18.12.12

To Ukulele strap - or not?

Got in to quite a debate recently on the merits (or otherwise) of using a strap on a ukulele - and it got me thinking.


ukulele strap


It became clear to me that there are a few people out there that actively resent the idea of using a strap (and are willing to tell others NOT to use one). I find that odd myself, but there you go. There are no 'rules' when it comes to straps despite what some may think.

I have been told that the ukulele is 'not intended to have a strap' - something I very much disagree with - the ukulele is just a musical instrument and it is permissible for it to take on new developments and features. Sure, the earliest ukes were not played with straps, but if we take that logic, developments like electric ukuleles would equally become invalid. And that is just crazy - adding a strap button, or adding a pickup doesn't stop the instrument being a ukulele. Let's look at the guitar world, and the earliest spanish guitars - they did not employ straps and many spanish style players today still do not use them. Does that make the use of a studded leather strap on a Gisbon Les Paul invalid?  In fact, the traditional guitar is played sitting down - so what is all this standing up nonsense anyway? You get my point...

The view comes, I suspect, from the traditional history of the ukulele. A quick Google image search for traditional Hawaiian players will show very few using straps - and that is just fine. But equally you will not find any old pictures of traditional Hawaiian players with solid electrics, or ukuleles shaped like Flying V guitars - because they didn't exist. It doesn't make them wrong. (Well, actually, in the case of the latter, the jury may be out on that....)

I was also told that this view was supported by the fact that most ukuleles don't come with strap buttons. Sure, many don't, but equally some do, particularly on the larger sizes or those that have a pickup added. High end builders offer a button as an option and some fit them as standard. In fact I would expect that as time goes on, on larger ukes we may see more ukes ship from the factory with strap buttons added. Why? Because there is clearly a demand for them. People are adding them themselves. At a recent mass busk I attended there were dozens of players and the vast majority had straps.

I was then told that using a strap is a 'crutch', that it will affect your playing style and you will never be able to go back to playing without one. Well, certainly learning to hold a uke without a strap is something that should be worked on by the absolute beginner, but I can honestly say that I have no issue moving from playing with a strap to playing without. As for it affecting playing style - well I think that is a misconception also and if anything I think they make playing, particularly fingerstyle, more comfortable.  That made me do a little bit of research as to who out there is using a strap on a ukulele when performing. The list of names is quite interesting. Jake Shimabukuro, Brittni Paiva, James Hill, Lil' Rev, Ken Middleton, Manitoba Hal, The Re-entrants, Victoria Vox, Jim D'Ville, Ralph Shaw - and countless others use straps sometimes. Is the strap affecting their playing style? Is it something they are using as a crutch? Quite honestly - anyone thinking Jake needs a crutch to support his playing needs to have a serious think about that!

jake shimabukuro with ukulele strap

James Hill with ukulele strap



So I therefore decided to post this for beginners as I am increasingly seeing questions being asked on forums and social media from beginners along these lines - do I need a strap? (and those shouting that the use of a strap is 'wrong')

My summary thoughts on this:

1. Do you NEED a strap? Well, no, nobody needs a strap, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with using one, it won't affect your playing, and if anything might make things easier. It is good to learn how to stand and hold a uke without one of course, but if you are playing regularly, then a strap is no bad thing to have - if nothing else, it makes you 'hands free' between songs (probably the main reason I use one). If you don't need one, don't use one. That's fine too!

2. I think size comes in to it. I don't use straps on my soprano ukes as I think that is overkill - they are very easy to hold anyway, but on a tenor or baritone in particular, I find a strap makes the whole playing experience that much nicer.

3. Straps and supports come in various flavours - half straps for example only provide support and mean you cannot let go of the instrument, but are a good choice for those without a strap button (and if you don't want to fit a button). You will also find the design that hooks into the soundhole for support, but I would urge caution with those unless they have serious padding and protection. The concept was designed for guitars who's tops and soundholes are much stronger. That said, Jake S is using one on the picture above! Just don't let go of your uke thinking it is being held - it is just a support!

4. The best option in my opinion is a full strap which connects at two points on the uke. First to a strap button on the base of the uke, and the other end either to a tie on the headstock, or to another strap button on the heel of the neck. These straps offer total support - allow you to go hands free between songs to take a drink, fiddle with an amplifier or similar and are just great to use.

5. The chances are you may not have a strap button on your ukulele, but they are extremely cheap to buy and very easy to fit (literally a 5 minute job). To fit one, first take a look inside the uke with a mirror and torch. You need to check if you have a 'tail block' in the instrument which will be an obvious block of wood squarely set inside the ukulele at the base - running between the top and the back. If you don't have one of these I would suggest caution in screwing a button into the instrument as this will create a lot of stress on a very thin piece of wood. If you have one, you are good to go!

Just look at the button screw (that comes with the button) and using a low speed drill or Dremel tool, drill a 'pilot hole' just a little thinner than the diameter of the screw. Don't be scared - it's just like drilling a hole to fix a shelf or anything else - just go slowly and steady. You would do well to put a piece of masking tape over the area you are going to drill to prevent chips or scratches. Drill the pilot hole squarely through the uke base and through the wooden tail block. Then simply screw the button in to the hole, not forgetting the felt washer which will prevent the button doing damage. And that is it!

6. The choice of style of strap is up to you, but I find that a guitar strap is too thick for me and looks and feels odd with a uke. I use the Uke Leash strap which is nice and subtle (and thin), and banjo or mandolin straps look great too. At the end of the day, a piece of rope will function as a strap if you want it to!

