How to Select the Proper Neck strap
by Paul Haar
There are few pieces of equipment that seem to get overlooked more than a neck strap. But just like a mouthpiece, reed, or ligature, without one it can be difficult, if not impossible to play your instrument. Finding the right neck strap for you can make all the difference in your music making. It is important that before you choose your next neck strap (boy say that 10 times fast) that you be educated on what you look for. Only an informed decision, free from the influences of fads and superstars, can render a quality purchase.
What is your budget?
Depending on your needs, the price of a neck strap can vary greatly. Typically, a neck strap will be in the $20-40 range. Some will be cheaper and some can run as high as $150-200. Its important to remember that the most expensive strap doesn’t mean it's the best strap. Likewise, something inexpensive or simple in design doesn’t mean that it is of poor quality. Before you fork over the cash, you need to know what your needs are and what type of player you are and what you can afford. Buying four, cheap straps will end up costing you more than buying one quality strap that is expensive.
What are your needs? What type of player are you?
If you are prone to forget your neck strap in practice rooms and in concert halls, you may want to rethink that expensive, handmade strap. Maybe you do a lot of doubling or play a lot of saxophones in a rock band? You may want something that is of a universal length and has an easy to use clasp. If you are in a college marching band you may need something comfortable, flexible and durable. Perhaps you suffer from neck or back pain? Then you can expect to be spending more for a strap or harness. Likewise, you may want to include your doctor or orthopedist in the selection process.
Another aspect to consider is space. Many people use form-fitting/contoured cases. These cases save space when traveling but leave little room for anything other than the saxophone and the neck. You may love that new harness but will it fit in your case?
If you are a college student who has to move quickly from rehearsal to class and then to a performance, you made need a strap or harness that is easy to disassemble and put into your case or backpack. Likewise, is the strap or harness comfortable and easy to use wearing a dress, tuxedo or suit?
Quality of Materials
There are lot of neck straps and harnesses on the market and many use similar materials. It is important to know the difference between flash and substance when selecting the right product. Here are some things you should look for:
Many neck straps use string or cord. There can be a great difference between two cords that look identical. When choosing a neck strap that uses a cord-like construction, you want to look for paracord, “550 cord” or “type III” cord. This is the type of cord used in outdoor/climbing/camping gear and is standard fare for backpacks, sleeping bags and laces. This type of cord typically has an outer layer of nylon and an inner layer of 7-9 strands of multilayered yarn. This type of cord not only holds a great amount of weight, it is durable when it comes to abrasion (very common in neck straps). A more common, cheaper and less durable cord choice is Option I paracord or nylon cord.
This has a limited tensile strength and is used mainly for decorative purposes. Since the saxophone doesn’t weigh as much as a human, OPTION I paracord can be used. In some instances straps will be made using colored cotton cord or what some call Bobbiny cord.
This cord can be strong, holding up to 150 lbs. Caution should be exercised with regard to abrasion. Over time cotton cord will pill or fray. If possible, try to check the manufacture's website/materials and if necessary, send an email or make a call. It’s worth the time.
Webbing, also common in neck strap construction, can be make of cotton or nylon. Generally, nylon is stronger and cheaper to use. One can tell by the shine that it's associated with the nylon material. With regard to webbing, it is width and thickness of construction that will determine durability. A thin webbing will pinch and fold on itself over time.
Cord on the left is far superior to the cord on the right.
Excellent examples of quality cord. (Left-Right: Just Joe's, Manning, B.Air "Bird"
Leather is a wonderful material for use in a neck strap. If quality leather is used the strap will not only be comfortable, it will be durable, lasting a long time. Like cord, there are many grades and types of leather. There are ways to tell if the leather in your strap is going to last:
SMELL: Does the leather smell like…well…leather? Or, does it smell like plastic or the inside of an old car? A chemical smell can indicate a piece of leather that is bonded, glued or pieced.
COLOR: Look at the edge of the leather. If you see that it is blue in color it means that the leather was not tanned properly. This could mean the leather will bleed when you sweat.
TEXTURE: If the leather is glossy, overly smooth or plastic to the touch, you have an example of bad leather. This type of leather is usually pressed or glued and will come apart over time. Press the leather and see if it wrinkles. Wrinkles and imperfections will happen in a natural product like leather.
DETAILS: Look for terms like “Full Grained.” Watch out for terms like “Made with full grained leather.” This could mean parts of the strap are made with good leather and other parts aren’t. This might not mean much if you pay $15 dollars for a leather strap but it sure as heck should be important if you are paying $100 or more. Also look at the stitching. One will seldom see poor stitching on quality leather.
Two straps made of leather, but the strap on the left has a higher quality of leather than the one on the right. Also note the quality of stitching.
Since the neck strap has so few working parts it is important that those parts be well made, functional and of the highest quality.
THE PULL: The pull is how you maneuver the strap into position. It should be of significant size to be able to grip confidently and should be of a design that allows for very little slippage. It is important to remember that a pull could be of the finest design, but if it is paired with poor quality cord, it won't work properly.
These pulls look alike, but the Just Joe's pull (left) is made of aircraft aluminum, making it lighter and easier to maneuver.
THE HOOK: The hook is arguably the most important part of the next strap. Not only must it be functional, it must be strong. You don't have a poorly made hook break while holding your "baby." If you are a doubler, you should look for a hook that will facilitate quick instrument changes. If you are accident prone, you may want to look at a hook that has a safety latch.
A large brass hook by Manning Custom (left); The safety hook by Vandoren (center); a strong thermo-plastic safety hook by Just Joe's (right)