It’s much easier to travel with electric guitars than acoustic instruments. Electrics are generally thinner and more rugged, which makes them easier to pack into airline overhead compartments and gear-jammed vans. But there are practical considerations to hauling one’s six-string to gigs, regardless of how well mahogany or maple can take a beating.
Here are 10 things to consider:
• Choose Wisely: Your favorite axe might not be the best instrument to take on tour, or even on a gig. Sure, that ’68 Les Paul Standard or ’65 ES-345 might sound like a choir of angels in your hands, but consider taking a reissue or a lesser guitar to gigs. There’s always the issue of theft, especially if you’re playing a club in a major urban center where many bands have been subjected to smash and grabs. And many clubs lack secure dressing rooms, so leaving a great axe in a case in the green room or by the stage after your set might be an invitation for somebody to just pick it up and walk out through the crowd. I played a punk club earlier this year where the mosh pit expanded to include the zone where the instruments were stored. The crowd bent the seams on one of my hard shell cases, but my guitar was, thankfully, intact. The point is, all kinds of things can happen outside the confines of the home or practice space, so unless you’re sure you can keep a rare or beloved instrument within arm’s reach and under your protection at all times, you might want to leave it at home.
• Cases: Always use hard shell cases on serious road gigs. Yes, gig bags are easier to carry, but no gig bag offers the same level of protection as a hard shell case. And loads have a tendency to shift, which means the power mixer in the back of the van could slide forward right into your guitar’s neck when you hit the brake for that red light. In a hard shell case, no big deal. In a bag, hairline fractures to scars to toothpicks.
• Vehicle Safety: Make an effort to conceal your gear with packing blankets so no one has to stand guard when you pull your car or van into a rest area. If you’re buying a band vehicle, think about tinted glass for the side windows. If you’re stopping for food, take out precious instruments, park where your vehicle is visible or make somebody wait outside with the gear — whatever works. And keep all of your gear together when you’ve loaded into a club. Guitar cases look alike. This will make your guitars easier to track and keep other guitarists from accidentally walking away with them.
• Loading: Pack vehicles carefully. As a general rule, heavy cases should be at the bottom and guitars at or near the top. The less stress put on your guitar cases the less chance of a mishap. And if a load shifts, be careful opening doors when you stop. If you’re using anything less than a flight case, a guitar’s headstock, for example, can crack right in the case if that case slips to the ground at exactly the right — or wrong — angle.
• Weather: Keep your instruments within cases that are water resistant. This leaves many gig bags out of the running and disqualifies many generic hard shell cases as well. OEM and custom cases are generally the best. Changing weather conditions can also damage guitars. Traveling from Nashville to Utah it’s possible to encounter every kind of weather from desert heat to snowfall, with all kinds of temperature and humidity variables along the way. A snug, secure case will go a long way toward maintaining a constant temperature for a guitar within a vehicle, thus preventing cracks in the finish and even, in worst possible scenario cases, warping. Never leave a guitar in a car or van overnight in extreme high or low temperatures. And when you do carry a case holding a guitar indoors, don’t open it immediately. Give the instrument time to adjust to room temperature.
• Strings: If you’re going to be traveling on a plane or by land transport for several days in shifting temperatures, considering slackening your strings. It’s good to keep pressure off the neck, and strings kept at standard tuning tension on an airplane can snap a headstock off a guitar. In a car or van, they can affect intonation.
• Tools: Think about traveling with a soldering iron and a Phillips head screwdriver, as well as pickup wire. You never know when you’ll need to make a quick fix.
• Strap Locks: Add strap locks to all of your guitar straps. This is for the safety of yourself and your guitar. If you’ve ever had a Les Paul drop on your toe, you understand the former, and if you’ve ever had a guitar slip off its strap during a gig and hit the ground you know it’s vexing, at best, and the source of potential cracks and dings at worst.
• Supplies: The storage compartments in your guitar cases are there for a reason. Don’t jam them full, but a string cutter, strings and a string winder in at least one of your cases would be practical additions to your load.
• Have Access: Another reason to keep your guitar at the top of the heap or near the exits in the band van is for easy access. If you get a brilliant song idea and have the good luck to not be driving at the time, you might need to grab your axe and pin that idea down. Plus, when you do remove a guitar from a vehicle at a hotel or a lunch stop it’s best to do it quickly and discretely to call as little attention to your vehicle’s load as possible.
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