5 Best Travel Guitars: Guitars on the Go
By Mason Hoberg
If you’re a guitar player you know how much of a hassle it can be to take your guitar anywhere. Aside from the fact that airlines have a well documented history of being jerks to musicians the world over, guitars are really just kind of awkward to travel with. It’s even worse if you’re primarily an acoustic musician.
Thankfully, crafty entrepreneurs have developed a solution to this problem. That’s right folks; if the heading didn’t already clue you in today we’re going to be talking about how to select the best travel guitar for your needs. So if you’ve ever wanted a travel guitar but have been unsure what to buy you’ve come to the right place!
- What is a Travel Guitar?
- What Should I Look For in a Travel Guitar?
- Top 5 Travel Guitars
What is a Travel Guitar?
Simply put, a travel guitar is a guitar that’s small enough to be easily transported. Generally for acoustics a travel guitar is smaller than a parlor guitar but still features a full scale neck. For electrics a travel guitar is still generally full scale (a neck as long as a standard guitar) but features tuning pegs below the bridge or in the body.
However, that’s not to say that shorter scale guitars (whether acoustic or electric) are uncommon. Generally smaller scale travel guitars are less desirable because they’re dissimilar from the musician’s main instrument. Technique is honed with repetition, so practicing on an instrument that’s different from what you’ll be playing (whether live or just for fun) will be less effective.
What Should I Look For in a Travel Guitar?
Above all, I would focus on portability when looking for a travel guitar. When it comes to acoustic travel guitars you’re never going to get the same tone as you will from your full-sized dreadnaught. Acoustic instruments have the dimensions they do for a reason, and if you change them there’s going to be a drastic effect on the sound. Jumbo style guitars have a lot of bass because of their size. Likewise, a travel guitar will generally sound thinner and quieter than their full sized counterparts because it’s built with portability in mind as opposed to just tone.
Electric travel guitars can sound fine, they just generally don’t. The reason for this is that if a company puts in high quality materials it leads to an expensive guitar, and travel guitars are generally priced much lower than standard instruments. Definitely make sure to consider the pickup components when selecting your travel guitar to make sure you'll be able to achieve the tone you're looking for.
Top 5 Travel Guitars
Looking for a great travel guitar but can’t figure out where to start? Check out these five great recommendations!
Martin Steel String Backpacker
Established in 1883 by Christian Frederick Martin, C.F. Martin & Company (generally known simply as Martin) is inarguably one of the most prestigious manufacturers of acoustic guitars the world has ever seen. The company has been a facilitator of Western music for centuries, wielded by some of the most important musicians in the world. Something that many may not know about the company is that they’re influence spans much farther than musicians realize. While it’s generally agreed upon that the company wasn’t the originator of X-bracing, it’s hard to dispute that they were the first company to widely produce x-braced instruments. The significance of this is that x-bracing was the first bracing pattern that was able to handle the increased strain of the newly invented (well, at least at the time) steel strings. Steel strings are what took the guitar from a parlor instrument to the most popular instrument for the masses, which in turn led to the preeminence it currently enjoys.
Though the Martin Steel String Backpacker Travel Guitar obviously isn’t going to compare to the more well-known instruments produced by the company, it does have a lot of utility for musicians looking for a quality travel guitar. To learn more about how it compares to the competition, check out the specifications below.
Interestingly, the Martin Steel String Backpacker features a solid spruce top. It’s hard to say how much this benefits the guitar considering it’s dimensions, but it likely still increases the volume and tonal response to at least some degree considering the effect that solid wood has on an instrument.
The Backpacker is made with “tonewood” back and sides, which considering the fact they don’t list any specific wood it’s safe to assume that they use a cheaper wood such as NATO. This is just conjecture, but it’s an assumption we feel safe in making.
The cool thing about this guitar is how portable it is while still maintaining standard dimensions for the string spacing and scale length. This will make the transition from the guitar back to your main instrument (and vice versa) much less dramatic than it would otherwise be. The only main difference is that it only has 15 frets, opposed to the 20+ more common to full sized guitars.
