Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Publish date:
Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

When you travel with a musical instrument, it''s usually because you have to, not because you want to. Instruments, especially the stringed variety, prefer to stay home tucked safely in their cases when they''re not being lovingly caressed by the musicians who own them. But working musicians must often subject their axes to a wide range of hostile conditions on the road: glaring summer sun, subzero winter days, careless handling by strangers, and airline baggage systems. In this article, I''ll tell you what awaits your instrument out in the cruel world and how you can avoid the inherent dangers of transit.

An old maxim states that your instrument will always be comfortable in the same environment that feels good to you, and it makes sense because humans are pretty finicky about ambient conditions. But a guitar can''t roll down the car window if it''s too hot, and a bass, despite its deep, commanding voice, cannot ask you to bring it in from the cold on a January night. It takes knowledge, vigilance, and sometimes quick thinking to keep instruments safe and intact throughout the rigors of travel.

The Case for Cases

A good case is the first line of protection against instrument-harming evils. There are plenty of options, and they fall into three general categories: soft cases; lightweight hard cases; and flight cases, those built-like-a-tank, impervious-to-everything portable vaults. Each has a distinct purpose–it''s up to you to decide which to use and when.

Soft cases . Soft cases are usually made out of abrasion-resistant woven-nylon cloth with internal stiffening and padding elements. The good ones aren''t cheap, but they do a reasonably good job of protecting an instrument when you carry it. The main benefit of soft cases is their lightness, as anyone who has carried a guitar or bass around for more than a few minutes in a heavy hard case can appreciate. If you travel by car from home to a local gig or to a teaching session, a soft case usually makes life easier. When evaluating those cases, check for tough, densely woven-nylon fabric covering; generous inside padding; high-quality zippers and fasteners; and strong internal stiffening panels (solid nylon or polyethylene, not cardboard). The best designs also feature extra storage compartments and versatile strap and handle configurations.

Hard cases. The most popular instrument case is the general-purpose hard-shell case. Some shells are harder than others, though, so use common sense in evaluating a design. Stiffness and rigidity are important, and the case''s size has a lot to do with how it will perform: the stiffness of materials is inversely proportional to size. It''s easy to design a lightweight and superrigid violin case, for instance, but bigger cases need to be much thicker and heavier to provide the equivalent stiffness.

The selection of suitable materials for larger cases is therefore more limited than it is for small ones. The two most common hard cases for guitars and basses are molded cases, made of high-impact polyethylene or ABS plastic (or sometimes fiberglass composites), and "built" cases, with sides and backs made of wood laminate and an outer covering of fabric or vinyl.

The claim to fame for molded cases is a combination of lightness, physical strength, rigidity, and reasonable cost. For years, molded cases have been the most popular type in the midrange price bracket. A molded guitar case weighs as little as five or six pounds and can provide good protection. These cases are susceptible to problems, though–some are made of thin polyethylene that bends, and others have cheap latches and hinges that may make you curse and grumble at each opening and closing.

Also, polyethylene melts–yes, melts–at temperatures lower than you''d imagine. If it reaches about 200 degrees Fahrenheit (not much higher than the temperature inside a closed automobile bathed in summer sunshine), the plastic begins to deform and warp. At temperatures just a little higher than that, it turns into an ugly, contorted mess. By the time the case gets that hot, the instrument will already have felt the heat, so to speak. If, however, you always take precautions against high temperature for the sake of the instrument, those cases will work just fine.

For built cases with an inner core of extremely rigid wood laminate, the main worry is that the outer covering will suffer abrasions. Those cases are heavy, but the really nice thing is that even after years of abuse, they still provide good basic protection to the instrument inside.

Flight cases. The vaunted heroes of instrument cases are the ultrarugged offerings from Caltron, Mark Leaf, and others, which include the fabled Air Transportation Association (ATA)—rated flight cases. These impenetrable barriers provide the highest level of protection for instruments in transit, but they have glaring disadvantages–they are expensive, bulky, and almost unbelievably heavy. They feature tough shells of solid fiberglass or molded materials and aluminum and stainless-steel hardware and trim. As good as they are at protecting the instrument within, they scream, "Steal me!" when left momentarily unattended. Thieves tend to understand that inside a $600 case lies a $3,000 instrument.

The Three Demons

Once you pick your case, you need to take a few more steps to protect your instrument from a trio of fiends waiting to assail unwary travelers.

Demon No. 1: temperature. Stringed instruments–whether guitar, bass, violin, mandolin, acoustic, or solidbody electric–have one thing in common: they are made primarily of wood, and wood is often highly sensitive to ambient thermal conditions. The range of tolerated temperatures is roughly the same as the human comfort range, about 50 to 90 degrees, though like people, wooden stringed instruments prefer a constant 70 to 75 degrees. At approximately 140 degrees (possible in a parked car on a sunny day), the glue that holds instruments together begins to liquefy, and an instrument can literally fall apart. Beyond the ambient temperature, instruments are also sensitive to temperature''s rate of change. Going quickly from hot to cold or cold to hot can cause all kinds of problems, from finish cracks to serious separation of glued joints. The kind of temperature-rate change that can cause damage is much more likely to occur while traveling than while the instrument is sitting in a building.

