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Ergonomic Electric Guitar Project

This project is about designing and building two different ergonomic electric guitars. The first was designed to be played in the "classical" seated position with the guitar resting on top of both legs, and the second was designed to be played in the "folk" seated position with the guitar resting only on the back leg. No consideration was given to the ergonomics of playing either guitar both ways.

This project is not about defining the "most" ergonomic guitar design. Here are the design goals and constraints for the two ergonomic electric guitars discussed on this page. 

1.  The player must be able to play with their back straight and feet flat on the ground, whether playing sitting or standing
2. The guitar should be in the same position relative to the player's upper body whether playing sitting or standing
3. The weight of the guitar must rest on top of the player's legs when they are playing sitting.
4 a. The guitar designed to be played in the classical position must support tilt angles of at least 30 to 45 degrees.
4 b. The guitar designed to be played in the folk seated position must support tilt angles of at least 15 to 30 degrees.

As part of this ergonomic electric guitar project, I looked at a number of commercially available guitars and applied kinematic and geometric principles to develop objective ways of comparing their designs. That turned into a lengthy discussion around electric guitar ergonomic analysis if you are interested.

Wave T Ergonomic Electric Guitar

The Finished Wave T Ergonomic Electric Guitar

The Wave T ergonomic electric guitar has a cream colored body with a cutout in back, a tortoise shell pickguard and a roasted maple neck. The double cutout is for playing in the classical style.

Here's the end result of the first ergonomic guitar that is part of this project. I called the guitar "Wave T." The "wave" part of the name is because the four corners of the guitar look to me a bit like different shapes of ocean waves (and I had to come up with something to put in front of "T"). Of course, the "T" part of the name stands for T-style.

The economics are why many guitar builders start with the T-style platform. In the words of Steve Klein (one of the most respected ergonomic guitar designers and builders), "it just makes the guitar a more affordable instrument." At the time, Mr. Klein said this, he was talking about his ergonomic T-style guitar the "sTele." The sTele uses T-style controls, pickup layout and bridge; but the sTele is at a "whole nother level" of sophistication relative the Wave T. If you would like to learn about electric guitar ergonomics, I suggest you study Mr. Klein's guitars. There are also youtube videos where he talks about his views on ergonomic guitars. 

The Wave T started with an entry-level Squier Telecaster. I then bought a T-style body blank on ebay, modified the shape of it (more on this below) and swapped the new body into the Squier. At this point I had $300 into the guitar including tax and shipping. I really liked how it felt so I started upgrading. This ergonomic guitar now has a  roasted maple Warmoth neck with stainless steel frets, GFS Fatbody neck pup, CTS pots, and staggered Fender locking tuners. I like it so much that my fancy Tele stays in its case most of the time. That being said, I'm right at $800 into this guitar (not including the labor). Starting with the relatively inexpensive T-style platform helps a lot, but premium parts are pricey..

This picture of the ergonomic guitar shows the headstock and roasted maple neck

I need to find a better looking guitar model, but this image shows why the Wave T ergonomic guitar body has the shape it does. I'm wearing a strap, but it's not supporting the weight of the guitar in this position. There's a ton of information online about proper ergonomic guitar playing posture so I won't go into that, but as summarized above,  I wanted the following posture from my ergonomic electric guitar project while sitting:

1. Back straight and feet flat on the ground
2. Weight of guitar distributed on right and left legs
3. Guitar neck at 45 degree angle.

This is pretty much the standard classical guitar posture, but easier to achieve because the ergonomic electric guitar does not have the size and shape constraints of an acoustic guitar. There is no need for a foot stool, guitar rest, support, etc. with the Wave T.

Note how the guitar is in the same position relative to my body when I am standing as when I am sitting. That's one of the ergonomic design goals. The weight balance of the guitar feels fine in this position, though the total weight at 8 pounds is on the heavy side for contemporary T-style guitars.

I noticed when I was playing, and I can see it in these pictures, that my right shoulder is turned a few degrees forward and my left shoulder is turned the same amount backwards. It would more "perfectly" match the "back straight" ergonomic design goal if my shoulders weren't turned at all, but my right arm has to get around the guitar somehow. I could turn my body straight and rotate the guitar so its body is parallel with my right forearm, but that moves my left hand too far forward and away from my body. It looks like the slight turn of the shoulders is simply a consequence of playing in the classical position. A thinner body on the guitar (like a Parker Fly) would help ergonomically, but ultimately the guitar strings are straight and have a fixed length so I can't curve that part of the guitar around my body. I think what I have is about as good ergonomically as the Wave T is going to get.

Shows a person playing the ergonomic guitar standing a using a strap.