The hardware in this guitar is also pretty impressive for the price, utilizing a compensated white TUSQ saddle, white plastic bridge pins, enclosed chrome finished gear tuners, and a white corian Corian is a white acrylic polymer, with tonal qualities that fall somewhere between bone and plastic.
While the sound of this instrument isn’t going to sound exactly like a full-sized dreadnaught, it should be given a break considering its size. The various types of guitar bodies get their sound from their dimensions, so considering the size of this instrument it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s a bit thin sounding compared to larger bodied instruments.
With that out of the way, this really isn’t a bad instrument so long as you recognize the concessions made in its sound in order to create an instrument of this size. It has plenty of volume to be heard when practicing, though it’s not likely to fit well in an ensemble setting.
Looking for a travel guitar that will replicate the feel of a traditional acoustic without breaking the bank? If so, look no further than the Martin Steel String Backpacker. The guitar features a solid spruce top, a full scale length, and solid tonewood back and sides. Personally, this is my favorite travel guitar. The Martin Backpacker is full scale and sounds like a proper instrument rather than a toy. The build quality is exactly what you'd expect from a brand like Martin, and it is priced really well given the brands' premium craftsmanship.
Cordoba Mini O Travel Guitar
Founded in 1997, Cordoba’s main goal is to make great classical guitars available to players who can’t afford to drop several thousand on a custom made instrument. The company intends to further the classical guitar’s place in music by making quality instruments available to those who wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise, which by all accounts is a goal that it’s achieved very admirably.
Though the company focuses on classical guitars, they have produced a variety of different instruments. They produce some of the finest classical guitars commercially available, ukuleles, as well as innovative steel string elements that employ elements of the classical guitar design in order to create a unique sounding hybrid instrument.
Though the company has made their name on producing nylon string guitars for classical and flamenco players, the Cordoba Mini O Travel Acoustic Nylon String Guitar is a worthy addition to the company’s line up. To learn more about whether or not this instrument is the right choice for you, you can learn more about it in the section below.
The defining feature of this guitar is that it’s a full sized instrument in regards to its scale length and nut width. This is incredibly important if you plan on using this guitar to practice, because it makes it easier to transfer what you learn on this guitar to your main instrument.
An interesting component of the instrument’s design is that it’s made from ovangkol, with laminate wood being utilized on the back and sides and a solid wood top. Ovangkol is considered by many to be a mid-ground between the characteristics of mahogany and rosewood.
Surprisingly for a guitar of this price range, especially a travel guitar, the Cordoba Mini O actually features a mahogany neck. This helps to enhance the durability of the neck, which is a great inclusion considering the fact that this guitar (like many other classical instruments) does not include a truss rod. This isn’t as big of a deal with classical instruments as it is with steel strings because nylon stringed guitars are subjected to less tension, though it does mean that at some point the guitar will likely need a neck reset (though this won’t be for several decades, unless you subject it to drastic changes in both temperature and humidity).
Lastly, the guitar does come with a rosewood fingerboard. This isn’t going to make all that much of a difference in the long run, but it does give the guitar an aesthetic appeal that it likely wouldn’t have if it utilized a different wood.
This guitar really benefits from having a solid wood top, which put it on par with many full sized instruments when it comes to tone. The only area where it’s lacking is that it doesn’t have the volume of a full-sized instrument, but the fact that it manages to avoid sounding weak or tinny is pretty impressive considering its dimensions.
Because of its size it actually has a tone that falls somewhere between that of a classical guitar and a ukulele. It does lend the instrument a bit more utility than it would otherwise have, but it may end up frustrating those of you who are looking for a more traditional classical guitar sound in an easily transportable package.
The Cordoba Mini O Travel Acoustic Nylon String Guitar offers a great value for the musician looking for a great sounding travel guitar. The Cordoba Mini O markets itself as a travel guitar, but in truth it’s really a functional instrument in its own right.
