“I don’t want it leaving my studio, with our name on it, if it isn’t quality,” C.T. Strickland Jr. proclaims over a cup of hot black tea. The craftsman describes himself over the phone as sitting at a solid oak workbench with a granite slab insert at the centre, one he made with his hands. He’s been making things since 1976.
C.T. Music Straps Inc. is a small business that makes custom straps for guitars, mandolins and banjos. These detailed works of art are made out of full-grain, vegetable tanned leather (the only leather than can be tooled), are stitched by hand, and embellished with calligraphy and sometimes Austrian Swarovski crystals. The company has been run out of the owner’s home workshop in North Carolina, USA, since incorporation in 2004, and that doesn’t plan to change. “I’ve been approached by overseas companies; they say they have prototypes, and can make my straps cheaply by the thousands. I tell them no every time.” Clearly a patriotic man, C.T. continues: “I won’t name names, but there are factories in countries with cheap labour that make guitar straps in big numbers, without labels. They sell these plain straps to companies here, who then put their logo on them. It’s not right to the consumer, who thinks they’re buying American.”
The artisan also stresses the point on “hand craftsmanship,” as he feels the country has lost the art of custom. Every piece he makes is unique, with customers’ input ranging from “I’d like you to make me a strap that’s worthy of this banjo” to them being in the loop with every step, almost as co-designers; communication is essential, as these straps take months to make. A few years back, one of C.T.’s apprentices was determined to make a strap from start to finish by herself, and chose a complicated pattern. It was a moment of worry for the business owner, as he called up the client in Germany. “Your strap is going to take longer than expected, as my apprentice is working on the border. Would you like me to take over, so that it’s done quicker?” To which the reply was “let her finish,” a sentiment of understanding that the job does right takes time.
The process starts with C.T. sending his client a measuring kit in the mail, to make sure of the fit. It’s especially important to get the front height (top of shoulder to instrument) length correct if they want to spell a word. He’s had a few stories of families measuring in secret for a surprise present. Then comes the design phase, where sketches are shared. Once everything is good to go, the strap is scheduled for production: the carving, stamping, embellishing, gluing and stitching steps, all without machines. C.T. Music Straps Inc. aims for “continuous quality improvement,” to the point where in the early days of the rhinestones, the craftsman discovered that their method of attaching them wouldn’t hold up – so C.T. took every one of them off, threw them in the trash (“I don’t care how much they cost!”) and started again, using the technique of glue and rim-sets still used to this day.
The leather itself is either from the United States, or other industrialized countries with strong tanning traditions (such as England and Spain) “that taught our country how to do it.” It’s a known fact that the leather used on guitar straps needs to be able to flex and bend with the performer over the years. “I will not get the cheapest leather. It’s a known fact that if an animal is not fed right or taken care of, the skin suffers.” In the decade plus of C.T. Music Straps, the only two problems ever encountered were with trying new dyes at a rainy outdoor concert – in one of the cases he even paid a customer’s cleaning bill for the stained garment, along with replacing the strap. Notable wearers of C.T.’s custom-made instrument straps are Rhonda Vincent (pictured), Norah Jones, The Isaacs, Lorraine Jordan and Autumn Nelon Clark.
One would think that the changes in music industry over the last fifteen years or so, where there is less money to go around, would have impacted C.T. Strickland Jr.’s company for the worse, but not so; it’s better than ever, with him even welcoming in six apprentices of various ages, genders and backgrounds, to expand the brand of handcrafted accessories beyond straps, under the division of Designer Leatherworks. “There’s been a huge movement across this country, where people are encouraging young people to learn instruments. You have new luthiers coming out of this country; and as long as instruments are being made, they’re going to need straps.”