7. Turning to banjoleles - whilst a strap can easily be fitted (using a banjo strap that clips to the tension rods, and traditionally slung over just one shoulder),  the traditional George Formby style of playing may find a strap hampers the complex fingerstyles that go with that type of music. Formby himself didn't use one.

So,  if you don't want to use a strap, then that is cool. If, however, you are playing a lot standing up and finding your ukulele slipping or just uncomfortable, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with fitting a strap. If it is good enough for any of the top end players I have mentioned above, then it should be good enough for you!

There is nothing much right and wrong in the world of making music. If it works for you, then go with it - what matters is that you make music.


16 comments:

VVVLion_2_B said...

Do you have any idea what kind of strap that Jake used in the picture?
I'm curious what brand is it, and where I can get it?
Thank you for sharing!

Tim Mullins said...

Hi Barry, I recently came up with a new type of ukulele strap that I think solves the problems that some others seem to have. It gives the ukulele truly hands-free support yet doesn't require any modification to the instrument. I call it the Mobius Strap. Please check it out at www.mobiusstrap.com. Thanks!

Barry Maz said...

Interesting Tim - no pressure on soundhole. Does it affect tone though? ie stop the top resonating?

Tim Mullins said...

Hi Barry,

Actually, since you don't have to put pressure on the top to hold the ukulele in position, you may even find it to be louder. It definitely doesn't muffle it at all.

Thanks, Tim

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to throw out that as a woman, I find holding even a soprano ukulele while standing kind of difficult because SOMETHING gets in the way. It slips around a lot and I am going to strap on without shame.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this Barry. There is a definite anti strap feeling among many ukers that I have yet to find a real reason for. I have strap on my concert and have been putting off fitting pins to my tenor, but I just find playing so much more relaxing with a strap when I play standing, which is my preferred playing position.

Barry Maz said...

Exactly - sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, and I fail to see the fuss!

Tree said...

thanks for the comment above from one of the ladies.
As another woman player, I also notice that SOMETHING :) does get in the way and so you either end up holding the uke up around your neck, or way down low.....
So, a strap helps.

Anonymous said...

I have just bought a dog lead! to make a strap bought the stud to drill at one end and used fishing line to fix the other end of the strap to the neck. I found after a few months of playing that i had problems with slipping of the ukulele when playing. It is so much easier when using finger movements if you have a strap

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this insightful and down-to-earth approach to discussing straps for the Uke. As a beginner, and a woman, I too struggle sometimes with holding the uke comfortably against me. I wasn't sure about the idea of straps, but your post has really helped give me the push. And as you so rightly say, if Jake uses one...

Josiah Heng said...

I'm a part-time ukulele instructor who teaches during the weekends. I've been teaching for almost 2 years now. My point of view about straps is that it shouldn't be encouraged for beginners, reason being beginners should learn how to "grip" the instrument with the fleshy part of their forearms. I noticed many of my students who start out using straps become very reliant on them, and because of the assisted support provided by straps, these students don't develop a good "gripping" technique on the instrument. I'm not saying using straps are bad, it's just not advisable for beginners to use them. I myself started using straps after I learnt how to properly grip the instrument without letting it fall.

tyneoharrow said...

A very interesting debate on the merits to strap. Most ukes are very light in weight and therefore negate the use of a strap, however, some of the larger ukes are cumbersome to hold and the need for one maybe useful. As for banjo ukes, ahhh! a different animal indeed, some are quite lite to hold and there are others especially those with fitted resonator can be quite heavy and you wouldn't want to drop that on your foot now would yer? ouch!

Barry Maz said...

Weight can indeed be an issue. For me though less so. The only reason I use one is to keep hands free when playing on stage to grab a drink / adjust mix / microphone etc

Anonymous said...

Another women beginner commenting here- I find my playing is SO MUCH BETTER using a strap! I have a concert and a tenor ukulele, and my "something" gets in the way so I cannot "grip" either size with the fleshy part of my forearm, because my chest isn't flat to grip it against - so it slides - and I am constantly trying to hold it in place with one or the other hand, and this restricts me from changing chords quickly, or getting a free strum while constantly trying to "hold onto the instrument". The strap allows me to have both hands free to play!!! I'm a happy camper with a strap :)

Lloyd said...

I had an endpin installed in my tenor ukulele at a reputable music store. I attach one end of the strap to the endpin and the other I tie just beyond the first set of tuning pegs--just like folks used to do on guitars before it became fashionable to put a pin where the neck joins the body. If you're just going to sit down and play, you probably don't need a strap, but since I stand and play for kids in elementary school, a strap was a necessity. I am sensitive to what the ukulele teacher says about a strap possibly preventing a player from using his right hand properly, but no one worries about that with guitars or mandolins.

Anonymous said...

Well, I installed 2 strap buttons on my Lag soprano and I'm lovin' it!
Playing with a proper strap with strap buttons makes playing on his tiny thing so much easier,especially for someone like me, who has long arms and fingers. Before the strap buttons, it was very difficult for me to get a good grip, especially while playing the blues, but now it's a really easy and fun. One thing you should consider though - I definitely wouldn't make holes in my uke if it was a 5K martin uke for example. I'm ordering a Koa Pili Koko concert uke soon and I'm not going to drill holes in it, as it's almost 4 times more expensive then my lag soprano. making holes in your uke is not reversible and it will affect the value of your uke.

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