By Greg Olwell
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue.
For some ukers, playing with a strap would be akin to smothering bacon with whipped cream. Why would you do that? But, as the craze for ukulele continues to spread across the globe, many strummers are discovering that a strap helps them play better and more comfortably—and helps the instrument sound better, too.
Do you absolutely need a strap to play? No. In fact, the lack of stuff required to get up and running with a uke is a big reason why it has caught on so quickly with so many people. The ukulele has been played for over 100 years without the aid of a strap.
So why use a strap?
The instrument’s size has also grown tremendously during that time from the original, tiny sopranos made in 19th-century Hawaii. And while most ukuleles are small and relatively easy to hold and play at the same time, a strap can free up your arms and offer you a secure playing position. This is especially handy if your uke is something larger than a soprano, or if you want to attempt fancy fretwork moves.
Some players swear that a strap also helps the instrument sound better, too. Since playing a uke without a strap means hugging it to keep the instrument in place, the pro-strap gang might be on to something. Pressing the instrument against your body can inhibit vibrations on the instrument’s top and back, which, in turn, can make your uke sound like it’s under a blanket.
Other, physical factors may help make that decision easier, too. Some women find that a strap helps keep the uke in a comfortable position on their chests. I’ve also seen many more mature players favoring them, too, since less stress on sore joints always helps.
What to Look for in a Strap
Depending on your needs, you can find straps that clip directly onto your uke or you can find some that may require the addition of a strap button.
Straps that clip on are the easiest to use and require no changes to your beloved uke. The most common modification-free straps are like an adjustable-length necklace that goes under the instrument and hooks into the soundhole (the same way Willie Nelson supports his well-worn nylon-string guitar, Trigger). You can find this kind of strap in all sorts of materials, from nylon, to patterned polyester, leather, and even padded neoprene.
The Mobius strap takes another approach, turning a simple strip of adjustable webbing into a strap. But it won’t work with pineapple shapes or some reso-ukes, which tend to be heavier and throw the balance off. The major drawback of this design is that it also requires one hand on your uke at all times to keep it safely balanced on the strap.
You can really open the door of strap options by adding a strap button, like those found on most guitars. If you go this route, you’ll likely want to ask a luthier to add one button to the bottom end of the instrument and use a strap that ties around the headstock. Some players, however, add a second button on the neck heel, and strap buttons are easily found at many music stores or at such online guitar parts dealers as Stewart-MacDonald or Allparts. Installing the strap buttons by yourself isn’t hard, but it’s advisable to take your instrument to a professional to have this done. After all, the process requires that you have a hole drilled in your ukulele and you want to make sure it is put in right place, right? A professional installation could also help stop you from voiding your instrument’s warranty, so check your warranty before selecting a drill bit.
Where to Get Them
With the uke’s current popularity, you can find straps much more easily and in way more colors than the traditional black. Such manufacturers as Levy’s and Kala Brand offer uke straps in all sorts of varieties. You can often buy direct from the manufacturer on the company website or you can treat yourself to a trip to your local music store and try them out with your own uke, to find the best fit for your needs and sense of style.
Bonus: Sherrin’s Threads Are All in the Family
This sidebar originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue.
Being an avid quilter, Sherrin, the wife of Strum Shop co-owner Dan Elliott, was the natural choice when the store needed someone to produce uke straps with a Hawaiian-design for the shop’s club members. It took little time for her to whip up the one-of-a-kind straps under the brand name Sherrin’s Threads. They’ve quickly caught on with the Strum Shop’s crowd and have been a hit with visiting manufacturer reps, who’ve inquired about selling the “aloha spirit” straps at other outlets.
Demand from the shop and her distribution deal with Kala has been so strong, that Elliott has invested in new sewing machines so that she can churn out more than her current run of 200 straps per week. Sherrin is now expanding the line to include leather picks and leather headstock bracelets, which help the straps attach to the headstock.