Finding the right travel guitar

Posted on 28 April 2016 in Hamburg, Germany

Traveling as a backpacker and carrying a guitar, the two don't seem to go hand in hand. There's the size and the weight of an additional item as well as the conditions of transport that are all but perfect for an instrument. However, going one year without a proper guitar was never an option.

When I knew that I would be backpacking for at least a year I knew I had to get a new guitar. You know, an instrument for those nights on the beach and the mornings in the hammock, the spontaneous jam sessions in the hostel's dormitory and the recording sessions for my new project "The World Is Mine".

On my search I found that several companies had started catering to the needs of traveling musicians. I expected to find a whole bunch of comprehensive blog- and magazine articles that would provide an overview of what's out there and help me make a decision. I was surprised to find that this was not at all the case. To provide some guidance to other traveling musicians I have decided to compile this rather extensive blog post on the subject. Looking at the topics neck scale and number of frets, acoustic vs. electric, nylon vs. steelstring, folding guitars and removable neck solutions as well as body sizes and shapes I hope that my experiences can be of use to those looking for the right fit in a travel guitar. tl;dr-people may skip all this to read about my final decision.

Neck scale and number of frets

On my previous trips to North Africa and South-East-Asia, to South America and the Balkans I had brought a Yamaha Guitalele, a Ukulele-sized guitar with six strings. Its small size and low price made it a perfect fit for a backpacker. And at a retail price of less than 70€ losing or damaging the guitar when traveling wouldn't have been the end of the world. However, the Guitalele had a major downside (as did similar products by other manufacturers): to reduce the instrument's size Yamaha had shortened the length of the neck and thereby the length of the strings.

As a result the strings were five (I changed the tuning to four) half notes higher than on a full-size guitar. Essentially it was like playing with a non-removable capo on the fifth (or in my case fourth) fret. When traveling for a few weeks this limitation had been easy to live with. But when traveling for a year and when working on a rather extensive recording project I wanted more flexibility. This need ruled out a whole bunch of Ukulele-sized travel guitars by different manufacturers, ranging from 50€ to about 350€.

Acoustic vs. electric, steelstring vs. nylon

For me, getting an electric travel guitar was not an option. I wanted the freedom of playing whenever and wherever without having to plug it into my computer (for recording) or an amp (for listening. And how would I bring an amp on my trip anyway?). During my search I came across several offers but I have to admit that I didn't look into this subject in greater depth. If you have researched this topic and feel that your thoughts should be part of this post, please contact me!

While selecting an acoustic or an electric travel guitar bears obvious pros and cons, choosing steel or nylon strings is mostly a question of personal taste. The fact that I didn't get a nylon string guitar was due to my personal preference of steel strings over nylon strings. I just like the sound and the way they play better. If you feel different about this, don't worry. There are a number of travel guitars with nylon strings available, including my (spoiler alert!) Martin Backpacker.

Folding guitars and removable neck solutions

When backpacking with a guitar the greatest issue for the traveler to handle is its size. First of all he most likely needs to take it aboard a commercial air plane. Depending on the airline this can be a piece of cake or a major bump in the road. Especiall low-fare airlines have created additional services and fares for transporting instruments inside the cabin. And an airline personnel's willigness to be a little flexible on this matter can unfortunately only be tested when already standing in front of their check-in counter. To help traveling musicians like me avoid this problem several manufacturers have invented various ways in which a player can fold or temporarily remove the neck of his guitar. Applying these approaches to an instrument with a significantly smaller body size brings down the size of the bagged guitar to that of a regular hand luggage item.

Two companies catering to the needs of travelers are Voyageairguitar and Journey Instruments. Both seem to be producing various beautiful models with either a folding or removable neck. However, if you are located in Germany (or in most parts of Mainland Europe) availability is a major issue. I got in touch with the people at Voyageairguitar and learned that they only sell their intsruments directly to the customer. Having one of their instruments shipped from California would have added more than 200$ to its price (not including any additional import taxes and duties). In the same vein, Journey Instruments only had dealers in the UK and Switzerland. Again, adding shipping to the slightly higher-priced models would have exceeded my maximum budget.

One travel guitar that I did find in several shops (online and offline) was the Furch LJ-10 Little Jane Travel Guitar. If you have the money and if you are not traveling low-budget I advise you to go for this one. It is a beautiful instrument with an amazing tone and you just have to appreciate the many hours it must have taken the people at Furch to figure out their removable neck system. However, at 900€ retail price the Little Jane seems to be better suited for travelers that have more control over the transportation of their luggage than the average backpacker. The luggage compartment of a rusty bus or the dormitoriy of a hostel are no places for such a high-value item. Still, your own car or VW Bus, the cabin of a higher-priced airline, your room in a boutique hotel or a private hut on the beach might very well be!

