Why a so-called travel guitar rather than my preferred instrument, my Martin 000-18? Because, quite simply, I don’t want to risk it in some alien environment but mostly because I absolutely do not trust the baggage handler gorillas employed by the airlines. I want to take the guitar with me on the airplane.
Over the last 15 years many companies have begun producing guitars for just this purpose. I’ve tried quite a few of them and I thought I’d outline what I did and didn’t like about each. You may have different opinions. That’s just fine but what you’ll be reading are my opinions based on real use, not some stock press release or a review in a magazine that might be beholden to its advertisers. Here is an overview of the five I have some experience with.
My first one was the Martin Backpacker. I ordered it with some trepidation, as it is a strange looking little thing, long and skinny and not promising much in the way of tone or volume. Advantages: Yes, easy to transport; comes with a padded bag, narrow but playable nut width; low cost. Disadvantages: As I feared, thin, weak sound; strap use required (for me anyway) to hold in playing position. Just a weird little instrument. I sold it as soon as I returned. I am frankly surprised Martin still offers it.
Next, Martin LX1. Essentially a half size guitar made with a solid spruce top and Martin’s HPL (High Pressure Laminate) sides, back and neck; composite fingerboard and bridge. Sold with a good quality padded bag with shoulder straps and storage compartments. I liked this guitar compared to the Backpacker, but it lists for about $100 more (retail of $299.00; used for about $200 - $225). Advantages: Easily fits in overhead compartments on most planes, although you may get dirty looks from other passengers who are jockeying for precious overhead space. Decent sounding and playing compared to similar guitars from other manufacturers, albeit with a 1 11/16” nut width the neck may be too narrow for some players. The HPL is just about bullet proof. Disadvantages: Still fairly weak in terms of volume and overall tone compared to a “real” guitar. Still, not too expensive and would also make a great guitar for a child beginning to learn. Martin is now making a few versions of this with other wood laminates; I have no experience with these.
Blackbird Rider Steel String Composite travel guitar. I didn’t own this one but one of my very well-off students did. I say this because with a list price of $1685 and he bought it for use on his sailboat as he cruises the British Virgin Islands every winter, he was definitely a different class of guitar buyer than yours-truly. He brought it to a couple lessons and I played it a fair amount. You can go to the Blackbird site for specifics on this guitar. Advantages: All graphite construction makes it all but impervious to just about anything Mother Nature can dish out. Very good fit and finish; comes with good quality padded bag. Plays easily and is comfortable to hold for a very small guitar. The sound is quite remarkable, not exactly like a wood guitar but pleasing with surprising volume and sustain. Disadvantages: Price! Costing mote than most recreational players might spend on their primary guitar, it is most likely out of the reach for the vast majority of the guitar buying public. Also, it is a strange looking thing… but that may just be Old School Gene talking! Anyway, I probably won’t be buying one of these! There are a few other companies making graphite travel guitars that get good reviews but again, the price seems to be uniformly high. Whatever floats your boat, as they say. Sorry for the bad pun ;~)
Taylor GS Mini. Not to be confused with the Baby Taylor, which is similar to Martin LX1 except it doesn’t sound as good. The GS Mini is a fine guitar – I have owned three of them. Approximately ¾ size, it is not inexpensive with a list price of about $499 (depending on the model; there are a few) but it is much closer to a full size guitar in all the positive respects. Comes with a high quality padded bag. Advantages: Excellent fit and finish, with a solid spruce top (on the standard model) and the laminate sides and back seem to be a bit thinner and therefore more resonant than Martin’s version, to my ears anyway. The slightly arched back may contribute to this also as it has no braces. Plays fast and easy and although it has a 1 11/16” nut width, it feels a bit wider, plus the neck profile is a bit flatter, making for easier playing. Disadvantages: Very few. While this still must be classified as a travel guitar due to its size, it compares very favorably to many smaller bodied full-size guitars.
Voyage Air VAOM04. This is the one I bought for my recent trip to the Florida Keys. When these guitars appeared on the market a few years ago there was a great buzz about them: they are designed with a hinged neck so the guitar can be “folded up” and stored in the specially designed padded bag, which is supposed to easily fit in the overhead bins of most airplanes. One of my students had one (not this model, there are quite a few ranging from OM to D size) and I was not particularly impressed with the sound but I figured, what the heck, I’ll try this one. It cost just under $600. Advantages: Yes, it folds. The design is quite revolutionary and the neck connects with a large set screw that is tightened by hand – fast and easy. The sound was surprisingly good, probably because this is a full size OM when assembled, with a solid top, scalloped braces, rosewood bridge and good quality mahogany laminate back and sides. Solid mahogany neck and rosewood fingerboard. Disadvantagres: I am not sure if this was just the instrument that I ordered, but when it arrived the frets edges protruded and needed some dressing with a fret file. I had serious concerns about repeatedly slacking the strings and then tuning them up to play, and sure enough, the second time I did this the high E string snapped. No big deal I guess but the prospect of breaking string often is a turn off to me. But my biggest complaint is that on this guitar at least, the angle of the fretboard attached to the top was higher than the fretboard on the neck when the guitar was assembled. This could not be remedied with the truss rod adjustment. Result, a choice of very high action or annoying buzzes above the 7th fret. And it was not inexpensive, by any means. So, back it goes to the place I bought it.
Bottom line: Just about every manufacturer is making a travel guitar. I’m sure there are others that are just fine, but my experience shows that you can’t go wrong with a Taylor GS Mini. And remember – I am as hard core a Martin guy as you’ll find! Good luck in your search for a travel guitar, it is a purchase you will be glad you made if you travel a lot and can’t imagine being without a guitar for a long period of time. I would love to hear from readers about their favorites because I may be looking for something new for my next trip, unless I go back to a GS Mini of course!
Peace & good music,