In a past life I spent a decade traveling throughout the world. In a life with a beautiful wife, before kids, I was on the road getting the job done and trying to hold on to who I was while seeing the sites and soaking up the culture – whether it was in Copenhagen, Denmark or Eerie, Pennsylvania. One of the things that kept my head on straight on those quiet and lonely nights was my guitar. I’m not the kind of guy who could be the leader of the band with my six-string, but I know how to play and I enjoy getting lost within the notes that bounce off those bright, nickel wound strings.
Since college, my guitar of choice has been an Ovation Celebrity, acoustic-electric guitar. It has a beautiful honey burst finish, and a rich rewarding sound – plugged in or not. To say it’s the guitar that brought me to the next level of guitar playing would be an understatement. I’ve taken this guitar anywhere I didn’t have to fly, as even in a hard case I don’t overly trust TSA with it. Like I said, this guitar is big medicine to me and if anything happened to it – I would be crushed. And I feel I’m not alone in this. I think there’s a lot of us out there who want to bring our guitars with us wherever we go, but are hesitant to do so because of the horror stories we’ve heard. But take heart, there’s hope for us. Read on.
In the past five or so years, I’ve settled down, had a couple of kids, and traveled a whole lot less. This slower pace has allowed me to step back and assess my options for traveling with a guitar. Last summer, I reached out to Martin Guitars and they were kind enough to loan me one of their scaled down acoustic models to mess around with – the LX1 “Little Martin.” It is smaller in every dimension, when compared to a standard acoustic guitar, has a great sound, and is easy to travel with. It started a bit of a fire inside of me, and I wanted to see what else was out there. So, I started reaching out to other guitar manufacturers and testing out options. The “Little Martin,” being a $450 acoustic guitar would serve as the high-end model and would become a basis of comparison for this “test,” although not necessarily in a comparison of products; but more for the type of player and their level of commitment and dedication.
In the course of almost a year, I’ve “tested” out a dozen different guitar options while traveling. Whether I was driving, flying, hiking, or even riding my mountain bike through the woods, I brought an “axe” along with me to see if it got in the way, how well it played, and how many people would end up playing in the band with me by the end of the night. In that time, I made some friends, became a more confident player, and found out that you are, by law, allowed to take your guitar on a plane with you. That law, which was passed in 2012, is the glimmer of hope that I promised you two paragraphs back. It instilled peace of mind and opened some seriously awesome doors, but I still wanted to consider travel guitar options for ease of use on the trail or just sitting out by the fire. So, with that in mind, I managed to narrow down a list of the guitars which I believe meet the following criteria:
1. Easy to travel with.
2. Hearty enough to stand up to physical and environmental abuse.
3. Sound great.
This last bit is important because you always want the guitar to sound good. It needs to be able to stay in tune, hold a note, and play exceptionally well. Some of the travel guitars I tested lacked the ability to provide a full, authentic, guitar sound. It’s as if,when they were getting shrunk down, it altered their ability to resonate sound properly. The end result, when you really got jamming, was a cacophony of sound so jumbled up that you couldn’t pick out the notes during a transition. When I first encountered this situation, I thought it was the strings – but nope. Then I brought it to a music store and had it set up and adjusted properly (messing with the truss rod) – again, nope. The fact of the matter is that the body was too small and the sound had nowhere to properly go. You won’t find those few guitars here on this list and I won’t tell you what they were either. Instead, on this list, you’ll get what I found to be the cream of the crop. So, in no particular order, here you go.
For the Professional Musician: LX1 “Little Martin” by Martin Guitars
Featured this in an article I wrote last year, the Martin LX-1 is the most premium of the guitars I was given a chance to try – so it simply had to make this list. I returned that guitar to Martin nine months ago and can still remember – in detail – how exceptionally well-made and excellent sounding it was. It was almost a little too well made for me to consider bringing it out in the woods, but I quickly got over that phobia and had a few amazing jams with this loaner sitting cliff side.
Small and lightweight, I was initially worried that it suffered from some of the sound issues I mentioned above, but it ended up being the strings. Originally unbeknownst to me, a smaller guitar like the LX1 requires lightweight, super bright guitar strings. Strings like this allow for more tone and for the sound to resonate clearer. I paired the D’Addario Phospher Bronze Light’s with the LX1 and the sound that came out of the little bugger was orchestral and vivid – even deep in the woods out by a campfire in the middle of a muggy heat wave. I was also super-impressed at how well the LX1 stayed in tune on those muggy nights, where a lesser guitar may have gone out of tune or even warped.
The Martin LX1 “Little Martin” is designed to be played left or right handed.
