Ergonomics: Adapting Instruments to the Morphology?

Tendinitis is one of the worst enemies of the guitarist and the bassist alongside with arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and so on … The list could be quite long if you think about all the incapacitating and annoying pathologies that can occur from the shoulder to the finger tip! About 2 years ago, I had to deal with such affliction probably caused by a cubital tunnel syndrome (similar to the carpal tunnel syndrome but located in the elbow) resulting in pin and needles sensations in the little and ring fingers of both hands. This was unrelated to the guitar practice but that forced me to stop playing the instrument for almost 6 months (and to change my position at the computer, the cause of the affliction). Six months resting which have removed the syndrome and that allowed me to learn lapsteel quite intensively, but that’s another story!

A matter of constraints.

The repetition of movements in unnatural positions is basically the most probable cause for these pathologies. At least it is a synthetic view of a complex phenomenon that is reinforced by bad habits such as tensions and lack of warm-up and relaxation before playing the instrument. This causes various injuries to muscles, joints and peripheral nerves that can lead to one of these pathological issues. Obviously, to avoid these injuries, a little discipline to adopt the good positions and good gestures is beneficial. If the practice of guitar, bass or any instrument is not an intense sport, it remains a physical activity, and any physical activity can cause injuries if you’re not trained.

A matter of configuration of the instrument.

The shape of guitars and basses is inherited from a long history that started when these issues were not a matter of concern. It is also an optimal configuration that does not require:

  • Excessively complex calculations (though it is not that simple).
  • Extremely precise machines to cut and set up the different parts of the instrument.

But since that time, knowledge and study of ergonomics has made tremendous progress. Technology has also made huge leaps as now we can benefit from extremely accurate machines. This actually opened the door to experiments to improve the ergonomics of the instruments.

Adapting to the instrument is necessary but wouldn’t it be more interesting to adapt the instrument to the human morphology, and thus reduce stress and allow a more natural position and less contortion?

Twisting the neck makes a better ergonomics?

Twisted neck, improved ergonomics, no more tendinitis? Strange as it may seem, it is the solution provided by Torzal Natural Twist instruments at Little Guitar Works: Torzal Twist Bass and Torzal Twisty Sixy (the guitar version). The main feature of these instruments is a twisted neck via the inclination of the bridge on one hand, and the neck on the other hand. The total amount of inclination is of 35 degrees on the bass and 20 degrees on the guitar but the strings remain straight of course. The aim is to reduce ‘‘breaks” of the wrists and thus allow a more natural position of the hand on the instrument. A more natural position means reduced stress on the hand. And reduced constraints suggest less contortions and consequent traumas. Even better, the company can customize the twist to the customer’s specifications… Thanks to algorithms.

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On the pictures, I’d swear that the neck is totally screwed … But no it isn’t! And here is a video from Bass Guitar magazine, that shows the Torzal Twist Bass. It really looks very comfortable.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLi8pOa6zYk[/youtube]

To me this concept is so interesting that I’m surprised that there are no more brands competing to build the most ergonomic guitar or bass. However, I acknowledge that a lot of manufacturers try to improve the playability of their instruments (eg forearm or abdominal chamfers).

Roiron: a creative luthier.

As usual, I’m going into a digression, but I’ll remain focused on the topic of ergonomics. About 3 years ago, I was living and working in Lyon, and my Godin LG started to show signs of fatigue. Instead of fixing it myself (as I used to do it with cheap guitars), I preferred to bring it to a luthier. That’s how I met Pierre-Antoine Roiron, a young luthier (we are almost the same age so he is young, period) newly installed in his workshop. We had an interesting talk, I admired some of his instruments exposed in the workshop, and I stared at one particular guitar.

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“Hey… This cut is weird, what’s the use of it?”

There followed an extensive and fascinating explanation. Unfortunately, 3 years  were enough to erase the details from my memory, but here’s the mainline. Pierre-Antoine has made this custom guitar for a guitarist with a severe disability that does not allow him to play guitar standing (actually, the man couldn’t have any standing activity). Never mind, Pierre-Antoine the artisan (who also is a trained engineer) built the perfect instrument for his client. A unique instrument designed to be played sitting and to relieve the constraints on the back of the player. The weird bottom cutaway allows him to put the instrument on the thigh. Then the weight of the right forearm on the body causes an inclination of the guitar that relieves the back from any constraint. This design is on the borders of art and applied science, and the result is beautiful and practical.

These are just 2 stunning examples of how to adapt the instrument to the human morphology in order to avoid injuries and pain. Of course there are other examples out there, so feel free to share in the comments section of this article if you heard about some interesting related things.

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