed in a way that makes more sense---plus the body shape doesn't get in the way of your right hand as much). It's just that you won't utilize all the benefits of a perfectly straight back as easily. Your body has to twist a little bit when you play the bass on your right leg. If you play casually this really isn't a big deal. But if you sit in this position for 3 hours, you may feel discomfort.
    Last edited: May 11, 2018
  5. hdfixer

    hdfixer Supporting Member

    Aug 19, 2008
    Bend OR
    RichSnyder likes this.
  6. Sure!
    Of course I can't compare exactly because the body is not the same, so some of the issues I have with it with my current bass here, may not apply. That being said, my main problem will be the left arm movement to reach the lower frets. I'm not a fan of short scale basses, and that position puts the end of the neck way to far from my comfort zone if I don't use the 45º angle which makes checking the fretboard when needed almost impossible.
    Right hand feels kind of weird, but I think I could get used.
    Then of course you have "stupid" stuff like I feel unbalanced with the bass all being in my left side and leaving my right side like "naked". But as I said, that is rather silly and personal
  7. JKos


    Oct 26, 2010
    Surprise, AZ
    Perhaps take a look at the Torzal neck: Little Guitar Works | Torzal Natural Twist

    Yeah, putting the bridge of a 34" scale bass between the legs makes the first fret way out there.

    - John
  8. Building a jig to accurately create that neck in the home shop would be an interesting challenge. I'm guessing there's some CNC work being done to build these commercially.
  9. JLW


    Dec 5, 2006
    San Francisco, CA
    Ok this is exactly the kind of feedback I'm looking for from you guys. Thank you!

    So I've tried this before, but I really wanted to make sure that I didn't over look it. I took my Precision bass and rested it on my left leg. When sitting parallel to the floor, it is indeed extremely awkward to reach the first fret. Not only is it a long reach, it also forces your shoulder in a weird position too.

    When I place the bass at a 45 degree angle on my left leg, as you mentioned, it helps. But it's harder to see the frets. I also find myself having to lift my left leg (basically have my left foot on my tippy toes) in order to get an angle that's comfortable.

    My design is actually pretty usable on the left leg. The way that it sits automatically puts it at a 45 degree angle so the reach for the first fret is way better. The first fret is also a little bit closer to you just by the way the body's designed when compared to the P Bass. The neck helps with reaching that first fret, as well.

    But there is still the problem of actually being able to see what you're doing. Do you think having a visual marker on the side or back of the neck would help? In the same way there are lines on some fretless necks, maybe there could be lines on the back of the neck? Or maybe a tactile indicator? A very slight change in the finish (from satin to matte) on the back of the neck for the odd frets (1st, 3rd, 5th frets) could leave enough of a feeling on your hands as you pass through the neck? Just spitballing here.

    Also, I really don't think that your feeling of being "unbalanced" and "naked" on one side like that is stupid at all. Music is all about feel, so if you feel weird, how are you supposed to play?

    So it seems like I should probably focus a little bit more on right leg, non-classical sitting position. Like I said, this bass is still more comfortable to play with it on your right leg when compared to standard basses (musicman stingray and P bass), but only marginally so. I'll get back to you guys in a couple days.
    MuffledBoomy and baTassi like this.
  10. JLW


    Dec 5, 2006
    San Francisco, CA
    Hey hdfixer, I have checked out his work, but haven't spent much time looking into the details of his neck profiles. I have seen his bass that he did with the trapezoidal neck. I tried that profile and thought it was kind of weird. The guy really knows his stuff though.

    I have seen this. Very inspiring stuff. I honestly can't even wrap my head around how that works. I kind of want to stay away from things that require time-consuming and advanced woodworking if I can. I really do appreciate the work that Jerome Little (inventor of the Torzal neck) has done. It shows incredible craftsmanship that quite frankly is beyond my skill, so I'm not even going to attempt to build a twisted neck.
  11. Always glad to help, and funny you mention a P bass and a Musicman becuase those are the 2 basses I have here LOL.
    JLW likes this.
  12. John Trials

    John Trials

    Apr 16, 2016
    I am looking forward to your progress. Very cool project. I have messed around with an ergo bass prototype, and am currently making a heavily modified Les Paul guitar that is MUCH more comfortable that the original.

