Update 6 Jan 2016: The people who make the freeneck harness have just released a modified version which addresses some of the problems I found in my original review – specifically the long rods down the back now come apart which should make it easier to alter the length, and also means that you can now splt the harness in two for storage so it should fit into the bell of your sax. The pictures of the new model can be found here.
I’ve recently started to do a lot more playing on my baritone sax and had been finding that the neck strap I’d been playing on had been causing me to end up with mild but persistent back pain. Nothing too serious but something I’d rather avoid if I could. The strap I had been using was quite a cheap one I bought sight unseen when I first got the sax – it was one of those which went around your neck and under one arm. This ends up putting quite a bit of lateral pressure on your neck so I’d been thinking about changing this for a while.
Since I wasn’t convinced that any conventional neck straps would be ideal for a bari I’d started looking at harnesses instead. I’d borrowed a NeoTech harness from a friend to try out and although it make holding the bari a lot more comfortable, I didn’t like the restricted movement I got from the clip being tightly held against your chest.
I spent quite a while looking through various forums for experiences from other players who had looked at this before and the harness which sounded most like what I was after was the FREEneck harness from ERGOnomic systems (they’re big fans of MIXed CAse WORds apparently). The appeal of this system was that it was supposed to put no pressure on your neck at all, and it also had a conventional string and hook arrangement which should allow the same freedom as a conventional neck strap.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find a supplier for this harness in the UK, so I ended up ordering it from Thomann in Germany. I’d ordered a couple of things from them before and they were as efficient this time as they had been before and the harness turned up a couple of days later.
The first thing thing to say about this harness is that it’s not cheap. It’s not the most expensive harness I’d seen, but it’s pretty close at €105. I was especially nervous as I’d have to buy this without being able to try it but decided to take the plunge with the option of selling it if I didn’t like it (you can’t buy them in the UK so someone must want it).
How it works
The harness itself comes in 3 parts. The main bit is a normal looking neck strap string and hook from which projects a pair of long metal rods which extend down your back. The end of these then connect into a pocket on a separate belt which clips around your waist. Finally there is a pad which fits over the rods to provide some extra support. The pad was listed on the box, but was actually missing from the harness I received. I’ve not yet contacted the seller to get a replacement sent out – I probably should but in all honesty I’m not sure I’d use it even if I had it.
Setting up the harness
The harness comes with a single sheet of instructions which include both an English and German translation. They give a very brief overview of how to set the harness up but although they say what you can adjust on the harness they don’t give a very clear impression of how it should sit and feel when it’s set up correctly so you’ll have to work this out for yourself. The basic idea for the system is that the neck strap part of the harness doesn’t actually touch the back of your neck – instead it sits a couple of centimeters behind. When you attach a sax to the hook the weight pulls on the neck strap but this is prevented from coming forward by the rods which run down your back. These in turn sit in the pocket on the belt so the whole system pivots around your back so the weight is spread generally over your back and hips.
The major adjustment you need to make is to the length of the metal rods. These come in two parts, an upper and lower section, which are separated by long threaded screws which you can lengthen or shorten to get the rods positioned correctly. The screws are shipped set to a very short setting (to make the harness smaller to transport) so you’ll need to unscrew them a long way if you’re tall like me. I was worried that there wasn’t going to be enough thread to extend to my height but the screws are actually really long and there’s plenty of slack in them. One annoying design feature is that to extend the screws you have to completely detach the upper and lower parts of the harness. This means that you end up spending quite a lot of time unscrewing and re-connecting the two halves to get the length correct. This is annoying, but you’ll only do it once so it’s not such a big deal. The other adjustment you can make is that you can bend the top part of the bars to fit the curve of your back. Be careful when doing this though – I fitted mine so it was comfortable and then found that when I hung a sax off the hook the shape changed so that it was pressing on my neck, and I had to adjust it back again. I found that the final setup I ended up with had the neck strap being a few centimeters off my neck with no sax attached, and almost (but not quite) touching my neck when the sax was present.
Generally the harness is pretty comfortable to play on. You need to make sure that the pocket on the belt sits right in the middle of your back so that the bars don’t press unevenly on your back. You’ll also need to make sure the belt sits low enough that it doesn’t end up digging into your stomach which is both uncomfortable and can restrict your breathing. The belt itself needs to be quite tight so that the bars can’t move out much from your back and it’s not always easy to stop it riding up over your hips.
The harness doesn’t put any pressure on your neck, and your head is free to move around naturally. However you feel pressure down your back, especially between your shoulder blades where the bars pivot between the belt and the neck strap. This isn’t uncomfortable as long as your back is reasonably straight, but if you start to slouch then you’ll feel the bars starting to dig in – this is a harness which encourages good posture!
There are also a couple of other places where the harness puts pressure. The most noticeable is that the strings from the neck strap press down onto the front of your shoulders and can dig into your collar bones. The two strings are separated by a long plastic tube, which stops the strings coming together around your neck, but also allows the plastic tube to dig into your chest. Both of these issues are only really present when you’re holding, but not playing the sax and once you move it into a playing position they sort themselves out and the harness is actually very comfortable.
The big advantage of this system over other harnesses is that it uses a conventional string and hook arrangement so you have a lot of flexibility to move your sax around to your preferred playing position. There is normal height adjustment on the string and this has a lot of slack in it so I could comfortably use the same harness on all of my saxes from a short alto to a long baritone setting.
One thing I did find is that it seems that this system works best when you’re playing standing up. This is probably where a harness is most required, and I’ve played for extended periods whist standing with no problems. If you’re sitting down then it’s not quite as good. The belt is harder to keep in position and tends to ride up more when can cause the other parts of the harness to move out of alignment. It’s not uncomfortable to use sitting down, but if you play a lot standing up then it works really well.
Build Quality and Practicality
The harness seems to be very well built. The materials and quality of finish seem to be very good. The only concern I had was the hook – this is an all plastic variety and although I’ve had no problems and I’m sure it’s up to the job it doesn’t look very solid. The hook on my harness was quite stiff and the opening when you pull back the pin isn’t very big so it might not be the best if you have to do a lot of quick switches of instruments, but this might free up with more use.
One big potential drawback with this harness is its size. It’s pretty big – it has to be at least the length of your back, and it doesn’t collapse for transport or storage unless you want to completely unscrew the bars each time (which you won’t). There’s also a rigid panel at the back of the neck strap which limits how small you can fold this part. What this means is that you’re not going to be able to keep this in your sax case. I couldn’t even get it to fit down the bell of my bari (the bars would fit, but the neck strap was too wide to sit in the end of the bell). I’ve got an enormous gig bag which I take around and it goes in there (just) but if you’re used to just carrying a sax case around then this is going to end up being an extra piece of luggage.
Once you’re wearing the harness you can’t really see it from the front. You should be able to put it on under a suit jacket or DJ and you can take the bars off over your head so you don’t have to commit to wearing the harness between sets if you’re doing a long gig. If you’re wearing it on top of your normal clothes then you can see it running down your back, but it’s not at all unsightly and I’d be happy to wear it like this.
Overall I like the FREEneck harness. It’s a lot more comfortable than the strap I had before and my back hasn’t been hurting since I’ve been using it. I’d be quite happy to play for extended periods on this, even if I had to be standing. The major downsides of the harness are the cost and the practicality of carrying the thing around, but it could be a good solution for a lot of players.