Cobra blue ultra telecaster guitar and electric guitar  leg rest in carry case

My ergonomic electric guitar project started during covid when I decided to learn to play guitar with all the time I would have at home. I bought this fancy blue guitar and started practicing every day. At first I sat in the "folk" position with the guitar on my right leg, but after a month or two  my back started hurting.

My first strategy to address this was to play standing, and that did help my back, but I got tired of standing all the time. I want to be able to play standing and sitting. I also don't want my neck and shoulders supporting the weight of the guitar when I am sitting.

After a bit of research in guitar ergonomics, I learned that the classical playing position with the guitar resting on both legs might help my back issues, so I gave the classical playing position a try..

Unfortunately, my fancy blue guitar didn't sit on my left leg very well so I tried a footstool, and then a little cushion, but ultimately I made a rest that worked pretty well. It is made of aluminum, plastic and felt, and has sandpaper glued on the bottom that prevents the guitar from slipping around on my leg. You can see the rest on the guitar's lower horn in the image at the right. The rest definitely helps raise the headstock of the guitar to improve its ergonomics in the classical seated position. 

My son plays guitar and plays in the folk position (like most people). He tells me that this rest makes his guitar more comfortable for him to play. The rest gives the guitar more offset and a higher tilt angle, both good things in the world of guitar ergonomics, so it is logical that is makes the guitar more comfortable while playing folk-style.

The leg rest improves the ergonomics of the guitar while playing in the seated position 

Here's an image of the Wave T ergonomic electric guitar sitting on top of the blue guitar. The material added to the bottom of the Wave T body eliminates the need for the additional rest and the horn on top moves the attachment point for the strap about two inches forward.

Moving the attachment point forward makes the guitar better balanced on the strap and prevents neck dive. I was concerned about neck dive because I was cutting quite a bit of material off the back of the guitar. 

The control plate, pickup routes, and neck pocket all stay in the same relative location. That's another reason to start your ergonomic guitar project with the T-style platform. It greatly increases your odds of ending up with an instrument that intonates, frets properly without buzzing, sounds decent, etc.

The image at right shows the material cut out of the back of the guitar body. The material cut from behind the bridge makes room for the right leg and the material cut from behind the control plate keeps the bottom of the guitar from hitting the chair. That lets the player sit with their back straight against the back of the chair without any inference at the bottom of the guitar.

There are two volume controls (one for each pickup) and the jack in the control plate. Adjusting the relative volume of each pickup "blends" their effects. At some point I may change  to a single volume and 3-way switch since I'm not really using the blending functionality. The jack is in the control plate so it doesn't point downward and interfere with the chair..

The pickups are wired in parallel and in a  humbucking configuration, but the humbucking isn't fully effective unless both pickups are set at the exact same volume. That's another reason to go with one volume control and a switch, though the guitar is pretty quiet even without the humbucking. I was careful to shield everything and twist the wires from the pickups to the control cavity.

The actual piece that was cutout from the back of the ergonic guitar body sitting next to the guitar body

Building the Wave T Ergonomic Guitar

This next section briefly discusses the techniques I used to build the Wave T. It does not teach you how to use tools.

PLEASE BE CAREFUL USING ANY TOOLS. READ THE MANUALS AND INSTRUCTIONS AND ALWAYS WEAR EYE PROTECTION

Original sketch of the Wave T ergonomic electric guitar body

The image at the left shows my sketch of the ergonomic T-style guitar I wanted to build. Also, here's a high-res scan of the sketch if anyone would like to use it as is, or as a departure point for a different shape. Eventually, I enlarged this sketch and used it to make the cutout in the back of the ergonomic guitar  body. The shape of the rest of the body was pretty much decided by my construction technique. As discussed below, I literally swapped the top and the bottom horns of the standard T-style. 

The pick guard is a standard T-style with the bottom horn cut off and a little shaping to make it follow the shape of the modified body a bit better.

In late 2020 I bought an entry level Squier Bullet Telecaster that retailed for $179 (in June of 2022 they are $199 retail), modified it and played it a bunch during my ergonomic guitar journey. After some setup and fret dressing it played fine, but after about 9 months the cosmetic skunk stripe started pushing into the back of the neck and I wanted to upgrade the neck anyways. The bridge, rear pickup, neck plate and ferrules from the Squier Bullet went into the Wave T ergonomic electric guitar and I replaced the neck with a fancy one from Warmoth.

I can supply more detail if you want to build something similar to this guitar. Email me at rich.hooper@gmail.com and we can communicate that way. I also wouldn't mind knowing about other interesting ergonomic guitar designs.