Founded in 1986 by Rick Johnson, Johnson Guitars U.S.A. is a company noted for focusing on providing affordable instruments for guitarists who focus on a variety of different genres. While the brand may be best known for instruments well suited to rock and metal, they actually produce a pretty impressive variety of instruments.
While at first glance the Johnson JG-TR2 Travel Guitar may seem like a bit of an ugly duckling, in the right situations this guitar could prove to be a huge asset to the musician looking for a solid travel instrument. Right off the bat, the best thing about this guitar is that it has a full scale length of 24 ¾”. This is incredibly important if you’re looking for a guitar that you can practice seriously with, because it can be a bit hard transitioning back and forth from a full sized instrument to a reduced size travel guitar. The majority of techniques utilized with the instrument are a matter of muscle memory, so trying to practice them on a guitar that feel significantly different from your main instrument can make the process take a lot longer than it otherwise would.
With that being said, a possible flaw in this instrument is that it does not come with a truss rod. Considering the fact that most musicians aren’t going to want to pay for a neck reset on an instrument in this price range this means that this guitar probably isn’t going to last as long as it would if it did feature a truss rod. However, your experience with this is going to vary. So long as you use light strings and always remember to de-tune you instrument while traveling you’re probably going to be able to play this guitar for several years.
Lastly, the guitar is made from “white wood.” In all reality, no guitar with these dimensions is going to sound good regardless of what wood it’s made from. So while the tone wood utilized in this design is inarguably less desirable than more recognizable woods it’s not going to have a huge impact on the tone of the instrument given the philosophy of the travel guitar. This guitar sounds great for what it is, but if you expect it to sound like a full sized acoustic instrument you’re going to be pretty disappointed, but you’re also being unreasonable if you think that there weren’t concessions made in regard to the instruments tone to facilitate this level of portability.
The hardware (bridge, nut, tuners) are all reasonable for this type of instrument. You’re not going to have any worse of an experience than you would with a similarly priced instrument, and if you happen to own a set of nut files this guitar is going to end up being just as playable as any other in its price range.
The Johnson JG-TR2 is a good option for the musician looking for an acoustic guitar with a full-sized neck that they can take on the go.
Traveler Guitar Ultra-Light Electric Guitar
First conceived in 1992, Traveler Guitar is a brand noted for both its affordable instruments and its innovative designs. While the design is a far cry from the more traditional Fender or Gibson models, Traveler Guitar is one of the few companies that craft a truly portable instrument that feels like a standard electric guitar.
Like many innovators, Leon Cox (the founder of Traveler Guitar) designed his first guitar without any financial goals. It was just an experiment to see if it the design would even be functional, and he had no idea it would day become a brand that has currently sold more than 85,000 instruments and enjoys market share the world over. The brand also partnered with Fender, being produced in the company’s Corona facility until the demand for the guitars eclipsed the capabilities of the space. A perfect example of a company that was founded with a core philosophy and then stuck with it, the Traveler Guitar Ultra-Light Electric Travel Guitar is a solid investment for any musician looking for an extremely portable electric instrument.
The first thing to note about this guitar is that contrary to what the diminutive proportions of the body would have you believe it actually does have a full scale-length. The scale-length measures to 24 ¾”, so Les Paul and SG players should feel right at home. The overall length of the guitar is 28”, so it should fit in most airline overhead compartments with relative ease, and it can easily be stowed in a large travel suitcase should you decide to go that route.
The guitar is similar in specifications to the majority of guitars in this price range. The pickup is a dual-rail humbucker, so expect results similar to that of a Duncan Designed pickup. There’s not going to be a huge difference between the two, and since this guitar is aimed at guitarists who want a solid travel guitar (hence the name) sound isn’t likely to be a primary concern in the first place.
Lastly, the hardware is comparable to any low to mid Epiphone or Squier. Hardware has seen a real jump in quality in the last decade, so it’s not too likely that you’re going to run into many issues in this department. The tuners on this guitar also function just as well as more traditional designs. These instruments do also come packed with a truss rod.
