Films about music and musicians almost always feature some of the most comedic and quotable lines in movie history. Not a week goes by in the GuitarHead office without someone throwing around comments from the ‘Blues Brothers’, ‘The Commitments’ or ‘Spinal Tap’ (and let's be honest, Nigel Tufnel explaining that the controls on his Marshall amp “go to 11” will ALWAYS be funny...). We'll never get bored of this, and no, we don't care how geeky that makes us.
Another marvellous music movie line provides the perfect introduction to this week’s subject. The 2002 comedy biopic '24 Hour Party People' charted the rise of Factory Records and the bands associated with this iconic British label. In one recording studio scene, we see the legendarily mad/irascible production genius Martin Hannett (played by Andy Serkis) interrupting Joy Division bassist Peter Hook (played by Ralf Little) mid-riff, with a rather harsh critique; "You wear it very well! Now play like a f***ing musician!"
Hook's angry response is most probably due to Hannett's clear insult of his playing. Or is it? Could physical rather than musical vanity be playing a part here? Is this musician feeling affronted by also being mocked for how stylishly low his Rickenbacker is slung?
The desire to emulate one’s icons is one of the most fundamental roots of fashion, and musicians are just as guilty when it comes to the sin of vanity. AT LEAST 20% of the guitarists we know personally were first inspired to pick up the instrument in order to look like (and, hopefully, sound like) everybody from Elvis Presley to Slash.
It's therefore completely fair to regard a guitar just as much a fashion accessory as it is an instrument. And, along with the height of your belt-line or the angle of your hat, you've probably made some conscious or unconscious decisions about how high or low you wear a guitar when it's strapped on purely from an aesthetic perspective. We totally get this - after all, who doesn't want to look cool!
Form vs Function
But is there a right or wrong height to have a guitar suspended against your body when playing standing-up? Whilst the simple answer to this question is obviously 'no', it's actually not a simple question to answer. There's a huge variety of opinion banded about by everyone, from professional players and teachers to kids rocking out in garages. And it all ultimately boils down to form vs function - the look of the thing vs the use of the thing.
Most guitar straps are constructed to allow an adjustable length from approx. 40" to 60", providing the facility to easily position the guitar anywhere from around the chest to around the belt. Longer straps of approx. 70" are also widely available, presenting guitarists with the sub-crotch-height playing position that emerged through rock and punk bands. Clearly many options for us all then. But how do you choose the right one?
Practicality isn’t a boring word...
Let’s first dispense with the sensible part of this debate. The most comfortable playing position for any guitarist is almost always seated, with the instrument resting on the knee as designed. This is how most of us practise at home, receive tuition during lessons, and - whatever you might think - how just about every legendary lead guitarist performs their standout solos in a recording studio control room. Setting the strap height so that a seated playing position translates to a standing position means that the guitar will usually be suspended roughly around the lower chest – a posture that many players swear by (including Billy Sheehan, just in case you need any convincing...)
Maintaining this height in line with a seated position obviously requires some experimentation since people are all built differently - torso length, chest/shoulder width and arm span vary wildly between individuals – but this is truly the sweet spot for total playing comfort. Keeping the wrist as straight and relaxed as possible is the ideal for trouble-free playing, and this becomes increasingly harder when suspending a guitar much further down your body. Many guitarists also find their overall ability with more complicated playing suffers when having an instrument suspended on a longer strap. Adding in the increased potential for back pain when playing a low-slung solid-bodied axe and the overall cocktail of discomfort increases dramatically...
Hail to the cheats
Many of you will, at this point, already be typing comments along the lines of “HELLO? What about Slash? Jimmy Page? Kirk Hammett?” Yes, these are undoubted masters of playing kick-ass solos on heavy electric guitars suspended pretty damn low.
But take a closer look. Firstly Jimmy Page; the neck of his guitar is almost always up at a 45-degree angle, allowing his arm to access all the frets without too much wrist-bending (and putting a huge amount of faith in the quality of his strap-locks). Secondly Slash; no-one has ever managed to look cooler whilst soloing with one foot positioned on a stage monitor speaker, enabling him to angle the guitar for more comfortable hand access. Finally Hammett; he’s combining a Page-style guitar angle with a strap length that actually isn’t THAT low – leaving the crotch-level playing to everyone else in Metallica, which is probably what confused you.
So yes, it’s definitely possible to shred on a guitar that’s hanging around your belt buckle. The masters we’ve mentioned have simply found subtle ways of making it a little easier. How about that – we got the words ‘Slash’ and ‘subtle’ into the same sentence...
How to be cool
Of course, we know that you’re not REALLY interested in being practical, or give a damn about ways of teasing difficult solos out of crazy-low-slung Les Pauls . So, taken as read that we're relying on major stereotypes, here's the official GuitarHead image guide for correct strap height;
- Chest to mid-torso; The 'virtuoso' - beloved of various jazz wizards, BB King and Tom Morello. Unrivalled access and visibility for entire fretboard.
- Coolness factor; based entirely on skill - if you can play like Joe Pass then no-one's going to care what you look like...
- Mid-torso to stomach; The 'classic' - worked for The Beatles, and continues to work for any artist aping their style in a 'postmodern' way (think Arctic Monkeys, Libertines, two-thirds of The Strokes etc). Practical, sensible, almost beautifully unremarkable in appearance.
- Coolness factor; linked primarily to standard of haircut, secondarily to standard of wardrobe.
- Stomach to crotch; The 'standard' - think Hendrix, Clapton, Brian May etc. Practical playing height with added rock credibility and reduced concern about whether your 501's are buttoned up.
- Coolness factor; we mentioned Hendrix, right? Say no more.
- Crotch and below; The 'warrior' - as immortalised by Slash, Johnny Ramone, Billie Joe Armstrong and Flea. Practicality level entirely dependent on guitar playing ability - you either need total mastery or to completely suck.
- Coolness factor; perfect for either finely-drilled rock geniuses or carefree punk drubbers - anyone in-between needs to re-think either strap height or life decisions...
Wrapping it up
After instrument and string choice, the height you decide to wear your guitar is probably the most personal decision that can be made by any player. We’ll keep our conclusion simple; if you’re comfortable and able to play everything you want then it’s a win. Until next time...