Abstract Plinian plumes erupt with a bulk density greater than that of air, and depend upon air entrainment during their gas-thrust phase to become buoyant; if entrainment is insufficient, the column collapses into a potentially deadly pyroclastic flow. This study shows that strombolian ash plumes can be erupted in an initially buoyant state due to their extremely high initial gas content, and in such cases are thus impervious to column collapse. The high gas content is a consequence of decoupled gas rise in the conduit, in which particles are ultimately incidental. The relations between conduit gas flow, eruption style and plume density are explored here for strombolian scenarios and contrasted with conventional wisdom derived from plinian eruptions. Considering the inherent relation between gas content and initial plume density together with detailed measurements of plume velocities can help unravel ambiguities surrounding conduit processes, eruption styles and hazards at poorly understood volcanoes. Analysis of plume dynamics at Santiaguito volcano, Guatemala adds further support for a model involving decoupled gas rise in the conduit.