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Cebulla sax strapOf all the accessories that the average sax player owns, the humble sax strap (or sling) is one of the most overlooked - and yet it's one of the most important.
It has to fulfil three functions; support the instrument securely, to do so comfortably and to be readily adjustable. A great many straps I see fail on at least one of those requirements, the most common being they're difficult to adjust, and quite a few fail on all three.
An awful lot of beginners persevere with a poor quality strap simply because they have no idea that anything better exists - and many advanced players stick with a strap they chose many years ago just because it does the job...and never mind that there might be better designs out there now.
I have to admit that I fall into that last category, but in my defence I'll say that I've been very happy with the BG straps I've been using for the last twenty or so years as they more than adequately fulfil the three requirements mentioned above. However, a recent purchase of a new camera strap gave me cause to reconsider.

I'd bought a rather large lens for my already heavy camera and it soon became apparent that the simple strap I'd chosen years ago for my old Nikon film camera just wasn't up to the job. I'd effectively doubled the weight of the camera, and my neck was feeling the strain. So I did the sensible thing and bought a new strap for it.
Well, the idea might have been sensible but the way I went about it wasn't.
Decades of playing sax ought to have taught me that it's not enough to 'get what everyone else is having' or to be swayed by marketing spiel - but I'm rather afraid that I bought a swanky strap with a stretchy neoprene neck band. The thing is, I would never have bought such a thing for sax playing - there are at least a couple of very good reasons why a stretchy strap isn't ideal (lack of stable support, extra compression on the neck, sweaty), and after just a week of using the new camera strap I realised the extent of my mistake. So I fired up my browser and started to do some research - and then it struck me that I never put this much work into choosing my sax straps, and yet they're something I use every day.
OK, so I chose the brand I use out of about three or four contenders, but that was years ago and I haven't really taken the time to see what's new on the market. Until now, that is.

Having browsed a few websites and forums I came across many favourable comments made about the Cebulla strap - designed and produced by Johann Cebulla - and decided that I really had to try one to see if it lived up to the claims made of it.
The most intriguing of these claims as that the design of the padded neck piece is such that the back and sides of the neck don't bear any weight (and thus no compression) - which in turn leads to better blood flow to the brain, which results in less fatigue. Such a claim is both interesting and appealing, obviously.

Once the strap arrived the first thing I did was check the quality of the hook. I've only ever had one hook break on me, and that was just the locking mechanism - but I've dealt with the damage resulting from a broken sling hook many times, and it's seldom pretty (or cheap). As expected, the hook was sturdy and well-built, with a quick and smooth locking mechanism. It also incorporates a swivel mechanism, which, like a locking hook, is pretty much a standard feature of quality slings these days.
The sling straps are of the cord type. I was initially slightly dubious of this as I prefer the perceived security of a wide band (although the true strength of a strap can be said to be in how the strap or cord is joined to the neck strap), but I was assured that the cord was strong and durable enough to more than deal with the weight of the heaviest sax over a very extended period of time. Just to be on the safe side though I hung it off the ceiling and swung on it a few times. Seems fine to me (and quite good fun too!). The straps have to be cord too, in order to allow the adjusting buckle to work.
There are many aspects of the Cebulla strap design that are simple and elegant, but the buckle is top of the list.
The mark of a good one is that it should slide with ease - when you want it to - and that it should do so whether the adjustment required is a small or a large one. It should also stop dead where you leave it, and stay there. It should also be easy to get your fingers around in a hurry, quite possibly when your hands are hot and sticky. It does this, perfectly. So much so that I found myself quite mindlessly sliding it up and down on a gig, just because it moves so easily.
Swapping between horns is a breeze. The hook lock slips off quickly and snaps onto another horn in a jiffy, and it's just a quick whizz on the adjusting buckle to set the height. With my BG straps I tended to be an advocate to the two strap method...one for tenor, one for alto - but the Cebulla is so fast in adjustment that there's really no need for another strap.

Rear of Cebulla strapThe real 'business end' of this strap is the neck piece. This is 'sculpted' - so the strap only fits properly one way - and comprises two layers of soft leather inbetween which are sandwiched two piece of moderately thick padding. These pads are arranged to that they sit either side of your neck while leaving the vertebrae bridged. Because the pads raise the ends of the strap away from your neck, the sides are left free - so all the weight is distributed across the two large muscles at the rear of your neck.
You can see on the left how the two side pads form a bridge over the rear of the neck. This shot was taken with the weight of a tenor on the strap - and you can quite clearly see a significant gap over the back of my neck. Sharp-eyed readers may note that I don't appear to be wearing any clothes. I am, I just took my shirt off - once again proving just how much I sacrifice in order to bring you the news on the latest products.
When I first got the strap I was suffering from a stiff neck. This was due to lugging a heavy camera around for the previous few days on that damned stretchy strap - but putting the Cebulla strap on and hanging a tenor sax on it showed up a very unexpected bonus. The two raised pads on the neckpiece massaged my neck muscles every time the sax moved. I could increase the effect by removing the sax and pulling down on the hook with my hand. I must have cut a strange sight as I sat there rolling my head around, but it really helped to ease the stiffness.

