Strings for the Road: guitars and similar things go backpacking

Despite my best efforts, life is settling back to normal, with such undesirable elements such as a steady job and a place to call home creeping inevitably into view. Still, the few scant months of no fixed abode were fun. Travel is as much a passion as music, and in some ways, the two go hand in hand. But a guitar’s not always an easy travelling companion.

Of course, the guitar’s great success as a music-making machine stems not only from its versatility but its portability. That being said, when you’re planning on doing a bit of backpacking on a budget, lugging your favoured instrument around the back of beyond isn’t always an appealing option. It’s unwieldy, and it’s likely to get into all kinds of knocks and scrapes. My main guitar isn’t particularly expensive, but even so, I baulk at the thought of it lurching about atop a fifty-year old mini bus, rattling down a dirt road, with only a fabric carry case to protect it from the elements. Yet the thought of going travelling for a goodly stretch without something to play is equally unappealing.

Here are some solutions I’ve tried out over the years.

An old beat-up guitar

Being so ubiquitous as they are, if you play for long enough, a second, third or fourth hand guitar is likely to fall into your lap at some point. For all of us who play, there must be an equal number of friends and family who picked up a cheap guitar, gave it a go, gave it up, and let it languish in the dusty corner of a spare bedroom for years. It’s often easy to liberate such forgotten relics for your own purposes. In my case I found a forgotten guitar mouldering atop a cupboard at work, stringless and caked in so much grime it looked like it had been abandoned to the ash cloud of some volcanic eruption. In this case I didn’t even ask, instead concluding anyone mistreating their instrument so didn’t deserve to keep possession of it. I swiped it.

The beat-up guitar providing some tunes during some fruitless attempts at hitchhiking on Laotian back roads.

Even so, I didn’t particularly hold the thing in high esteem. It sounded better with strings, but only a little. Even after a liberal oiling, tuning the guitar produced creaks and groans reminiscent of an old galleon at full sail.

But my disregard was liberating. We went on several trips to Laos together, and the whole time I was happily unburdened by any concern for its welfare. I cast it casually into the back of pick-ups and tuk-tuks, squeezed it into too-tightly packed luggage compartments of buses, showed nary a wince at each woody clonk of rough-handling. I left it out overnight with the elements. I played it in the rain. Having come to me without the parting of hard cash, I was content knowing that should it be crushed, warped, set alight or stolen I wouldn’t shed a tear.

Of course, the guitar responded to this abuse by sounding better and better. In fact it proved quite invincible and eventually I gave it to a friend who had a greater need than me.

A ukulele

Of course, the cheapest guitar in the world is still of a size to make it inconvenient when backpacking; limited means usually mean one isn’t graced with a lot of luggage room, especially amongst the four to a seat, lemon crates in the aisle and goats on the roof conditions which mark the very best bus journeys the world has to offer. Although there are especially designed travel guitars available, they always seemed like a bit of a waste to me – effectively paying for something which might be convenient for the road but is ultimately inferior in all other spheres.

So instead of finding another guitar to go travelling, I instead decided to get a ukulele*.

uke small
Playing ukulele on the Padas Damit river in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Sorry about the knees.

Now the ukulele’s incredible resurgence of late is at risk of making it a bit passé, but I’ve never been cool. Despite the damage done by all the teenagers playing Taylor Swift covers in their bedrooms the world over, the ukulele’s got a wonderful sound I always get a kick out of. They’re tremendously popular in Malaysia (check out Borneo’s own Zee Avi for instance), and of course living a stone’s throw from the beach inspired that certain island sound.

Obviously, one of the great benefits of a ukulele is it’s tiny. You can take it just about anywhere – it’s not going to raise any objections if you carry it onto a plane, for instance. Mine flew to South America under my seat. It’s also very easy to play – which of course is a blessing for people just starting out.

Yet for someone who’s already been bashing away on guitars for over a decade, I quickly found my uke’s simplicity somewhat limiting. A ukulele only has four strings, which in standard tuning follow those of a guitars highest four strings, but with an important exception – what would be the lowest string on the guitar is an octave higher on a ukulele. When you strum all the strings, the first thing your fingers hit is this higher string, giving the ukulele its distinctive happy sound.

At the end of the day this means you don’t play the ukulele the same way as a guitar. As fingerpicker, the absence of bass strings to explore and add some counterpoint to the trebles was something I really felt. Whilst the ukulele is definitely fun to play, I am always aware I’ve got a broader palette of possibilities on the guitar.

A guitalele

Luckily enough, it seems there is a best of both worlds. At the end of last year I got hold of a Yamaha guitalele. A guitalele is basically a ukulele-sized guitar, but retains some of the ukelele’s lilting sound. I’d fiddled around with a guitalele a few times in Hollywood Music in Kota Kinabalu, and been  little worried about its relative lack of volume and getting my fat fingers around its cramped fretboard. However, it wasn’t too expensive, so eventually I threw caution to the wind and bought one.

Playing guitalele around the campfire in Egypt.

Crucially, because the guitalele has exactly the same configuration as a guitar capoed at the 5th fret, you can compose guitar pieces on it whilst enjoying the portability of a ukulele. That being said, it has a sound all of its own. If you’ve been following some of the songs I’ve posted on the blog of late you’ll notice I’ve been giving the guitalele a lot of love. In many cases, I’ve set out to write guitar songs on the guitalele whilst travelling but concluded I like playing them on the guitalele better. A little bit of practice was all I needed to adapt to the smaller fretboard – in fact it’s trickier re-adapting to space of a proper guitar’s neck!

So my conclusion – the guitalele is a great companion for a musician travelling light; not only as a stand-in for a guitar, but also as a bona-fide second instrument.


* Well, to be absolutely truthful, I bought it for my wife, then nabbed it. But that’s another story.

Strings for the Road: guitars and similar things go backpacking