Are you planning to fly with a guitar or bass?
Mention ‘Instruments and airlines’ to musicians and in no time you’ll have enough horror stories to write a book. I interviewed a guitar luthier recently who remarked that a touring guitarist had brought a six-thousand-pound acoustic guitar in for repair straight after landing, it had a snapped neck.
The repair was completed in time for him to fly out to the next leg of his shows. Imaging the silence between the repair guy and the guitarist when he walks back into the shop a few weeks late... it had happened again! This, of course, is a bit extreme and we can’t assume this happens on every flight, but it is by no means a rare occurrence and not just with guitars.
Check-out before you check-in
Indeed, there are airline’s rules and regulations and now laws that protect and describe the do’s and don’ts of flying with instruments. There are often provisions for instruments and some companies will allow a gig bag in the overhead locker, and you may be lucky if there’s room in one of the coat closets up front. To be sure though, if there is no alternative way to get to your destination other than flying with your instrument, it’s highly recommended you research and check out various airlines and their carry-on policies before you book the flight. Be polite at the desk, lots of smiles and pretty pleases, the last thing you want to hear is that the soft gig bag on your shoulder is going to be deemed to hell and back in the freezing, dark depths of the aircraft hold.
We are of course looking at gig bags here, not a weighty, reinforced steel plated flight cases that are designed for downstairs. Fusion gig bags are robust, lightweight and built for the travelling musician, with ‘hand pouches’ front and back so it can be carried upright as you search for your seat. And, of course inside, the instruments are snug and safe with essential headstock support, which relieves the worry and anxiety, and all the accessories are tucked away in compartments.
If you don’t have a Fusion case (ugh?) you should pack it like there’s no tomorrow, with socks, towels, t-shirts, shorts and whatever, and don’t forget with that lot in there, you ‘are’ going to empty it all out at the security check-in. Guitars are fragile and there’s a chance those loose accessories may damage the neck, fingerboard or body finish. Get a decent gig bag.
Ok, we made it, we’re in the air and munching complimentary crisps and nuts and… Ah….did you loosen the strings? It’s recommended that you loosen the strings a day before the flight. Even a light set of strings can put over 200 Lbs of pressure on a guitar neck. Solid bodied electric guitars are more robust of course, but still, need extra care, but it’s the good old acoustic guitar that’s so vulnerable.
If you are flying to a warmer or colder climate, there could be three different temperature changes including the one in the cabin, which, along with alternating air pressure can induce enough strain to split a soundboard or snap a mahogany neck. A digital hydrometer is a good investment to keep in the case for travelling and for home use and there are some excellent acoustic guitar humidification products available designed for both home and on the move.
Picture on Instagram by @ladybassmusic on Southwest Airline
How vital is it to take the actual guitar you are flying with? Probably essential If you are a touring musician with a string of gigs lined up. If it’s just for a holiday companion or social activities, you should seriously consider a travel guitar. They’re not toys any more.
Some of the new manufactured smaller bodied electric and acoustic guitars designed for this purpose are now constructed from the finest tonewoods, sound great and play just as good. They’re also fine for the gigging musician. Some electric travel guitars even have folding necks now. More to the point, the chance of walking straight in the cabin and putting a travel guitar in the overhead is far greater than a full-sized guitar.
Just a thought, if you are flying with an irreplaceable vintage classic, worth a fortune, maybe you should think wisely… should you be flying in the first place? At least book the guitar a seat.
Article by Lars Mullen
Photos by Josiah Woodson
About the Author
With over 30 years in the music business, Lars Mullen does indeed wear many hats, as a writer, journalist, photographer, press person for his own company Music Media Announcements. As an extensive traveller, he's a familiar figure reporting from music trade shows around the world. Spending many years touring as a professional guitarist, Lars has also interviewed a host of top bands and artists, continues to write articles for magazines globally and still finds time to track down Fusion artists for our Artist Spotlight column.