If you’ve ever tried traveling with a full-size guitar, you know the headaches involved. Fortunately, a new group of builders has emerged to keep you playing without the hassle. We take a look at the travel guitar and where it can take you.
For years, professional musicians and hobbyists alike have enjoyed traversing the globe with their favorite guitars and amps. But as airlines have increased volume, capacity and flight frequency, musicians have been left to simply hope and pray that their prized possessions will arrive at their final destination in one piece. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, an average of 10,000 bags a day were lost or mishandled in American airports in 2005, the worst number since 1990. The odds of losing luggage continue to skyrocket with no solution in sight.
To make matters worse, airlines are only liable for compensation if your luggage is damaged due to their negligence, and fragile articles are often excluded from that provision (i.e. your guitar). Throughout the years, the musical community has heard countless horror stories of peers losing their favorite rigs to the black hole known as baggage handling. From destroyed electronics to cracked fretboards, many musical adventures have turned into musical tragedies.
In a post-9/11 climate, those traveling with their gear have encountered shrinking size requirements and thorough inquisitions during baggage checks. While many players continue to cross their fingers and hope for a pleasant reunion with their checked guitar upon arrival, an emerging group of builders in the guitar industry are working within the FAA’s firm regulations to make guitars more portable. Their mission makes sense: allow players to keep their guitars with them at all times.
Travel guitars – essentially guitars that meet the FAA requirements of a length, width and depth of less than 45” – have slowly incorporated themselves into the lines of major companies (for example, Taylor’s Baby Taylor and Big Baby models), but as one quickly discovers, all travel guitars aren’t created equal. With their focus remaining on full-sized guitar production, companies like Fender and Dean have simply reduced some of their popular models and decreased the number of frets. Unfortunately, these downsized guitars don’t give true travel guitars and their innovative luthiers enough credit.
“I don’t think there is a company out there without a travel guitar. What we are always saying is that we are full-scale, and we mean a full scale of 25 ½” or 24 ¾”, so we don’t pull any punches that way,” explains Corey Oliver, CEO of Traveler Guitar. He has helped develop and market some of the most original full-scale electric travel guitars since taking over the Redlands, California based company in the mid-nineties. All their guitars fit inside the conveniently-sized Traveler Guitar gig bag and measure within FAA requirements. Although the idea seems simple enough, creating an ideal travel guitar is no small task.
|Traveler Guitar CEO Corey Oliver displaying a range of models at the 2008 NAMM Show
Travel guitar luthiers have to contend not only with travel regulations regarding size, but also have to appeal to guitarists of the 21st century. Removing excess mass, lowering weight and creating an eye-catching design while maintaining a high-quality sound and tone are just a sampling of the challenges facing these builders every day. But for innovative people in a pinch, obstacles like these often cultivate unconventional and effective results.
“In 1981, I improvised my first Vagabond travel guitar before a trip by using a former locker room bench, an old classical guitar fretboard and other scavenged parts,” says Kevin Smith, founder and luthier of Vagabond Guitars. Smith, like many other travel guitar creators, manufactured a lightweight prototype out of personal necessity rather than entrepreneurial spirit. The result has led to a burgeoning career as a builder based in Castleton, New York. Most of the work behind a handcrafted Vagabond guitar is completed by Smith and a few trusted employees.
Phil Green, founder of Miranda Guitars, located in picturesque Los Altos, California, comes from an even more unlikely background. During the 1970s and 1980s, Green researched and developed two prominent contributions to the medical field: ultrasonic imaging and minimally invasive “robotic” surgery. Although Green received high acclaim for his medical accomplishments, he always wanted to fulfill a long-held dream of conceptualizing a “full-sized guitar with the portability of a violin, yet the feel, playability and full-bodied sound of an acoustic instrument.”
As time passed, Green slowly became taken with the recurring thought of creating a compact, reliable travel guitar. Operating on pure imagination and determination, he hit the ground running and built his own guitar company based on a concept of a take-apart guitar. Green and his cohorts at Miranda have been in production for the past five years.
Don’t Mess With a Good Thing
Green and Smith both have origin stories worthy of Fortune Small Business, but Traveler Guitar’s Corey Oliver has an equally ambitious tale of stumbling upon the business of travel guitars. In 1995, Oliver had a prototype for the Pro Series – Traveler’s first guitar – fall into his lap, inspiring him to become financially invested in the company. Soon after, Oliver took control and put production into high gear; these days, Oliver and his Traveler team have over ten different models of acoustic and electric travel guitars. The company has even spawned a travel bass, the Escape MK-II. Out of the three companies we talked to, Traveler Guitar has the largest selection of full-sized electric travel guitars, including a variety of color, size and shape options.
“We are the first to admit our guitars can’t be used around campfires,” says Oliver, referring to the fact that their guitars are designed for silent practice through headphones or with an amp. “But when it comes to size, portability and a full-scale neck, we’ve got that lock, stock and barrel. Our range is fantastic. We’ve got left-handed models, nylon and steel strings, Les Paul scales, Fender scales, jumbo frets, standard frets and various pickup configurations.” Players can choose from a variety of pickups, including a full-size humbucker (Escape EG-I), an L.R. Baggs undersaddle Hybrid Element transducer (Escape MK-II), a Shadow Electronics piezo (Pro Series) or a Dual-Rail humbucker (Speedster). Options like headphone amps, onboard EQ, tone controls and clean/distortion settings are also available for players who want all of their playing needs in one package.