    I recommend checking out the Strandberg neck profile. I built a prototype bass with this neck profile, and although I don't like it, it's something you might consider trying.

    Another thing you might try (I have wanted to do this for a long time, but have never gotten around to it) is to take an existing bass or guitar (or even a mockup, like one of your foam bass models) and attach a garbage bag to the back. While "playing" the mockup, have someone fill the garbage bag with expanding foam. This will expand and form to the shape of your body (torso, lap and legs). Reproducing (carving) this complex shape from wood will be a good challenge, but this would make a very ergonomic bass or guitar body shape.

    Some good info:
    Last edited: May 12, 2018
    wraub and franksidebottom like this.
  13. mark5009


    Feb 17, 2018
    Sydney, Oz
    If you do a search on "ergonomic bass" you'll find lots of good material that'll help you with your project. For me, Ray Mottola's mezzaluna-style bass fitted the bill for all the things you are looking at solving, plus, in my eye, it looks very cool. Plus he's made the plans freely available...

    More info here:

    Liutaio Mottola Lutherie Information Website
    JLW likes this.
  14. DavetheDude

    DavetheDude Guest

    Nov 28, 2014
    Headless Guitars | Extended Range Guitars

    These Strandberg guitars get really good reviews for their ergonomics and neck design etc., probably something you could look into in case you haven't done it before.

    But since you chose that body form, I guess you have seen these guitars already.
    JLW likes this.
  15. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member

    May 24, 2006
    There's something that may be worth thinking about if you decide to go with a headless neck design. Despite their obvious engineering advantages with regards to weight and balance, many players find the absence of a headstock disorienting. (To my shame, I'm one of them.)

    I just bring this up because actual players won't automatically accept let alone prefer what's more comfortable, practical, or even healthy when it comes to instrument design. In addition to the absence of familiarity, you're bucking the cultural meme of having to "suffer for your art."

    I'm an IT network person by trade. My company introduced some innovative cost effecient approaches when designing server installations for our clients. With those designs, the emphasis was on security and the convenience and comfort of the individuals responsible for maintaining and working in them once they were put into operation. Our reasoning was that an easier to maintain server farm improved the quality of maintenance work and made repairs quicker in the event of an unexpected fault situation.

    We had only three out of several dozen clients go along with it. The reason? It "didn't look like" what they had learned (or imagined) a server and network wire room "should" look like.

    If this thinking can occur with what you'd think would be a cut and dried business decision, I can only imagine what you'll run into dealing with the entrenched traditions and romantic mumbo jumbo surrounding musical instruments.

    But I wish you the best with your new project. There's a huge amount of room for improvement and somebody needs to take the bull by the horns. So I'll be watching this thread with a great deal of interest. :thumbsup:
    Last edited: May 12, 2018
    moonshinegtrs likes this.
  16. whitebirch


    Jul 16, 2017
    Great ideas! As someone who plays a precision bass mostly seated without a strap, I've reflected some on similar ergonomic possibilities. My playing position is similar to your #3 example of "proper" playing technique. I have about a 3 inch rise that I use for for my left foot. I try to rest both feet in a relaxed position, but I often find myself lifting either heal for balance and comfort. I use an instrument angle that is a bit more vertical than the one you've shown in order to play with decent posture, reasonably straight wrists, and no strap bearing on my shoulder/back. My right elbow is lifted somewhat unnaturally in order to minimize bend in my right wrist. The headstock sits a bit closer to my head, and the plane from headstock to bridge projects between my legs. The upper horn is angled in, resting against my chest slightly left of center such that I can see the fretboard when playing.

    I've considered extending the forearm relief further forward on my instrument and introducing a leg contour on the opposite side of the bridge from that which you've displayed in your prototype. The contour would be subtle and occupy the lower 50% or so of a typical precision bass forearm relief. If I were designing a body as opposed to modifying one, I would also tweak the upper horn such that it centers on my chest with a contact patch that would help to stabilize the instrument. Cotton grip tape or other friction-friendly finish strategically placed at contact points with legs and chest also helps to keep the instrument in place when seated with no strap.

