Previous Next

Feature photo by Ken@Okinawa. Photo above by Ed Yourdon

FOR THE MAJORITY of musicians, making music keeps us sane and grounded. Music is an extension of who we are, an aspect of our personality. Too long without music and we end up like my poor houseplants – wilted and ready to die.

Unfortunately, most instruments don’t lend themselves to travel, especially if you’re trying to keep your pack weight low. Imagine schlepping your backpack along for a mile in the rain to board a crowded train.

Now imagine doing that while carrying an acoustic guitar.

Photo by Photomish Dan

Maybe, like me, your main instruments are bass or piano. Or, maybe the thought of even letting the airlines look at your guitar gives you nightmares.

If you choose to leave your primary instrument at home, you will need to learn a new, smaller instrument for travel. Choosing a new instrument to learn is not a choice to be made lightly.

To become even mediocre will take hours and hours of practice, but this time investment will pay great dividends when you find that perfect spot for an impromptu concert.

Plus, learning to play well is a matter of common courtesy. Have you ever heard a poorly played violin? Did it remind you of a dying marmot?

In the following list, I’ve tried to avoid miniature travel versions of real instruments. With the exception of the Martin Backpacker, these are all ‘real’ instruments. For those who can sing, the first seven instruments on the list are good for accompaniment. All others are solo instruments.

Finally, in an effort to improve the quality of sleep for hostel guests around the world, I have omitted djembes and other hand drums.

Guitar

If you really have to take a guitar, the Martin Backpacker has a decent sound, a low price, and plays well. If you’re really brave, you could always take your chances with hostel guitars.

Mandolin

Mandolins require a little more care than some of the others, especially to maintain decent tuning, but give you a good range and the ability to make chords. Not the best choice if you have large fingers. If you are interested in playing the instrument, you can buy a mandolin online.

Accordion

These come in several shapes and sizes, and it’s possible to find small models of reasonable quality.

Autoharp

A unique, folksy instrument, the autoharp allows you to play a melody over chords while singing. Like a zither but easier to play because of the chord buttons.

Ukulele

Another good accompaniment instrument. Cheap and versatile, but can’t match the mandolin in terms of sound quality and resonance.

Violin/Fiddle

Possibly the most difficult and expressive instrument on the list. If you can play violin well, you already know how awesome your instrument is.

Erhu

The Erhu is a two string Chinese violin. This delicate instrument requires a hell of an ear but wins hand down for uniqueness. With the right case (think hard foam padding), this could be a remarkable travel instrument.

Recorders

You probably learned to play one of these in school. What this instrument lacks in range it makes up for in low-weight quirkiness.

Clarinet

Not the lightest or easiest instrument on the list, but definitely the dorkiest. Conveniently breaks down into a small package. Pads and reeds could pose a problem, especially in subtropical zones.

Flute

A pretty instrument, difficult to play well, but a little easier to play than the clarinet. Like the clarinet, pads will require extra care. As a bonus you can play along with Jethro Tull covers.

Harmonica

The harmonica is almost a travel cliché. Lightweight, cheap, durable, and reasonably easy to play. Unfortunately, anyone you play with is limited to whatever key your harp happens to be in.

Ocarina

An instrument so light and smooth it can be worn as a necklace. Against all conventions of fashion, people do just this. Cheap and easy to play, but limited in range.

Bonus Instrument – Your Own Mouth

You’re already carrying your own mouth with you, why not use it? The most lightweight instrument of all, you can both whistle and sing.

If this is going to be your main instrument, learn some songs. Pop songs, folk songs, and Irish airs are a good place to start.

Over to you. What kind of instruments have you seen or taken on your travels?

Community Connection

For more on traveling as a musician, check out Essential Gear for the Traveling Musician and 5 Things You Should Know When Traveling With Musical Instruments.

 

 

About The Author

Seth Baker

Seth M. Baker is a musician, traveler, writer, entrepreneur, and teacher currently living in Seoul, South Korea. He once walked over 700 miles through the forests of Appalachia. Now he writes about creativity, focus, travel, and art at http://www.happenchance.net

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/michelles Michelle

    Thanks for leaving off the djembe. That poor drum…wonderful instrument, but get a few drinks into pretty much anyone and they think they’re a master.

    Great list! Schlepping big instruments overseas is definitely the ultimate labor of love.

  • http://nancythegnomette.com Nancy

    Great list! To represent the Southern (US) contingency, I would add the banjo to that list too.

  • http://backpackaustralia.net Ben | Backpacking Australia

    Good post!

    I bought a harmonica about a year ago, and play now and then while I’m at home, Great instrument, but too bad that you need to be preeetty good before you can play together with other instruments.

  • http://carlo-alcos.com Carlo

    Nice list. For the record, the mini Martin sounds surprisingly full, almost like a full size guitar. I have a slightly smaller Washburn travel guitar but it sounds a bit more tinny than the Martin, and it’s a bit quieter.

