Life Is Too Short For A Cheap Guitar Strap: Longhorn Leathers Custom Leather Guitar Straps

As guitarists, we we often have long lists of "dream guitars" or "dream amps". We agonize over what strings to put on the guitar, what stomp box to crowd our pedalboard with, or maybe even what pick to use to improve our attack and playing speed. The one thing we often neglect is our physical relationship with our guitar and how it can impact our ability to play.

Let me ask you this: How do you keep your guitar where it needs to be while you're playing on stage? Hopefully your answer was "a guitar strap" and not a piece of rope you left in the trunk of your car for emergency purposes. If your answer WAS a piece of rope, or a chain, (like the one Peter Steele from Type O Negative used to use), we need to talk. Or maybe not, depending on what else you keep in your trunk.

A little bit of background as to why I decided to do a feature on guitar straps. I started played softball on a little league team when I was 9 years old. The only thing I loved more than baseball was music. As a child, I played 2 games a week, and had weekly practices. As I got older, and played for my varsity high school team, the frequency of practices increased to 4 days a week, and games once a week, and that doesn't include tournaments where I played up to 3 games in one day. Long story short, as a shortstop, I suffered many issues with my back, and I've sprained my ankle at least 8 times. As a result, if I'm not careful, standing and rehearsing for 2-3 hours with a Les Paul slung over my shoulder causes problems if I don't have a good strap.

I've gone through so many guitar straps it's not funny. I've tried cheap canvas ones, more expensive canvas ones, cheap leather ones, more expensive leather ones, padded and unpadded versions; the list could go on and on. At the end of the day, I never spent more than $50 on a guitar strap. All of them left much to be desired, and all of them ended up hurting my shoulder, which in turn also made my back feel achy: not exactly something I want to live with on a daily basis.

I decided that once and for all, I was going to find myself someone to make me a strap that wouldn't fail me. It wouldn't hurt if it could have my own personal life symbol, the phoenix, on it too. Perhaps even a copy of my tattoo? That would be super awesome.

I was willing to pay, but I wanted something that felt good/comfortable on my shoulder, felt balanced, and looked awesome. This is where my search began. I scoured the internet, including Facebook, and I came across Longhorn Leathers LLC. I liked what I saw, so I contacted them, and a few hours later, Duncan Clark got back to me and the journey toward my perfect guitar strap began. Initially, I had contacted Duncan about test driving one of his straps. He explained to me that he custom makes them, so he doesn't generally have straps just kicking around. Fair enough. I trusted his judgement because I could tell from the e-mails we exchanged that he had a passion and a know-how for what he does. I also went through his Facebook page and discovered that he made guitar straps and accessories for one of my guitar heroes: Lita Ford. I was sold. If it's cool enough for Lita, surely it would be good enough for a weekend warrior like myself.  After all, she plays tonnes of shows a year, and I only play in my rehearsal space and the den that I've been banished to at the moment. Things got busy - family vacation, start of a new school year; in other words life - and I promised Duncan I'd get back to him so we could get started on the project.

Fast forward about 2 months. Remember that Lita Ford concert I reviewed? (You can read it here if you haven't already) Where I got to meet her, be in the front row, be the towel tech, etc? Well, I also got to "try on" and pose with 2 of her guitars, and, as a result, I got to feel what one of Duncan's guitar straps feels like on my shoulder. THAT'S when I was really sold. Lita's doubleneck felt considerably lighter than I thought it would, and the way the weight was distributed on my shoulder felt balanced. This is something that all of the other guitar straps I'd ever used were missing: balance. Even expensive music store models didn't offer the balance I felt when trying on those 2 guitars. We're talking guitar straps that cost upwards of $125 at your local music store. I didn't buy them because I tried them and they were junk. Totally not worth the upgrade over the cheap $20 canvas strap I already had.