For the Casual Player: MA-1 3/4 Steel by Fender
Parlor guitars are historically popular guitars that are scaled down in size and are perfect for kids and folks who just want to sit back and relax on their couch and jam. They look and feel like a traditional acoustic six-string guitar, but excel in midrange tones which makes them the preferred guitar style for musicians playing old-school blues, slide guitar, folks music, and that dramatic singer/songwriter stuff that makes boys and girls fall in love for the first time. When compared to all the varieties of traditional guitars on the market today, parlor guitars make up only a fraction, but one of the best ones out there is the Fender MA-1 3/4 Steel.
Made from premium materials and built like a brick shit house, the MA-1 should run you around $500, but comes in just under $150 – making it a steal. For decades this has generally been the way it goes with a Parlor style guitar, as if the smaller size allowed for better materials and craftsmanship. Fender loaned this guitar a couple of weeks ago, and I have yet to put it down. I even took it out by the fire in the middle of a snowstorm in the back yard to give my daughter a soundtrack to bounce around to. It was a great companion and didn’t get warped or damaged at all by the onslaught of snow.
Overall, you can tell it’s smaller in body and length, but the MX-1 plays like a full-sized acoustic with tighter frets. The sound is distinct and exceptionally rich making it the right fit for some easy-going jam sessions. It’s not a very loud guitar either, which pairs well with it’s peaceful, easy feeling, which is also something to consider if you’re traveling and staying in communal living spaces.
Based on its price, I would recommend that anyone looking to get into guitar playing on the road start here – but by no means is this guitar limited to beginners. I think a pro would have a fun time getting into a good groove with the MA-1.
The Fender “MA-1 3/4 Steel” is designed to be played left or right handed.
For the Flying Rock Star: Ultra-Light by Traveler Guitar
Though it’s a strange guitar to look at and tune, the Traveler Guitar Ultra-Light has been the guitar I’ve flown with the most due to both its compact size and its versatility. The tuning is a bit tricky, based on the design, but once you get your desired sound dialed in the Ultra-Light will stay in perfect pitch for some time. In fact, in the past 4-5 months, I’ve only needed to re-tune it to change the tuning, not because it was out of tune.
The one caveat about this guitar is that it can’t be played acoustically, as it requires some form of amplification. This actually makes it a more desirable travel guitar for folks staying in hostels and hotels. Yes, you could bring an amp along with you, which I have done – but it almost defeats the purpose of having a compact guitar. Thankfully there are a handful of alternative ¬– and affordable – options out there right now to turn this mighty-might into a full-blown electric slaughterhouse.
The most common accessory for a guitar like this – or any electric-acoustic guitar, really – is a headphone amp. Traveler Guitar makes their own, USB powered version called the TGA-3, and it features volume, tone, and gain options. Vox has a line of these devices on the market that give you particular sounds and features based on your style of playing. A couple of examples are “Classic Rock” and “Metal” which tweak distortion, gain, and other sound manipulating controls to give you that authentic sound that only you can hear, in a super portable manner.
How portable? So portable that it’ll fit in your suitcase.
The Traveler Guitar Ultra-Light comes in Left or Right Hand models.
For the Traditionalist: OG10CE by Oscar Schmidt Guitars
Originally sold door to door in the Midwest in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Oscar Schmidt guitars are new and wild to someone like me who’s grown up around Gibson, Fender, and Ovation Guitars. Now days they can be bought in a regular music store or online and It blows my mind that you can get a full-featured, full-size, acoustic-electric guitar for under $200. I was hesitant to buy it at first – finding myself in a “too good to be true/what’s the catch?” type of situation. Now, as an owner of an Oscar Schmidt OG10CE, I realize this was just paranoia brought on by years of brand-driven consumerism.
The OG series, and in particular the OG10CE is a concert size, cutaway acoustic electric guitar. Which in layman’s terms means that it is a full-sized guitar that is shallower than your average acoustic guitar. It is also lightweight and shaped for comfortable playing while sitting or standing just about anywhere. It’s the right choice for a soft jam, or even a hard-rocking backyard blowout, and pairs quite nicely with any amp or headphone amp you plug into it. Furthermore, besides the standard on-board controls like volume, tone, base, and gain, the OG-10 has a built-in tuner that is more advanced than the standard tuner I’ve been using and loving for years. Hell, my $600 Ovation doesn’t even have an on-board tuner!
In adding this guitar, I realize that I’m kind of breaking the whole “travel guitar” mold – being that it’s a full-sized model. Even so, its shallow body allows for it to fit in a smaller case – or be carried on its own –– with ease. I haven’t flown with it yet, but I have travelled with it in a vehicle and carried it with me out in the woods and it’s nowhere near as noticeable as my Ovation, which is a shallow and lightweight guitar in its own right. And while this is not a $600 Ovation guitar, it compares to one rather nicely in sound, build, and ease of use.
That said, I would probably make this Oscar Schmidt OG10CE my top pick – all around – out of this collection. It’s easy to travel with, has proven to be hearty enough to stand up to physical and environmental abuse, and it sounds great. Technically, all the other guitars here to as well – but they’re scaled down in size. The OG10CE is just shallow, Hal.
