Recently I found myself in quite a debate on the merits (or otherwise) of using a strap on a ukulele - and it got me thinking. Why is there such an issue with using a ukulele strap?
It became clear to me that there are a few people out there that actively resent the idea of using a ukulele strap (and are MORE THAN 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 on ukes 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!
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.