Cebulla strap - side

The photo on the right shows how the pads lift the strap away from the side of the neck. Again, this shot was taken with the weight of a tenor on the strap - though I've turned my head slightly to accentuate the gap. It won't be this large in practice - but the fact that there's a gap at all is very significant.
Of the big claim made about this feature (reduced fatigue) I don't in all honesty think there's much in it - for me, at least...I think perhaps some of the advantages here might be dependent on how you're built - but I did notice that my throat felt more relaxed. I'll say this much though - I did a few gigs with the Cebulla, including a couple of 2am finishes, and I noticed that when I took the strap off to put my horn away, I didn't automatically reach up and give the back of my neck a little rub.
That's practically a routine...bow after the last encore, put sax on stand, remove strap, turn and look for the sax case...rub neck while doing so.
I'm inclined to think that any such benefits are likely to show up in the long term rather than be "Oh wow!" improvements, but I have every reason to believe that they're there.

Ultimately though, I don't really care whether the strap fulfils its claim - because it's so amazingly comfortable to wear.
This may sound odd, but my old BG strap was comfy too...in such a way that for the most part I hardly knew I was wearing it. The Cebulla is comfy in a very different way, you know you have the thing on, but you love having it on. It's a bit like having a favourite old leather armchair that just fits you like a glove.
Because it's primarily a leather strap it's going to take a little time to wear in - and that means it's going to end up like that old leather chair and mould itself to fit you precisely. I'm really looking forward to that!

New Cebulla strapIt wouldn't be characteristic of my reviews if I didn't dwell on a shortcoming or two, but this is all I could find. The neck strap is quite bulky compared to plain straps, so it'll take up a little more room in your case. If you wear it under a jacket it might make your collar stick out a bit.
I prefer to have the strap against my skin, and on a really hot gig I felt the neck piece gripped a tad. This might be more about my style of usage though - I often double up on backing vocals, so the horn gets slung to one side and I turn my neck into a mic. To be fair the Cebulla site states that if you wear the strap against the skin you might want to use a cloth to prevent sticking - but perhaps a more elegant solution would be to stick some fleece or padded silk over the cushioned areas? I'll experiment, and post the result here at some point.

As of May 2012 the straps have been updated (photo, left).
As you can see, the metal buckle is now available in a rather sleek-looking black finish - and if you look even closer you might spot that the cord is a bit beefier. It seems some players found the original cord was prone to slipping (though I haven't noticed it on mine), so it's been increased in thickness slightly and in now 16-braid gauge. It's a tad stiffer to slide than the old cord but still a great deal easier to move than most other straps I've tried.
The carbon-fibre strengthened hook has been upgraded too - it now supports up to 58kgs. That's enough to carry 16 tenor saxes around your neck at once.

Wide buckle CebullaAnother update (March 2013) - and this time the buckle is the focus of attention.
The principle behind the design is that the extended arms increase (or decrease, depending on how you look at it) the angle at which the strap cords hang from the neck pad, which in turn means that there's less pressure from the side of the pad against the neck.
I was a bit sceptical about this initially, but I've been trialling it for a couple of months now and I have to say that it works, and quite well too. It makes more of a difference the further up the strap you place the buckle - which would normally tend to pull the ends of the neck pad into your neck. As such it's an ideal design for players who want to use a single strap for a wide variety of instruments.
However, it also works if, like me, you tend to use it with instruments that only require the buckle to be moved within a couple of inches of the hook. There's definitely a little less sideways pressure on the neck. It's not as noticeable as when using the strap with the buckle further up the cord, but it's still there.

Another advantage is that the size of the extended buckle makes for very quick and easy adjustments, especially when swapping between horns on stage. I liked the strap for this feature alone - the reduced pressure to the side of the neck is just a bonus for me.
It's also much more comfortable when using it with baritone and bass saxes.

The Cebulla is available in a number of sizes, and a couple of designs. If you're confused about which size to go for, measure the strap you have already. I found the 57cm strap was just right for tenor work. It will take an alto with ease too - and will just about do a bari (depending on where the sling ring is). I've recently got a 60cm version, just to give me a bit more leeway on the bari front - and that works very well on tenor. You can choose between a carbon-fibre strengthened hook or a brass one, and opt for a black or deluxe brown neckpiece. Prices range from around £30 for a basic small strap up to around £45 for a deluxe large one - and there's even a version with two hooks. They're available direct from the manufacturer's website - www.cebulla-saxstrap.de - or from www.saxstraps.co.uk in the UK.

All in all I don't think 'recommend' is any where near a strong enough word for this sax strap, I think if you're a sax player and you see someone using a Cebulla you just have to ask if you can try it. Better still, just go buy one - they're not terribly expensive considering how well they're made and they just plain work. And very well at that.

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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2013