    In Vietnam I picked up a dan moi. This is a cool little instrument. If you use your imagination it sounds a little like a dijeridoo.

    Also, add shakers to your list!! Everyone loves shakers.

  • http://www.carlo-alcos.com Carlo Alcos

    Yargh…I left a comment and it disappeared! Here goes again.

    This is a nice list. For the record, the mini Martin sounds surprisingly full for such a small guitar. I have the slightly smaller Washburn travel guitar. It’s a bit tinnier sounding and isn’t as loud.

    In Vietnam I bought a dan moi. This is a cool little instrument. If you use your imagination it sounds a little like a dijeridoo.

    Add shakers to the list. Everyone loves shakers.

  • http://www.happenchance.net Seth M Baker

    @Michelle. Yeah, I was at a party a little over a year ago and, having had a few drinks, I decided I would show off my djembe skills. I thought I was great, and so did the neighbors: they sent the police to tell me how much they enjoyed my performance.

    @Nancy. I wanted to include the banjo, but it’s kind of heavy. Would certainly be a unique instrument almost anywhere in the world.

    @Ben. Harp is a lot of fun, but I could figure out the note bends.

    @Carlo. Thanks for the recommendation on the dan moi. I should be in Vietnam soon, so I’ll keep my eye out for one.

  • http://matadortravel.com/node/117516 XtremXpert

    Thanks for your list. I consider buying an Ocarina.

  • http://www.dv247.com/drums-and-percussion/ Drum Kits

    I am music loving person and I always travel with my guitar as without it I feel alone.

  • Ben

    Hey,

    Thanks for the tips. I like to travel with an keyless Irish flute made out of plastic. Keyless means there are no metal keys on the flute; your fingers are the pads — it’s just a plastic tube with holes in it.

    I have cleaned it using shower nozzles, dipping it in the ocean, etc. pretty easy to take care of and rather fun to play.

  • http://www.willripley.com/ Vancouver Guitar Teacher

    How about just bringing your laptop and playing with the virtual instruments?.. You can bring up a whole band of instrument with this.

  • http://gazzan.net/ Gazzan

    Great list! Schlepping big instruments overseas is definitely the ultimate labor of love.

  • Meredith

    I’ve traveled with an erhu before. It is small and light enough to carry around fairly easily (though it is awkwardly long – it won’t fit into the overhead compartment on planes, which was a bit of an issue for me), but it’s really delicate. I was constantly terrified the python skin would rip, or the neck would break. On the other hand, it IS quite an impressive instrument to pull out.

  • http://www.chennaidirectory.com Lisa

    Its a nice list seth, especially i like the bonus instrument! Thanks for such an useful article, i will bookmark and share with my friends

  • Costa

    I’m leaving for Senegal soon and I wanted to buy a melodica. Anyone play the melodica and if so what do you think about traveling with it?

  • http://www.happenchance.net Seth

    I’m sure a melodica would be a fine instrument for travel. The ratio of weight to range is okay. The only drawback is that you couldn’t sing with it. But maybe you could get other people to do the singing.

  • J P

    Great list Seth,
    Have to agree with the Uke. Great for camp fire jammin.

  • Harpmaker

    Travel harps and mandolins here:
    http://www.selkiestrings.co.uk

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jayaprakash-Gangadharan/100002078379996 Jayaprakash Gangadharan

    i am jayaaprakash
    inventer&performar SUSHIRI World Smallest Musical Instrument
    Wight 0.5mg(as limca book of records)

  • Charmingbelle

    Penny whistle! Smaller than a recorder, you can get one for $5, one of the easier instruments to play, and incredibly versatile! Also built like a brick – not much to damage, and can take abuse that make other instruments weep!

  • You

    Jaw Harp

  • Lava

    I would add the charango, same tuning as the ukulele but richer sound wise due to unison strings and an extra course.

As much as anything, travel is about discovering new music.
Back before YouTube, people got their entertainment from traveling minstrels.
Ethnomusicologists travel broadly and help to preserve culture.
Ondrej Glogar lends his impressive didgeridoo skills to Daniels Baylis's camera.
When the advisories go out, when the chairlifts shut down because of wind, and the chain...
The rhythm of a street drummer banging on buckets is remixed to be the heartbeat of NYC.
You beat your way to the next great "undiscovered" village, the ultimate "secret" beach....
Fancy trucking equipment around the world for the gods and goddesses of Rock?
"..in storytelling these bottom-places are often the cruxes, the moments that hold it...
How do publications' policies on what a writer can and can't accept for gifts or comps...
Are guidebooks still worth the paper they're printed on? Maybe. Fact is, they're still...
And the radio/MP3 player + 1,000 songs goes to......
Haven't got time to sort through and download thousands of music files to create the...