Left to right: Ameritage hardshell case, Reunion Blues Sonoma gigbag, Reunion Blues Continental gigbag, Reunion Blues Aero gigbag

Some years ago, Andy Cabic, who now leads the band Vetiver, was driving up Interstate 95 in his Honda Civic. His beloved 1967 Fender Mustang sat beside him, comfy in its soft, easy-to-schlep gigbag. Cabic reached across the seat to retrieve a cassette from off the floor, and when he sat back up it was too late—he slammed into a tractor-trailer that had stopped in the right lane. “I was lucky to be alive,” says Cabic. The same couldnʼt be said for his guitar. “I still have the body—which is fine—but the neck was destroyed.”

The incident speaks not just to the perils of distracted driving but to the importance of choosing a case or gigbag that will stand up to the rigors its likely to encounter while conveying your treasured instruments to and from jams, rehearsals, recording sessions, and performances. And despite horror stories like Cabicʼs, there arenʼt always clear-cut answers about whatʼs best for your needs. For instance, enough factors come into play when you pit a Civic against a diesel—speed, height of the two vehiclesʼ bumpers, airbags, and placement of the guitar—that a hardshell case wonʼt necessarily guarantee that your axe emerges unscathed. Some of the more heavy-duty (and pricey) products on the market would probably do the trick in most nightmare scenarios, but then thereʼs the question of whether youʼd really want to lug around ultimate protection everyday. In other words, whether the trade-offs you encounter with a gigbag are worth it is up to the player and the circumstances. The average guitarist may find that the relative affordability and convenience of gigbags—which are lighter and more comfortable to transport, and which make it much easier to carry multiple instruments at once—outweigh the risks of one-in-a-million catastrophes. Players who regularly throw their gear into a van full of drum hardware and precariously positioned PA components may beg to differ.

But itʼs really not as simple as “soft vs. hard,” because there are extreme variances within each category. Hardshell cases are available in models made from wood, plastic, or metal (or a mix of those), and both the finer points of their exteriors, as well as the strength and placement of the interior padding can provide very different types of protection—with some being deceptively unprotective [see the sidebar “Veer Away from Vintage”] and others being strong enough to withstand the abuses of negligent and/or sociopathic airline baggage handlers. Gigbags also vary from budget models with minimal padding and little to no protection from liquids to high-end designs with water- and tear-proof fabric and copious amounts of dense foam. Letʼs take a closer look at each category.

Veer Away from Vintage

Not long ago, L.A.-area blues guitarist Dave Widow learned a terrible lesson on the fallibility of some vintage guitar cases. “I had my Gibson Custom Shop ‘Beano’ Les Paul in an exact replica of a late-1950s case. It fell from a standing position and the neck broke in two—ouch!”

While many period-correct reproduction cases on the market look cool, most don’t offer nearly the impact protection that a good modern case does, particularly in the neck area. This is especially important for Gibson models that are notoriously susceptible to headstock breakage.

If you’re the owner of a vintage guitar with its original case, consider keeping the case in a safe place and buying a new one to use for gigging and travel. Not only will this offer superior protection, it will help preserve the original case, which will be useful if down the road you decide to sell the guitar.

If you’re usually schlepping one or more axes to local gigs, rehearsals, or jam sessions, then you’ll benefit from having a gigbag to ease your load. A gigbag typically has a fabric or leather exterior with inner padding that varies in density and thickness (usually between a half inch and an inch thick) as you move up the price ladder. The most protective gigbags also have added support in vulnerable areas like the neck. Pretty much all gigbags have two shoulder straps and at least one carrying handle, and virtually all are secured with a heavy-duty zipper. Unlike hardshell cases, the typical gigbag has an outer compartment large enough to accommodate sheet music, in addition to smaller items like picks, strings, and capos.

“I prefer gigbags because they’re lighter and I can carry them on my shoulder,” says Mac Randall, a guitarist and music journalist in New York City who still uses the same Mooradian gigbags he bought 20 years ago for their superior protectiveness. “All my electric guitars—a late-’70s Strat, an early-’70s Les Paul Custom, and a mid-’90s Tele with B-Bender—are fairly heavy, so I appreciate every break I can get on overall weight.” He adds, “I will opt for hardshell cases when longer travel’s involved, though—either road or plane.” You can score a Mooradian standard gigbag like Randall’s, for any type of acoustic or electric guitar or bass, for around $220. (All prices quoted in this article are street.)

For those who prefer the svelteness of a gigbag, one of the top names is Reunion Blues. The bags in their Continental Series go for about $200 and strike a nice balance between portability and protection. These water-resistant bags have high-density, dual-layer foam and an internal neck-brace system. Of a Continental prototype, Leah Murphy, Reunion Blues’ director of marketing, says, “After we tested it in various scenarios, we knew that people would still hold onto old beliefs, so we did the unthinkable—with a Stratocaster inside, we dropped it off a three-story building and onto gravel and loose concrete. It survived every time, without a scratch. Although we do not condone doing this at home—nor do we claim our cases will survive every drop from a building—there is something to be said [for the stellar test results].”

Another reliable name is Levy’s Leathers, whose gigbags feature 1"-thick foam interiors and are often luxurious enough to set you back more than $500. For around the same price, Levy’s also offers a series of unique double gigbags, including the polyester CM series or the leather LM series, that can accommodate an acoustic and an electric guitar, two electric guitars, or two bass guitars. And for the cash-strapped, the company also offers nylon bags in its EM series with less padding that come in under the $100 mark. Other companies worth considering include Fusion, with its sporty F1 ($200); Gator, offering the very utilitarian Commander ($160); Mono, whose super-rugged Vertigo is a unique, top-loading option ($200); and Access, with the luxurious Harvest series of cowhide-, buffalo-, and crocodile-covered bags (from $429).