If you’re a working musician, or at least planning to be, you’re gonna have to take your instruments on the road at some point — your very valuable, very sentimentally important, rare, custom, and unique instruments. Did you just get a tiny wave of anxiety? You’re not alone.
Traveling with instruments can mean everything from buckling your flute up in the passenger seat of your car, to chucking your ukulele beneath a Greyhound bus, to booking your cello its own seat on an international flight. It’s a pretty scary experience a lot of the time. What happens if you get to your gig and your instrument got wrecked? What happens if it’s somehow lost, delayed in customs, or stolen?
Aside from the sentimental and logistical toll these mishaps can take on your ability to perform, they can also directly affect your livelihood. So here are five quick tips you can use to start better protecting your gear, immediately.
1. Invest in a great case.
I’ve seen quite a few musicians on airplanes stuffing their guitars into overhead compartments while packed in a flimsy case — basically padded cloth and little else. I bite my tongue and deal with my rising blood pressure quietly. If you’ve done this before with success, you may count yourself lucky, but please don’t push that luck any further.
A high-quality soft-shell case does have its uses: It’s lightweight, so you can wear it on your back for when you’re walking to gigs and rehearsals; and it’s quick and easy to pack up. But for on the road, where anything unexpected can (and usually will) happen, you should seriously consider a solid hard-shell case for your instrument.
These cases are dependable and can really take a beating. Guitars typically fit snugly inside (there’s often molding to protect from impact), although you may need to buy a case that’s custom-fit to your instrument, or at least be able to cut it to size yourself. They’re usually made to be slung around and even dropped from excessive heights with no damage to the instrument inside. What’s more, these cases almost always come with a long-term warranty (this will vary by manufacturer) that may cover the case for as long as you own it.
There are a ton of great cases and companies that specialize in specific instruments out there, so make sure to check which are recommended for your instrument, in particular. Gator, for instance, has many affordable entry-level cases for musicians on a budget. Another great option is SKB. Their cases are very solid and they even make a waterproof line of cases for extra protection. You also can’t go wrong with Anvil cases; a lot of my professional musician friends use these. Although they’re more expensive, they’re built like tanks and last for years. Anvils are, however, very heavy and cumbersome — so I’d personally only consider these if you’re established enough to have a roadie or crew helping you out.
2. Prepare your case internally.
We all know that the air pressure in the cabin and storage spaces on airplanes can vary. Air pressure, itself, as well as sudden temperature changes, can wreck an instrument. So if you’re flying with an instrument that has strings on it, loosen them. Otherwise, the pressure of the strings can cause stress on the wood, leading to cracks and even a snapped headstock.
Also, be sure to secure anything loose in the case — picks, capos, tuners, cables, etc. — or take them out altogether. If it’s a well-made case, odds are everything fits pretty snugly in a compartment built for those items, but there’s still always a chance things may jiggle around and hurt your instrument!
Lastly, depending on your instrument, you may need to get a humidifier for your case. Humidity, like air pressure and temperature, can wreak havoc on wood. Planet Waves makes a great product, Humidipak, which can help regulate your case internally.
3. Know your rights.
Airlines have long been difficult to deal with, each with its own rules and treatment procedures. But fortunately, your rights as a musician have become enshrined in law (thanks, Obama)! Airlines can no longer charge you excessive fees for boarding with your instrument, and must count any small instrument (guitar, violin, etc.) as a carry-on.
Does that mean you’re not going to get hassled? Well, not exactly. It’s always a real possibility that the overhead bins will be full and you’ll need to check your guitar after all — yet another reason to make sure you’re traveling with a flight-approved hard-shell case, rather than a gig bag. No matter what, remember to lock your case as an extra precaution.
The American Federation of Musicians also has some great tips and resources for musicians who have to fly to gigs.
4. Be aware of your surroundings.
Some of this is common sense, but it’s worth repeating. Never go into an area that gives you a “bad vibe” with expensive gear. If you’re parking the tour van somewhere, make sure the area is well-lit, somewhat active, and not totally isolated, and try to ask the venue’s advice about the safest place to park. When loading or unloading, never leave your gear unattended — always stay where you can at least keep an eye on it, or have a friend or band member do so if you can’t.
Never leave instruments or gear (or other critical items, like passports and laptops) in the car, but if you absolutely have to, make sure to conceal them as best as you can. And on that note, try to remove any indication that this is a “band van” — thieves will see your out-of-state plates and assume there are things to loot inside.
Another smart move is to have a label identifying the instrument as yours in an inconspicuous place, perhaps in the case somewhere or even on the instrument, itself. Pictures of you and your instrument can help, too, in case the worst happens and you need to prove ownership to the police. Have these on your phone at all times.
5. Look into instrument insurance.
A final point: If you’re going to be on the road regularly, travel or gear insurance is a must. Most of us aren’t rich enough to afford to buy a whole new instrument, or fork over cash for extensive repairs, so you always have to expect that the worst will happen.
You can get as much or as little coverage as you need. Want your stuff covered in the event of an earthquake or flood? What about if your practice space gets robbed, or you lose your instrument on tour? Some big insurance companies may cover instruments (so if you have home owner’s or renter’s insurance, check your policy), but there are a few that specialize in music equipment, specifically. Clarion has been around for 50 years, and has unique policies that can be tailored to each musician’s needs. They also have a national dealer network, so you can get taken care of anywhere in the country. Another solid name, MusicPro, is co-owned by our friends at ASCAP. They offer extensive coverage, as well, with a $100 deductible per incident, and aim to wrap claims up within 48 hours.
If you haven’t thought about any of this yet, the best time to get prepared is now. By getting a great case, instrument insurance, and thinking smart about where and how you load in your gear, you’ll save yourself a ton of grief and aggravation — and not to mention, money — in the future. It never hurts to be smart and prepared!
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