We’ve all seen it: Les Paul down by the knees, swaggering across the stage. This is an image that’s burned into our brain, and probably the reason why many guitarists picked the guitar over the trombone in the first place. But if we want to play in front of people, this means to most rock, jazz, blues and country guitarists, that we have to stand up. Even if we sit down when playing an electric guitar, we still can benefit from the right strap, as well as the right strap height for us.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money on a strap, but there’s certainly nothing wrong in realizing that it’s as much a fashion statement as functional equipment. The most common material is leather, and it’s generally the most expensive as well. It can be decorated with all sorts of tooling, and, like all straps, fall between two and four inches wide. Leather matches the wood of the guitar well, and only looks better with age. It comes in many colors since it can be dyed, and can be padded. It is comfortable across the skin (since it is skin, anyway) too. The downside to leather straps is that sometimes they’re not short enough for shorter players, like me. Unless I put additional holes or get the strap altered, most commercially available straps are way too big for me to use. They also can only be adjusted in increments, which, if the right height occurs between two of them, there is compromise. Leather stretches over time too, so it will have to be made shorter eventually.
Nylon is another common choice, and comes in almost any color and print available. Also available in many widths, it resists stretching over time.
These are the most inexpensive straps, too. One problem with nylon, however, is that the edge of it can cut into the shoulder and neck a bit, and some players don’t like the way it feels. I am one of those players, so nylon doesn’t work for me, but I know many players who have never had a problem with it.
Canvas is another choice. It’s soft, and while not as nice-feeling as a good leather strap, it’s thicker than nylon, and doesn’t cut into the skin as much. It’s harder to find canvas straps in bold prints, so usually black, white, tan, blue and red are the choices. Like nylon, it uses a buckle, so it’s infinitely adjustable so it can be exactly the right height. Personally, I use a basic black canvas strap for all of my guitars. Fairly inexpensive, and usually obtainable in any shop, the basic black disappears on stage instead of being a statement.
Yes, there are other materials too – I’ve seen hemp, bamboo, even boat anchor! But let’s not forget, the strap’s main function on a guitar is to keep the guitar where you want it. This brings me to my approach to strap height. Yes, it is a subject that will elicit all sorts of opinions. Too low, and your wrists are all bent, but you look so cool. Too high and you play fusion, look like a dork and play along to backing tracks to the amazement of a YouTube audience, but never to any actual people with a real band.
Play with a Strap All of the Time
Yes, my approach is simple and works for me. The guitar sits in the same place on my body whether standing or sitting. The weight of the guitar is never on my knee. With smaller guitars, like Les Pauls, it is difficult to sit with it on your knee unless your leg is raised (I do this when not using a strap). I know, it sits on your knee just fine, right? Yes, but you have to bend your back to meet it. This puts your back in a C shape, which, after a few years, will really hurt. Keeping the weight of the guitar on my back at all times allows me to sit with a straight back in any chair, and take my hands off of the instrument without it falling. I can stand up and it will be at the same height. This is the real function of my strap.
Why? Because I want the angles of the right and left wrist to be consistent no matter what chair I sit in, or if I stand. I don’t want to learn one way to play something sitting, and struggle to play the same thing standing. All of that muscle memory is important to me, so the guitar needs to be in the same place all the time. If the guitar is too heavy to always be across my back, I get another guitar. The tools conform to me, not the other way around.
Get them for every guitar you own. As a kid, those leather ends of a strap stretched open sending my ‘82 Strat into the corner of the table. Some sort of strap lock system should be on every guitar sold (why, oh why isn’t this the case?), and is the first mod on any guitar I buy. You can even get rubber washers from the hardware store, or get fancy ones that attach to the strap. Straps will fall off of the guitar without some sort of strap lock system, so protect your investment.
So where do you wear your strap? High, low or in between? Do you use it all the time or just when standing? Do you model your strap height off of a favorite player or do you do whatever works for you? Let me know in the comment section below, and hopefully your playing and your back will appreciate some consideration when choosing the proper height.