A good instrument case provides critical protection from temperature change as long as it has enough insulation or thermal mass to slow down the rate change at the instrument''s surface. Because of thermal rate-change problems, always leave the instrument in its case for a while if it has been subjected to an abnormally hot or cold environment. That simple precaution prevents potentially serious damage. Don''t peek in the case to see if everything''s okay–you''ll only accelerate the thermal rate change by immediately exposing the instrument.

The worst bearer of bad temperature is the sun. Direct sunlight on an instrument case, even when the ambient air temperature is moderate, can cause the temperature inside the instrument compartment to soar. Avoid exposure to sunlight, especially with dark-colored cases, whenever possible. That includes direct exposure to the sun while the instrument rides in the backseat of your comfortably air-conditioned car. Instead of placing it in the direct sunlight, cover it with a light-colored cloth or put the instrument in the trunk. Most recent-model cars feature flow-through ventilation that takes the tempered air from the passenger compartment through the trunk, moderating the temperature extremes there.

Generally, as long as the car is moving and the occupants are comfortable, your instruments should also be comfortable. A final word of caution: never leave an instrument sitting in the sun in a parked car, even if the temperature seems moderate.

Demon No. 2: mechanical damage. During travel, breakage and mechanical damage are always possibilities. Although you may treat your instrument with extreme care, inevitably people other than you–bus drivers, roadies, airport baggage handlers, limousine drivers, or other band members–will handle it, too, and they might not be as careful. Instruments in their cases tend to look rugged, so sometimes people assume they can be treated with abandon. You know better, and you can take steps to lessen the possibility of your axe showing up on the roadkill list.

The most common cause of mechanical injury is inadequate support and cushioning of the instrument within its case. That''s right–some of the worst damage comes from movement of the instrument inside the case, and often there is no external sign of damage. The assault comes when the case accidentally drops, falls from a shelf during transit, or merely tips over. The most frequently damaged area is at one of the weakest spots on a fretted instrument–near the top of the neck, where the headstock joins the fretboard. When a case slams against a hard surface with the right amount of force and in the right direction, the headstock (weighted by the added mass of solid metal tuning machines) gains enough momentum to snap right off.

Image placeholder title

Figure 1: The most vulnerable point on a guitar is where the headstock meets the fretboard, and it can suffer damage during transport (top). To prevent this kind of damage, place soft packing material in the case, both underneath and above that point (bottom).

That break is a serious injury to a fretted instru, and it''s difficult to repair. However, the best preventive action is --> (see Fig. 1). Simply make sure to cushion under (and over) the headstock as you pack the instrument in its case for transit. Some people use extra pairs of socks (you can never take enough socks on a trip!), crumpled newsprint, or wads of bubble wrap. The object is to restrict any possible movement of the headstock, so pack that area tightly. A snapped neck is one of the worst stringed-instrument tragedies but also one of the easiest to avoid.

Cases aren''t cheap, and you want them to last as long as possible, too. Abrasion and harsh contact with other objects damages cases. Most often, case hardware–latches, handles, and hinges–takes the brunt of the damage. In airport baggage-handling systems, some contact damage is almost inevitable, given enough trips and exposure. A better case helps, and really good ones feature hardware that doesn''t protrude and has no sharp tabs and edges sticking out.

Image placeholder title

Figure 2: The most secure case latch is the rotating twist lock (left). It's much less likely to open accidentally during transit than a convention latch is (right).

Speaking of tabs and edges sticking out, instruments have actually fallen out of their cases in transit because the latches somehow popped open. When you buy a case, check to make sure that its latch tabs will not open easily by bumping against things. My favorite latch is the rotating "twist lock" (see Fig. 2); it''s difficult to open accidentally once it''s fully rotated and snapped down. I advise against using the key locks provided by nearly every case maker, as the little keys are too easily misplaced. The person having the most difficulty getting the case open might turn out to be you. A better solution during transport is to cinch the case around its middle with a tight web belt (you can find them in hardware and auto-supply stores). That way, even if all the latches are sprung, the case will stay closed.

For added protection, some people like to use canvas or woven-nylon zippered case covers. Although it''s an extra hassle to open and close them, they really do protect the case itself from abrasion and keep objects from bumping against the latches and opening them.

Demon No. 3: loss. What could be worse than arriving at the gig destination and finding that your instrument–your soul and inspiration–is missing? Even if you get it back the next morning, your gig may be compromised or, worse, canceled. In air travel, temporary loss of baggage is common. The airlines almost always find your luggage, but usually many hours pass before they return it. The best way to think about guarding against loss is to think through the possibility of its happening. How is the instrument going to be lost? In whose possession will it be?

The surest way to prevent the loss of your instrument is to keep it in your personal possession at all times. That''s not always practical, but the possibility of loss should make you think twice before you toss your instrument in with the rest of the band''s gear when loading up a rented equipment truck or checking it as baggage when flying (more on airplanes later). Having it in hand or with a trusted associate generates peace of mind. Likewise, always be vigilant when carrying an instrument and waiting in public places. It''s not enough to keep your eyes on it–though it''s sometimes inconvenient, it''s better to keep your hands on your instrument in unfamiliar surroundings.