Two color burst Squire guitar body with a cutout taken from the back and an arm carve

Clamps and guides for making cuts in the body of the guitar

I used two pieces of aluminum angle and C-clamps to hold the guitar body down and keep the saw straight while I was cutting. Basically, the angles work as a miter box and the trim saw goes between them. This worked pretty well, but the aluminum angles wanted to slide around while I was cutting. More C clamps might have helped that, but it's hard to get them in a place where they don't interfere with the saw. Next time I may add use small wood screws to actually attach the angles to the body. Then I can just remove them and fill the holes. These ergonomic guitars are all getting solid color paint so the fill won't show.

PLEASE BE CAREFUL USING ANY TOOLS. READ THE MANUALS AND INSTRUCTIONS AND ALWAYS WEAR EYE PROTECTION!

The image at the right shows what the body of the Wave T ergonomic guitar looked like after making the cuts and reattaching the horns. I used J-B Weld epoxy and one stainless steel wood screw per horn to hold them in place. These joints should be substantially stronger than the wood itself. I believe the guitar body would split down the middle before either of these horns broke off. The epoxy makes the joints so rigid that I can't imagine any increased damping or deleterious sonic effects.

Ergonomic electric guitar body showing the top horns swapped and the cutout in back

Ergonomic guitar body showing copper tape lining pickup routes and control cavity.

Here's the ergonomic guitar body showing the cavities lined with copper tape. I was pretty careful with wiring and shielding since the guitar uses single-coil pickups. 

I obviously changed the outline of the body quite a bit to achieve the ergonomics I was looking for, but the neck pocket, pickup routes, control cavity routes, etc. are all the same as a traditional Telecaster..

The body is made from very heavy and dense Northern Ash, but because it has less total wood than a traditional T-style body,  the weight of the guitar came in at a reasonable eight pounds. I think the hard dense wood makes it sound heavier than it is, but that could easily be listener bias. Maybe it just sounds heavy to me because I know the body is made from heavy and dense wood.

Off T Ergonomic Electric Guitar Project

This ergonomic guitar still needs a name. For now, it is called the Off T because it is based on the Telecaster platform and designed to have maximum offset.. Other than that, the design goals around ergonomics are the same as have been previously discussed above. After spending some time with an ergonomic guitar test bench (discussed below), it seemed to me that the way to get closest to these goals is to maximize the offset of the guitar. In many ways this is going to be an offset maximizing exercise. I am also am using the same idea of sawing off the top horn of the guitar and reattaching it to the bottom of the guitar and thus increase the tilt. That worked well on the Wave T ergonomic guitar.

The image on the left shows the three main cuts made to the guitar body. The wood that came with this kit is very soft. It seems like basswood to me, even though the kit said the body was made of mahogony. That's probably not the best as tone-woods go, but it's fine for this project and definitely makes the cutting and sanding easier.

Here are the three main pieces of the maximum-offset ergonomic guitar body rearranged into their new configuration..

Primered body of the Off T ergonomic guitar body

I finally got this ergonomic guitar body re-assembled and primed. It was a lot more work than my previous ergonomic guitar, the Wave T. There were two main things that made it harder. The first was that I sawed away the control cavity and had to recreate it somewhere. You'll see my feeble routing in the figure of the ergonomic guitar body at left. I also had to drill new holes to the pickup cavities, and finally I had to drill a really long hole from the port for the input jack, which I also had to drill. The next thing that made it harder was the counter weight I had to put in the back of the ergonomic guitar  body. For one thing, I had to find about three pounds of a very dense material. I happened to have a heavy copper buss bar left over from a previous project, so I sawed that into 5" pieces. Then I routed a cavity in the back of the ergonomic guitar body and epoxied the buss bar pieces into it. Then I sanded it smooth and primered everything.

Here is the next thing that is going to make this ergonomic guitar project more difficult than the Wave T ergonomic guitar. I painted the guitar body with glitter paint! I think it looks great and came out better than my expectations. The tough part is that the surface of the guitar body is very rough now and it will take very many clear coats and fine sanding to get a finish that will be comfortable while playing the new ergonomic guitar. Hopefully the sparkle will still be sparkling after all the clear coats.

Design considerations for the Off T ergonomic guitar

Although I'm generally aiming for an ergonomic guitar, the main design goals are to maximize the offset and optimize he balance of this guitar.

As a practical matter, maximizing offset means that is not reasonably possible to balance this guitar using wood, As you can see in the image, almost the entire guitar is in front of where the guitar rests on the player's leg. Unless the body is made substantially longer, it can only be balanced by putting concentrated weight at the back of the guitar. As will be discussed below, this weight can be added such that the guitar will be perfectly balanced. By saying "perfectly balanced," I am specifying 3 conditions:

1. The guitar must not tend to tilt forward or backward at any angle of the guitar neck
2. Condition 1. must be true when played sitting with the guitar resting on the right leg
3. Condition 1. must be true when played standing using a typical guitar strap

Condition 1. acknowledges that the optimal tilt angle for the guitar will vary depending on the player. For example, if you look up the optimal tilt angle with regards to ergonomics  for a classical guitar player it is 45 degrees. However, my understanding is that classical guitar does involve using the thumb to fret notes. In rock guitar and many other popular guitar styles, players quite often use the thumb on their fretting hand to fret notes. Since the thumb is opposed to the fingers, a higher tilt angle that is ergonomically better for fretting with the fingers will necessarily be ergonomically worse for fretting with the thumb.