I got in touch with Duncan again, and he got right to work on my dream: a distressed, black leather strap with a phoenix on it, maybe some studs, but nothing too flashy. Life lesson number 373: your guitar straps' coolness factor should not exceed your playing ability, hence the "not too flashy" part. Duncan asked me to send him some photos of me playing my guitar, what guitars I play, what type of phoenix I was looking for on the image, and in a few short weeks, he sent me the photo below: My dream guitar strap.

Needless to say, working with the Longhorn Leathers team was awesome. I decided to ask Duncan some questions and feature his work here on the blog. Without further adieu, here is a glimpse into the life of one of the most talented people I've been lucky enough to work with in my relatively short blog career.

Playing With Chaos (PWC): How did you get started making custom guitar straps? What drew you to the market?

Duncan Clark (DC): In 1993 I was studying sculpture in Austin,Texas, and was playing in the Live Wire Blues Band with my Brother, Robert. I saw a lot of western style saddles in the area, and met a guy working on the outskirts of town who made custom belts. The processes seemed quite sculptural to me, which I found appealing. I got the idea in my head that I could "sculpt" myself a guitar strap. I found a leathercraft instruction book from the 1950s, and bought a basic leather tool kit from a craft store.  I taught myself the basics over the course of a few weeks. My Dad still has a couple of my early belts, and I still have the very first strap I ever hand tooled.  My brother has a ton of my early work, including a leather covered Harmony Stratotone guitar, affectionately named "The Leathercaster".  Once I felt I had created a strap which looked cool enough to wear on stage, the other guys in the band wanted them too. Our bass player was a Native American jeweler. He swapped me a gold and turquoise ring for a strap, and then I realized I might be able to make some money with these straps!  A couple of my earliest sales were a custom scorpion strap for Teye, of Gypsy Guitars, which he still uses 20 years later, and a tooled leather pick guard for Jerry Jeff Walker.  I owned a strap from "Designs by Dru" and learned how to make straps very similar to Dru's at a time when he didn't seem to be selling in the USA. I still get requests to make those straps, which look like Marcus Miller's. 

PWC: When a client comes to you looking for a guitar strap, what is the process like and what can they expect?

DC: Most of my new clients are surprised at how much input they have in the process. I don't make people just pick one off the rack.  I ask clients what they imagine their "dream" strap to be, and then I try to exceed their expectations.  Some people are more creative than others. Some are quite specific about what they want, but that isn't necessary. If I can get a general sense of what they're hoping for, and I feel like we have made a connection, sometimes on an emotional level, about what I can do for them, that's when the magic happens! I appreciate input from the client, but at a certain point, I need them to trust that I will make them something truly special, and that they'll be happy.  The trust factor is very important in the premium strap market.  Some clients want me to recreate or copy someone else's strap. I can do that, but I have more fun building my own designs rather than copying another craftsman's work.  Once we have agreement on a design concept, I can usually quote a price.  The quality leathers and components I use are not inexpensive, and many hours typically go into hand crafting each strap, so I require payment in full before I begin building.  The time for delivery ranges from about 1 to 4 weeks, depending on the degree of difficulty of the build, and how many other straps I am working on at the time. I have over 150 sides of various types of leather in my shop at all times, so once I receive payment I can usually begin building very shortly.  A "side" of leather is essentially half of a cow, so that is a lot of leather! I am always looking for more great leather, wherever I go. 

PWC:  I know you've made straps for some pretty awesome guitar players, would you mind sharing a few of the more famous clients you've had for our readers?