When you travel, you should tag your instrument right away with your name, address, and telephone number. Amazingly, that simple act can be crucial to retrieving an instrument quickly if it is lost or stolen. There sits your instrument in the unclaimed baggage area of the wrong airport, at the hotel security desk, or downtown at the police station. No one is exactly sure how it got there, but a name tag can make the difference between the authorities diligently trying to find you or shuffling the poor object off to the shelves of the lost and found. Attach a permanent name tag on the outside and a card with the same information somewhere on the inside, such as in an accessory pocket.

Despite all precautions, severe damage or loss is always a possibility. Special insurance covering a single instrument, a collection, or an entire band''s worth of gear is available at reasonable prices from specialized insurers (check the Internet and phone directories for sources) and as a perk to union members of the American Federation of Musicians.

Up in the Air

Air travel is a situation in which your instrument may be exposed to all three travel demons: extreme temperatures, mechanical damage, and outright disappearance. Traveling musicians often harbor misconceptions about where the dangers lie. The most useful attitude is to assume that dangers lurk everywhere during air travel–and they''re present from the time you unload your personal vehicle at the departure drive-up to the moment you retrieve your belongings at baggage claim.

At unfamiliar airports, trust no one while in public areas. In certain airports, grab-it-and-run thefts are common. Once you pass through security points, you''re slightly less at risk, but everywhere else, including baggage claim, security can be surprisingly light. At most American airports, almost anyone has free access to the baggage-claim area. Be vigilant–thefts can and do happen there, especially when the object is something as obvious as a guitar case. Luggage is not too appealing to thieves generally, but musical instruments are an easy mark.

Although the airlines have ever-increasing restrictions on carry-on items, one of the most reassuring things you can do when traveling by air is to carry your instrument onto the plane. Many instruments won''t fit in the sizing devices and containers you see in the boarding area, but they are often no larger or heavier than other carry-on luggage. You can decide whether your instrument in its case (or gig bag–they come in very handy) actually fits into the overhead compartments on the plane. If so, though it exceeds the regulation dimensions, you can politely and gingerly attempt to bring it on board.

You cannot, however, challenge the flight attendants and gate personnel. If they say no, they mean it, but generally they will offer to place the instrument in the aircraft''s baggage compartment. It''s called a gate check, and your instrument will be handed back to you as you exit the plane. Because your instrument is one of the last items loaded into the baggage compartment, heavy objects are unlikely to be placed on top of it. Don''t fear the temperature environment of the baggage area: on every commercial airliner, it is heated and pressurized just like the passenger seating areas.

Airport personnel often recommend that you tune down a guitar when traveling to lessen the tension on the neck and help prevent possible damage. However, that is not a proven preventive measure, and even seasoned guitar repair experts disagree about its potential effectiveness. I never tune down my strings when traveling, and I don''t see when it would ever help prevent damage.

A relatively recent development in commercial air travel is the use of regional jets. That new class of aircraft–a full-fledged, high-speed mini-airliner carrying 35 to 50 passengers–is quickly replacing the fleets of turboprop-powered "puddle jumpers" that travelers have grudgingly endured for many years. The new regional jets have overhead storage compartments, but interior space is severely limited, and taking most stringed instruments onboard is out of the question. The good part is that because most midsize and larger carry-on luggage won''t fit either, the airlines created procedures for gently handling those items. Just before boarding, you place items on a baggage cart at the plane''s side. Some newer airports use jetways to board the baby jets, and you place your items in a special container at the top of the jetway. At your destination, the items are waiting for you as you leave the plane. In practice, it is amazingly efficient, and, wonder of wonders, guitar-size objects are nonissues with the airline personnel.

Bon Voyage

It might seem like a hassle to clutter your mind with all these details when traveling with your instrument. Almost everything in this article, however, was gleaned from personal experience. Once, my guitar was stolen from me right under my nose in a public place (it''s a long story, but the name tag on the handle was the key to its eventual return). My faithful 1965 Harmony electric had its neck cracked at the headstock during travel handling. A fabulous old Martin had its top punctured by a case latch''s sharp point when it was picked up, case closed but unlatched, by a helpful soul who thought it should move to a "safer spot."

Last year, while staying at a friend''s house on the road, I thought my guitar was perfectly safe sitting in its case on the living-room floor until a curious odor awoke me the next morning. I went into the living room to find the case melted and smoking–it was three feet away from a gas fireplace, turning into the kind of contorted mess I alluded to earlier. Thus I learned (the hard way) about the melting characteristics of molded cases. Luckily, the instrument inside was undamaged.

So take heed: always pay attention to the health of your instrument while on the road (not to mention your own health!), and may all your voyages be pleasant ones.

Pat Kirtley is a touring guitarist, producer, and composer, and the 1995 National Fingerstyle Guitar champion. His latest CD is Just Listen, and he''s featured on a new acoustic collection from Narada called Guitar Fingerstyle 2. He is also one of ten national clinicians who perform for Taylor Guitars.