Make Your Guitar More Ergonomic

Ergonomic design seeks to reduce strain and repetition and create a tool that works in accordance with the human body. And, while a new design may be ideal, a cumulative approach can make a guitar more ergonomic.

When looking at a guitar from the perspective of ergonomics, there are several key factors to consider – weight, balance and playing effort. Playing a lighter guitar is an easy way to reduce strain on the body. A heavier instrument will not only increase strain on the body but increase tension in the body. Increased tension can contribute to Repetitive Strain Injury. After all, tight muscles are easier to injure. Instrument balance is also important. A guitar that balances well is easier to play since you are expending less energy trying to keep it in position. Less effort means less strain and less tension. Finally, reducing playing effort is another way to reduce the potential of Repetitive Strain Injury.

With a focus toward the instrument, let’s look at some things we can do to improve an existing guitar in terms of weight, balance and playing effort.

Weight

This is the hardest one of all. There aren’t many ways of reducing the weight of an existing guitar design. However, we can choose to play lighter guitars. A guitar does not need to be a back breaker in order to sound good. Unfortunately, this is not always an option. One of the most popular guitars, the Gibson Les Paul, is quite heavy. One way to mitigate this is by switching to a more ergonomic strap such as the Dare Guitar Strap. It attaches to the guitar in a conventional fashion but goes over both shoulders to more evenly distribute the weight of the guitar.

Balance

Balance can also be a tough thing on an existing design. However, one thing a guitarist can experiment with is moving the placement of the strap pins to alter balance. Also, an ergonomic strap, as mentioned under the “Weight” section, can also improve balance.

Playing Effort

There are several things that can be done to reduce playing effort. The easiest? Change your strings. Hands that are already under strain do not need additional strain. Give your fingers a break and reduce your string gauges. Consider placing a capo a couple of frets up on your neck and retuning to concert pitch. This effectively shortens the scale of the neck which reduces string tension. Of course, you lose the use of a couple of frets in the process. Finally, with a Fender style bolt on guitar, it is possible to go with a shorter scale neck which reduces tension on the strings. Warmoth Guitars carries short scale necks which are compatible with Fender guitars.

With just a few changes, it seems clear that we can make significant strides toward protecting ourselves and our ability to make music – in my case, to make noise…

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17 Responses to “Make Your Guitar More Ergonomic”

  1. Why would you want to reduce the weight on a gibson les paul ?

    Thats what gives it sustain and beef … the weight is part of what makes it sound so great and unique ….

    oh … and by the way , you have a great blog … interesting .

    1. It’s not necessarily the weight that makes it sound good. it sounds ‘beefy’ because it has large dimensions, (its a good sized guitar) means that lower pitches can resonate through it (lower frequency waves are bigger, and will just move around a small object, but will hit and resonate a large enough one), and once you have these lower frequencies vibrating, its the density and hardness of the wood make it sustain longer. A lot of the the Les paul sound is actually from the pickups though.

  2. Thank you for checking out the blog and thanks for the comments!

    If you go back and re-read the portion of my post referencing the Les Paul, you’ll see that I’m talking about dealing with the fact that weight reduction may not always be an option. Instead, I discuss a possible way to mitigate the weight problem because I recognize that certain guitars sound the way they do because of the way they’re built. That said, Gibson released a Les Paul Lite recognizing the original’s back breaking nature. And, the Les Paul’s sound and sustain is not solely a function of its weight. Scale length and choice of pickups are large contributors. Also, keep in mind that many guitarists play through some sort of effect and sound is often manipulated to such an extent that the original instrument is only a portion of the equation.

  3. The biggest problem that I have is the weight of my Gibson RD-Artist. It weighs in at around 10 lbs.

    I wonder if I should router out area’s in the back of the RD to lighten my load? What to you think?

    Chris

    1. NO! for gods sake!

    2. I have to agree with Colin on this. I wouldn’t take router to the instrument. It’s not something to be done lightly.

      If you’re really committed to the instrument, I’d recommend looking at ways to alleviate the strain. Take a look at Guitar Accessories for Ergonomics. You’ll find a few ideas including guitar straps to help distribute the weight more effectively as well as devices that can help position the instrument better while seated.

  4. I wonder, if one have decided not to go headless, if one can improve unbalanced guitars by switching to lightweight tuners. More often than not, tuners are sturdy built, especially on bass, and of cast iron or stainless steel or similar.

    I wonder if you guys know of any guitar tuners (electric, not classical) that are made of some lightweight material, such as aluminium, or titan or similar. To reduce weight on headstock.

    I know that HipShot makes a “hyperlite” series for bass, but they don’t have them for guitars.

    Anyone?