This guitar is essentially a lap steel with a leg rest on it, for all intents and purposes. Lap steels are just as capable as offering a quality sound as any other instrument, and so is this guitar. There’s nothing about the design that would lead us to believe that the guitar wouldn’t perform as well as any other similarly priced model, and if you happen to not like the pickup there’s nothing stopping you from switching it out with a model that you like better.
The leg rest has a tendency to be a bit slippery. It’s just a thin metal frame, so if you’re not careful with how you position it it’s most likely going to slide around on your lap while you’re trying to play. We wouldn’t really call this a flaw because it’s a concession made to keep the instrument portable, but you should be aware of it nonetheless. The only consistently reported complaint is that the in-built speaker is a bit quiet, but considering this is a travel guitar, that might be par for the course and not a dealbreaker for you.
The Traveler Guitar Ultra-Light Electric Travel Guitar is a great buy for musicians looking for a travel instrument that replicates the feel of a full sized guitar. The only potential flaw is that the guitar can be a bit tricky to position in a way that doesn’t cause it to slide around on your lap.
Voyage-Air Songwriter Series VAOM-04
Since 1972 Harvey Leach, the founder of Voyage-Air Guitar, has been building guitars. An independent luthier, Leach has personally hand crafted more than 350 instruments (flattop acoustics, archtops, and electric guitars). He’s also a notable inlay artist, having been commissioned by Martin in addition to others (Paul Reed Smith, Collings, D’Angelico, Godin, etc.) to inlay their high-tier Custom Shop instruments. While he was best known for his custom instruments, he’s also the mind behind the innovative Voyage-Air guitars.
However, it wasn’t until the company appeared on Shark Tank that he received the renown he truly deserved. The line is one of the few instruments that produces truly transportable professional quality instruments. Representative of the quality of the line, the Voyage-Air Songwriter Series VAOM-04 is a solid investment for any traveling musician who wants a guitar with a great tone that can accompany them wherever they happen to go.
The most important thing to know about this guitar, which a lot of musicians don’t really consider when reviewing the instrument, is that it fills a very specific niche. The guitar is intended to be a high-quality instrument that doesn’t compromise its tone in its pursuit of portability. So while it is technically a travel instrument, it should be noted that it is fundamentally different from other guitars that share the same moniker.
To put this in better perspective, the guitar is a full-sized acoustic with a solid spruce top and mahogany back and sides that’s considered to be on par with $500 to $700 instruments in both sound, finish, and hardware. It also features a mechanism in the neck that allows the neck to separate from the body and fold over the top of the instrument. So while the guitar is more expensive than similarly outfitted instruments, the design of the neck more than justifies the price if you’re in a situation where you need/want a full sized guitar that you can easily transport.
As far as overall specifications are concerned, the guitar is a vintage inspired OM body. It feels just like any other instrument with this body style, so as long as you’re a fan of the OM shape you’re going to be pleased with its dimensions. The only notable thing about this instrument when compared to others is that it has a slightly wider neck to accommodate finger picking, but the impact of this is going to vary from person to person.
As previously stated, consider this guitar to be the equal of acoustic instruments in the $500 to $700 range. It’s not going to wow any professional musicians, but it is a quality sounding instrument in its own right. The OM body style offers a warm and lively response, and the traditional pairing of spruce and mahogany makes for an instrument that is very versatile and dynamic. It may not be quite as loud as instruments that don’t feature its neck design, but the difference is negligible.
Some believe that the guitar is more expensive than it should be considering the materials it’s made from, but we would say that this isn’t a reasonable complaint considering the extra utility you get from having a guitar that can essentially fold in half. If you don’t plan on traveling frequently, or if you do you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a guitar that’s on par with mid-range acoustics while still being portable, that's a different story. But if you know you need a good travel-friendly guitar, this is a winner.