    Thank you for sharing your ideas and for so clearly outlining the ergonomic challenges presented by most mainstream designs.
  17. pellomoco14


    Mar 2, 2017
    Newport, OR
    I think you're on to something. I use that posture 45 deg. between legs, reaching low C/F about 20" from my head at eye level. Unless I'm playing an alembic I or fender design which I avoid. I re-profiled a jazz bass neck graduating from an offset v to asymmetrical flat (19-21mm think up-right to ibanez) based on the prototype cross over similar
    I wasn't the only one to approve. Every other time someone played it they made me an offer to buy. I made lines on the back of a frettless neck when I was learning. The matte/gloss sections is prob. a good idea for under the 1st fret if you use a headless design to improve "confidence". I also liked the strandberg trapazoidal shape (on guitar). Copped it on an Ibanez for a year before rounding it over. The tone changed a lot for the relatively small amount of wood removed. big loss in low mids. Stock to trapazoid had almost no effect on tone with a relatively large amount of wood removed.
    Maybe soft v to trapazoidal or
    trapazoid to asymmetric flat. From my experience: Carefully blending from one somewhat extreme profile to another their is no need to worry about refferance marks.
  18. JLW


    Dec 5, 2006
    San Francisco, CA
    Hey @40Hz , you are absolutely right. And I agree with you. I feel that a lot of the ergonomic bass designs look very odd and I wouldn't buy them purely on that basis. I don't care how comfortable it is if it looks weird. I do not think that is an unreasonable opinion to hold when you consider the fact that most of these musicians will be performing on stage in front of an audience with their instrument. If you feel weird holding a weird looking instrument, it is hard to play to the best of your ability.

    @whitebirch this is great feedback. So quick question; are you saying you would actually move the upper horn closer to the bridge for more stability? Sorry if I'm misunderstanding. If you want to go in photoshop and show me what you mean that would be cool. Or literally just draw some lines in MS paint or something over an existing P bass picture. You don't have to, of course. But if you want to you, I would find it very helpful.

    Also, I've added an area that slopes downward (slopes downward, toward the body while holding the bass) in a bit more of an extreme way

    For the higher friction contact points, I'm assuming you want these so that the instrument stays in place? It's funny you mention that, when I play in classical position with my P bass I always feel like the thing is going to slip out of my hands all the time. It could be as simple as having a matte finish for the sides and back of the instrument.

    @DavetheDude yes I have seen those before. Strandberg has done some pretty amazing things with ergonomics. It is not my intent to copy his designs. Because he has already done a lot of this research, we will probably come to similar conclusions in certain areas, as you have already seen. I want to expand on his ideas and make them my own, though.

    @mark5009 very cool! I wonder how he got the instrument to balance with such a lightweight body?? It looks like he put the strap pins in very specific spots...maybe that's how? Have you ever played one?

    @John Trials really interesting stuff. I read this last night and was thinking about this for a while. Do you know of a particular expanding foam that would work for this application? It would of course be best if it didn't stick to the garbage bag too much.
  19. JLW


    Dec 5, 2006
    San Francisco, CA
    @pellomoco14 Wow very interesting. Did you run into any troubles with neck stability with such an asymmetrical design? That has been my primary concern. Also, I'm surprised you were able to re-profile the neck without running into the truss rod. Were there other stiffening rods in the neck as well? I'm assuming no.
  20. JLW


    Dec 5, 2006
    San Francisco, CA
    So I made these sketches before I got all of this great feedback from you guys. To @whitebirch's point, no one's going to want to play this thing if it looks weird. So one of my big tasks has been making it look cool. These sketches are not nearly as relevant anymore now that I will change the design to be more usable in 'standard' sitting position (bass placed on right leg). But I figured I'd post 'em up anyway.

    tbsketches3.jpg tbsketches2.jpg tbsketches1.jpg
    lucas303, wraub, Chad Michael and 7 others like this.