    1. Parker Guitars uses Sperzel locking pegs made from aluminum which they claim contribute to the instrument’s balance – Parker Guitars – The Anatomy of Perfect Sound. A review of the tuners available from StewMac show that these are among the lightest they carry at just over 7 oz. Most of the others appear to be in the 8-9 oz range. Too bad they don’t list the weights for the Steinberger gearless tuners.

      Update: I did a bit more digging around and came up with this Gearpage thread where one of the contributors listed the following weights:

      Tuner weights
      With associated bushings, washers, nuts and screws
      Weighed using a Pelouze digital postal scale

      Schaller Fender style locking, metal buttons 9.6 oz
      Sperzel Trimlok locking w/ plastic button 7.0 oz
      Sperzel Soundlok w/plastic button 4.6 oz
      -these are the ones Jim is describing with the friction lock
      Gibson Kluson Dlx, 10mm nut, plastic buttons 6.6 oz
      Fender style Kluson Dlx, bushings, by Gotoh 5.0 oz
      Grovers w/ metal tulips (90s ES 165) 9.0 oz

  5. Thank you! I’ve always found it peculiar why tuner manufactureres don’t list the weights – anywhere. It’s crucial. It’s even a marketing tool, some instruments really need balance the other way around too, so people want heavy ones.

    The Sperzel soundlok w/plastic at 4.6 oz seems good to me! That’s even less thatn 8.0 oz. Now I have Grovers black ones on my recently acquired Babicz acoustic, which I am about to balance up a bit. I want a strap end pin button that are made of lead or cast iron as well! :-)

    I am sooo spoiled with my Klein balance! See what it does to me! :-)

  6. Hello,

    I’m a bass player just recently developing bad wrist and forearm pain due to increased playing. Efforts towards improving my technique have not been going well, and I’ve always known my bass (a Schecter 4-string) is not well balanced, quite neck-heavy.

    I’m considering buying a new bass. Can you recommend a kind that may be well balanced or generally lighter? Thank you,

    Martin

    1. Martin – I’m sorry to hear about your troubles with RSI. Have you taken a look at my recent article – (8) 8 Ways to Combat Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)? I think these tips will help.

      As far as balance and weight are concerned, you may want to look at some of the ergonomic guitar straps that exist. These help distribute weight across both shoulders reducing the impact of a heavy instrument. Take a look at the Dare Guitar Strap, for example. Also, check out some of my other articles in the Guitar Accessories category listed under Topics in the middle column.

      As far as light weight off the shelf bass guitars, Parker Guitars makes basses that are under 7 lbs. You may want to check them out.

      And, of course, there are any number of luthiers who can build you a custom instrument.

      Let me know what you think and thanks for the comment!

    2. Martin,
      I just purchased a used Peavey G Bass. It’s around 6lbs. with a carbon graphite neck and superb active electronics. Get a Planet Waves Dare Strap and you will enter a whole new world of playing music.

      And Stretch….try yoga.

      Good Luck

  7. Hi I am an aspiring studier of the fundamentals of guitars, their woods, pick-ups, neck and scale length etc.. and one of my questions is, what’s the usual centering and balancing point for most guitars?

    1. The actual centering and balancing point is going to depend on the guitar design but goals include keeping the mass close to the torso, balancing the instrument so that weight is evenly distributed on the shoulders and balancing the guitar so that the neck does not dive. Headless instruments really help in this area although it can be done without resorting to them.

      Weight carried close to the torso is more easily carried and distributing the weight as evenly as possible helps to maintain a neutral posture. Hope that helps.

      And check out what’s important in guitar ergonomics among several several guitar players and guitar makers. Food for thought.

  8. Hi,

    I have a futura custom explorer. The weight doesnt seem very well balanced (its a great guitar i mean!), but the neck just keeps diving towards the ground naturally, and makes playing hard for me. Do all explorers tend to have this problem?? and i dont prefer to get a x-shaped strap..any possible solutions?

    Lu

    1. Hi Lu – I don’t know about other Explorers but if neck dive is making it hard to play then you need to be open to alternatives – even if it means an unconventional guitar strap. After all, what’s more important?

      The Dare Guitar Strap mentioned in the article is an alternative to the harness like “x-straps”. It’s relatively inexpensive and worth a try.

      It may also possible to alter the guitar’s balance by shifting the front strap button but that will require some experimentation. Some guitarists have gone as far as adding weights to the opposite end of a guitar to improve balance. You might also look at light weight tuners to reduce the amount of mass at the headstock.

  9. the downside to using lighter strings is that the guitar just doesn’t sound as good, and if you’re inclined to play hard, you’ll spend a lot of attention trying to remember not to hit the thing too hard and have the tone just turn into buzzing.