Traveling with electric guitars is much easier to than acoustic instruments. Electrics are generally thinner and more rugged, which makes them easier to pack into airline overhead compartments and vans full of gear. There are practical considerations to hauling instruments to gigs, regardless of how well built an instrument can take a beating.
Your favorite axe might not be the best instrument to take on tour, or even on a gig. Your favorite axe might sound like 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 victims of 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 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 it within reach and under your protection at all times, you might want to leave it at home.
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. 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. There is a great selection available here.
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. When traveling from East Coast to the West Coast, it’s possible to encounter every kind of weather from desert heat to snowfall. There are 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.
If you’re going to be traveling on a plane or by land transport for several days in shifting temperatures, considering loosening your strings. It’s good to keep tension 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. Keep at least one set of strings at all times in your case. You can never have enough.
Think about traveling with a soldering iron and a Phillips head screwdriver, as well as pickup wire. There are many kits for guitars and basses available. You never know when you’ll need to make a quick fix. I found a great forum for these types of tools to have if you are unsure where to start.
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. Again look at the tools and strings segments above. Also extra tubes, fuses, and cables are highly sought after in times of need. I recommend keeping this stuff in a small toolbox.
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. Cheapest insurance of protecting your axe while playing.
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.
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 write 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.
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 rare 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.
These tips will help keep touring problems to a minimum regarding your instruments. If you think of any ideas, please let us know. Stay up and keep plugging away!