Conditions 2. and 3. should not vary depending on the guitar player. No one likes a guitar to neck dive or otherwise move on their own..

Two different options for the shape of the guitar body behind the bridge

These are just some images to help decide on the smaller ergonomic and aesthetic design elements. The first being that something needs to be done about that sharp corner at the bottom back of the guitar. The top image at left shows what it will look like if the corner is simply rounded and the bottom image makes the bottom of the guitar curve symmetrically  with the top of the guitar. I think I prefer the way the top image looks and it would be easier to cut and sand.

There also needs to be a generous arm carve. It could be something like the carve on a Strat-style guitar, but I like the way the carve on the Wave T ergonomic guitar  feels, so I'll probably go with that. I also like the way the straight line of the carve runs parallel with the lines on the bridge and control plate.

I could easily leave the top of the guitar with a straight line like it has in the two images above. Usually the top horn of the guitar is extended to make the guitar balance better on a strap, but with all the weight this guitar is going to have embedded in the back of the body, it won't have any ergonomic issues with neck dive when it is hanging on a strap. Both of the images at the right incorporate long top horns that would be there primarily for aesthetics. I can't decide whether I like them or not, but I really don't want to add weight in front of the rest point, so these long top horns may not be part of this design. 

Two different options for the Folk T shape showing the top horn placement

Two different options for the Folk T shape showing smaller top horns

Here are some shorter top horns. These look better to me than the long top horns. I'll probably get another opinion or two regarding aesthetics, but in terms of ergonomics, less is better. Also I like the looks of the Steen guitars and they have a straight cut all the way to the neck like this with no top horn. The Steen guitars also have a fair amount of offset, so I'm sure Mr. Steen was interested in keeping mass out of that area..

Generally, we would like the ergonomic electric guitar be balanced around the point where the guitar is resting on the player's leg, and we would like the guitar to stay balanced at varied tilt angles. As shown at the top of the image at the right, this happens when  L1M1 = L2M2. In a guitar, however, the neck is raised above the point where it rests on a player's leg, so balancing a guitar is more like the situation depicted in the lower part of the image. The point to notice is that to properly balance the electric guitar ergonomically, the center of mass of the body needs to be on that red dashed line that goes below the centerline of the guitar. This is why offset guitars typically have a long body that "droops" at the back (think Jazzmaster). The greater offset of these guitars gives weight in the neck and headstock more leverage, so the body needs to get longer and lower to balance the guitar.

Simple drawing showing derivation of the balance equations for an electric guitar

Ergonomic guitar test bench shows how different parts of the guitar body can be moved around for tesing

It was so helpful to have a prototype when I was building Wave T, that I just cut the entire bottom off the body of that Squier Telecaster right below the bridge and now I can use it as a test bench for experimenting with electric guitar ergonomics. For example, sliding the bottom piece backward and forward changes the offset. I also can extend the back of the guitar and add weights to vary the balance. Finally, I can move the top horn back and forth to change how the guitar hangs from a strap. As you can see in the image, I am simply using duct tape to attach the various pieces where I want them. That is easy and works fine. I also have a trailer hitch hat I am using as a counter balance. That also works fine and I think it's funny because it looks to me like there is a giant strap button on the back of the guitar! 

Based on my experiments so far with the ergonomic guitar test bench, I am leaning towards a rest point around 6 inches. That is about 50% more offset than a Jazzmaster and the Jazzmaster is already an "offset" guitar. I'll definitely be playing the test guitar for a while before I finalize the offset and start cutting on the body for the new Off T ergonomic electric guitar.

For this ergonomic maximum offset guitar building project, I'm going to start with this kit I bought online. It cost me $113 delivered, including tax, and has everything required to build an inexpensive T-style guitar. I also saw a T-style body for about $50 delivered, including tax. That means for less than $200 you can experiment with a prototype body for testing ergonomics and then build and assemble a completed guitar when you are satisfied with the body shape. You should be able to keep it below $200 starting with a used, entry-level Squier, rather than the kit,  as well.

 If you like the feel and the ergonomics of the guitar after that, it's easy to start upgrading components.

Inexpensive T-style guitar kit that will become the first Folk T ergonomic electric guitar

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