Reading this you may have guessed it and you guessed correctly: I didn't get a travel guitar with a folding or removable neck. Looking at my bank account and the money I had saved for traveling I set the maximum budget at 350€. I probably would have exceeded this number and spent up to 500€ if it had been on a very suitable solution. However, I was not just worrying about my financial situation. More importantly I didn't want to bring a valuable instrument on a low-budget backpacking trip. After all the dangers of losing such an item to theft, lousy transport conditions, careless travel companions and poor weather conditions seemed very real. Therefore I decided to look at some cheaper instruments that were better suited for the experience I was planning on having.

Alternative body sizes and shapes

Many manufacturers seem to believe that to produce a travel guitar all they need to do is reduce the instrument's overall size. A prominent example of this practice is the Baby Taylor, a 3/4-sized Dreadnought guitar. I played it at my local dealer's shop here in Hamburg, Germany and I have to admit that it has a rich tone and plays wonderfully. However, when looking for a travel guitar simply choosing a smaller body size doesn't really cut it. Sure, the instrument is smaller and lighter than a full-sized guitar. However, it still doesn't meet the airlines' requirements for hand luggage items. And it is still too large to be carried conveniently over long periods of time. At a retail price of 350€ to 500€ (depending on the retailer, the wood type and whether the instrument was equipped with a pre-installed pickup) the Baby Taylor would have exceeded my maximum budget while bearing a number of uncertainties at the same time. Therefore I decided against this and comparable models by other manufacturers (e.g. the Little Martin).

Instead I took a closer look at the guitars of Traveler Guitars. This manufacturer offers a variety of experimental shapes and creative approaches when trying to reduce the size of their guitars. However, purchasing one of their bigger models (AG-105, AG-105 EQ and AG-200, Escape Classical and Escape Mark III) seemed to bear the same uncertainties as getting a Baby Taylor or comparable model. Their smaller models (Ultra-Light, Original Escape and Pro-Series) on the other hand appeared to lack a resonance body altogether. this got me scared that I would not be able to properly play and hear the guitar without connecting it to an amp.

Unfortunately I didn't find a dealer in Hamburg, Germany who had Traveler Guitar instruments in stock. Maybe I would have gotten a different opinion if I had been able to test their products first hand. If you have played their guitars and have something to add to this story, please contact me!

The final decision: the Martin Backpacker

To cut a long story short: I went for the Martin Backpacker steelstring travel guitar. There were a whole bunch of items in the pro column which supported my decision. Most importantly, the instrument was available at the local store in Hamburg, Germany. Therefore I could hold it in my hands and be convinced that the Martin Backpacker is strongly built guitar that can take a few hits and scratches as a compliment. And I could listen to its sound which turned out to be really good! Despite its small and oddly shaped body the guitar sounds balanced and quite voluminous. Playing it washed away the fear of its sound not being satisfying in a heartbeat.

Looking at its attributes as a travel guitar the Martin backpacker won the race, too. This might sound weird but for me the main argument was that when packed into its bag the instrument does not look like a guitar at all. It comes with a rectangular bag that is bigger in height than the ordinary hand luggage item but significantly less wide and only half as thick. I found various blogs saying that these attributes made bringing it aboard an airplane a piece of cake. Plus the size and shape of the bag would allow me to pack additional items such as my laptop, the Apogee One, a plastic bag with toileteries and even a bunch of cloths.

Update (12 May 2016): I went to the airport carrying only my backpack (less than 14 kilos) and my Martin Backpacker (with the aforementioned items stuffed into its bag). Bringing it on the plane as my only piece of hand luggage turned out to be no problem whatsoever. Even carrying it for longer periods of time is as pleasant as carrying a piece of luggage can be. After all, even with all the additional stuff packed into its bag the Martin Backpacker weighs less than 6 kilos. So for now everything is working out just es well as I had hoped for!

Product comparison

The marketing people at Traveler Guitars prepared this video to explain the differences between their AG-105, the Baby Taylor and the Martin Backpacker (spoiler alert: their product comes out on top).

Traveler Guitar AG-105 vs. Baby Taylor vs. Martin Backpacker

The video focusses on the guitars' musical- and instrument-related features rather than their travel-compatiility. Although to me this would have been the most relevant aspect, you might feel different about this and thus put a higher value on the arguments presented in the clip.