The Oscar Schmidt OG Series comes in Left or Right Hand models.
What if I wanted a Travel Amp?
That’s a good question – and you know I have a good answer for you as well. There’s actually a cult following of people who use “mini amps” – little battery powered, 2-5 watt wonders that get the job done when you’re away from home, a studio, or even a power outlet. Of the few I have tested, none of them sounded like a Marshall stack, and they generally feature a little more built-in distortion than an average, un-shrunken amp, but they do have a welcoming tone that can fill a room with sound. Here are two that I would recommend to anyone, the second of which has a great back story:
Orange Micro Crush 3-Watt Amp
I picked this little guy up after getting a chance to compare it to some of its contemporaries in a local guitar shop. A 6” x 6” x 3” cube, the Micro Crush is a 3-watt amp that runs on a 9V battery (it can be plugged in as well) and has the standard “mini amp” tone and volume knobs. What sets this little guy out from the crowd, aside from the full, crunchy sound that comes out of it, is the on-board tuner and the intense over-drive option. These are a couple of added bonuses that really allow the Micro Crush to go a long way – especially seeing it can’t be plugged into an external speaker. I brought this amp with me to Vermont along with the Traveler Guitar Ultra-Light and ended up having to use it with headphones as someone complained to the front desk that I was thrashing out too hard for their liking. The bears didn’t seem to mind when I was out on the trail crooning by a stream, but hey, people can be pretentious.
Smokey Amp “Recycled Cigarette Pack” Amp/Polycarbonate Amp
My short story: I was 15 years old the first time I walked into Matt Uminov Guitars in Greenwich Village. I was transported back in time to a place where all the guitar greats and countless others had stood before me. There was a room full of guitars that there was no way I was getting into at that age. I had no credit to my name or credit on the streets for that matter. While I stood there drooling, some cool cat came in and picked up a Smoky Amp “Recycled Cigarette Pack” Amp, plugged in a Fender Stratocaster, and just jammed. I was convinced that this man fell from heaven. That was a big moment in my life, and in writing this I’m right back to that day and I’ve shopped at Uminov’s many times since.
The Smokey Amp “Recycled Cigarette Pack” Amp is a 1 watt amplifier made from a reinforced cigarette pack (which you now need to supply yourself) and features an output and input – nothing more, nothing less. To adjust for volume and tone, you would refer to the controls on your guitar. Though it’s only 1 watt, it pours out a beautiful, rich, tube amp sound that really hits you in the soul. If you find that you still need more volume, this little bugger can be plugged into a speaker cabinet and used as a make shift amp head.
About ten years ago, the company released a polycarbonate cased version which lacked the aesthetic of the cigarette pack version, but is far better suited for outdoor environments and features the same functions and power. Both run off of a 9V batter and offer a simple and affordable, solution for someone looking to jam out in the woods, or down at St. Marks hotel (which is less than a mile from Umanov’s and only takes cash).
Wow. Was that as awesome for you reading it as it was for me writing it? That’s almost a year’s worth of work and memories, collected and collated. I didn’t want to get too technical – because we generally don’t venture into musical instruments here at Gear Institute. But we all spend a lot of time outside and a lot of us travel regularly too. “Statistics 101” taught me that there are a few of you out there who play guitar, or maybe aspire to. I felt strongly enough about taking this on that my editors were gracious enough to allow it and it pushed me to start pinging guitar manufacturers to borrow guitars. Out of the dozen or so I tested all of them but the Traveler Guitar and Oscar Schmidt were loaners – so I thank those folks for entrusting me with taking their products out on adventures – in the woods, on a plane, tuned-up in hotel rooms, etc. Traveler was kind enough to give me the Ultra-Light and are one company who is really gearing their guitars for the outdoors. I bought the Oscar Schmidt a couple of months ago, and actually have never been in touch with those folks; but thank you for producing such a well-made instrument at an easy to digest price.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was ten, when my Dad bought me my first Gibson Epiphone acoustic guitar. I’ve never taken lessons, I don’t know any chords (that I know of), and I really only know how to play a handful of songs. But noodling around on a guitar can be better than therapy and a conversation piece as well. It’s for that reason that I never made a “job” out of it. I never wanted to be a guitar player. I just wanted to be someone who could play guitar. That Epiphone started a fire in me and in the past twenty years has seen more states and campsites than any other guitar I own. It doesn’t keep in tune very well, over the years it’s developed a weird rattle, and it’s a pain in the arse to travel around with, but it’s part of my history. Even my Ovation, which is lighter and shallower – not to mention better built – would be a chore to get on a plane (which I am considering now that I know I can actually take it ON the plane with me).
What started out as a journey for me to lighten my load and meld two of my favorite hobbies/forms of therapy together has become this article. I hope it helps you out if you too are either trying to figure out how to travel with your current guitar or are in the market for something more portable. In the very least, thanks for taking the time in getting to know another side of me.