DC: Some artists contact me directly, some have their "people" do it, and sometimes artists' friends, who know of my work, will order custom straps for them as gifts. I am just as proud of the straps I have made for kids learning to play as I am of the straps I make for higher profile clients. Lita Ford and I have been working together for several years. She is extremely creative, and always has wonderful ideas for how she wants to look on stage. Over the years I suppose she has ordered about 20 straps and several custom belts for herself and her band members.  Tom Petty and Mike Campbell each have one of my straps. Mike was wearing his Longhorn Leathers LLC strap on the cover of the Mudcrutch album, and in the associated article photo in Rolling Stone magazine.  Brian Ray, who plays in Paul McCartney's band, and the Bayonets, has a few of my straps, and was featured in the Duesenberg USA Guitars calendar wearing one.  Robert Kearns, formerly playing bass with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and now with Sheryl Crow, has several.  I made a dozen straps for Don Felder.  Dirty Ray from Bret Michaels, Jack Ingram, Kevin Frenchie Sciou, Mike from the Cult has a couple of cool, white straps I made for him. Catie Curtis and I have known each other since we were 10 years old, and she had me hand carve an ancient Mayan design on several straps I made for for her.  Tim King, from SOiL, has been very supportive. Anthony Vincent from Rhythm Dragons has a bunch of cool guitars and I think I've made a custom strap for each of them. Ronnie Earl, and the 3 current axe slingers in the Fabulous Thunderbirds: Johnny Moeller, Mike Keller, and Randy Bermudes. I hate to leave anyone off the list! There are lots of other names you would probably recognize. Lots of repeat customers. 


PWC: What are your preferred materials and methods?

DC: I like heavy duty leather, personally. The really durable kind appeals to me, and I love vintage leather.  I've spent hears developing techniques to cosmetically age the leather and metal components so they have a distinctly vintage appearance, while retaining "new" durability. Lots of secret stuff.  Over time I have grown to really enjoy hand stitching thinner leathers together for strength and visual appearance.  That looks cool, but takes a long time! I buy leather by the "side" and cut every strap, punch every hole, and stitch every stitch myself.  I own a couple of leather sewing machines but they just collect dust! 

PWC: Some guitarists are unlikely to spend any amount of good money on a guitar strap. Why should they invest in a quality guitar strap, and how are yours different from the ones they can buy at their local music store?

DC: I think of guitar straps sort of like I think of cars.  You can buy a used Hyundai, or you can buy a new Rolls Royce, or something in between. Each of those cars will get you from point A to point B, and back again. Some folks are only interested in utility and others care about quality, comfort, and style. I've had some people tell me they want my straps because they love the smell!  You can buy a perfectly serviceable strap at your local music store, spend ten bucks on it, and you might be perfectly happy with it.  Eric Clapton comes to mind. The man is happy putting a nylon strap on his priceless guitars. Music store straps are designed to be profitable to the store and hopefully will hold up your guitar.  My straps are designed to work, look, and feel great.  People tell me they get an emotional rush when they put on my straps. They tell me they feel inspired to play better.  What's that worth? Plus, you probably can't afford to buy your dream car, but given a little thought and effort, you probably can afford your dream guitar strap! Life is too short for a cheap guitar strap! 


PWC: Do you have any favorite straps that you've designed that you remember for sentimental/nostalgic reasons?

DC: The Tom Petty and Mike Campbell straps were special, as was the first custom stage belt/cuff combo I designed for Lita Ford.  Creating the template to set the rivets in a Paul Stanley style strap I used to make a lot of...The design process, sourcing just the right leathers; these things leave vivid memories.  I once spent 10 hours on a Greyhound round trip to Manhattan to buy leather for one of Lita's straps. After seeing her reaction to the finished product; totally worth it!

PWC: Your guitar straps have a very distinct rock'n'roll mojo to them. How do you arrive at making something that is so evocative of the individual you're creating it for?

DC: It might sound strange but I just get a feeling and it guides me to create.  I play guitar; rock & blues.  I've been on stage in front of large crowds and small, so I understand where the artist is coming from.  I communicate with a client, either in person, or via FaceBook, or email. We connect on a concept, I get in my shop with my leather and tools, put on some music, and it starts to flow. When I sculpt marble, it is like I am releasing the image trapped inside the stone.  When I work with leather it is a similar feeling, except I am combining leather and other components to allow that leather to reach its potential.

Do yourself a favor and head over to Duncan's Facebook page and check out his work. You heard the man: Life is too short for a cheap guitar strap! Now go put that rope back in the trunk and get yourself a proper strap. Your shoulder will thank you.