One of the Campfire team has been on a search to find the perfect musical instrument to travel with. Obviously, a piano’s not an option, so what would be robust enough, portable and still have the flexibility to make nice music? He tried out lots of possibilities and found the ideal thing….dear reader, he bought it!
I’m not a great musician, not even a passable one, but I do love the feeling I get when my fingers make a tune appear. It can be halting and messy, but it still feels a little bit like sorcery. I gave up lots of instruments as a child – the viola (played for a couple of weeks), the piano (a couple of months), the recorder (maybe a year). As an adult, I tried the violin, the classical guitar and actually stuck with the clarinet for nearly 10 years until it started to loosen a tooth.
Now I have a digital piano and am teaching myself VERY informally. I miss it when I’m away camping or campervanning, so I wanted to find something I could take with me to learn while travelling. It needed to be small, not susceptible to getting bashed or to changes in temperature and it had to be a real instrument with a bit of versatility. For the latter reason, I immediately decided against anything like an ocarina, a jaw harp or a two-string strumstick.
There was one other criterion that I thought was essential for a learner…and I’ll come to that later!
Tin or penny whistle – cheap, very portable, available in different keys, hard to damage. But, to be honest, I didn’t really like the noise. There are some amazing players who can make it an interesting instrument, but for me, it’s not a solo thing.
Mouth organ – very portable, very campfire-style. Again, you do have to like the sound. And, ideally, I want to be able to play a bit of classical as well as folk, rock or jazz.
Travel guitar – these are smaller guitars, but still not that small. This would probably have been the answer, though, had I not already tried and failed with a full-size guitar. Very versatile.
Clarinet – I loved my clarinet and originally chose it because it was such a small case to carry around when the instrument was dismantled. However, they don’t like changes in temperature.
Mini hammered dulcimer – what a fun thing. The full-size ones have a fabulous sound when played well (and as a duet for a bit of depth). The smaller one suitable for travel, though, is a bit too tinkly for me and holding those little hammers made my fingers claustrophobic.
A MIDI controller and your iPad or phone – a tiny keyboard, an app and you’re away. There’s even a MIDI guitar (though the reviews put me off immediately). The advantages are that, with a good app, you can actually sound like every other instrument on this list. Had I not found the PERFECT instrument, this is probably what I’d have chosen, though I wasn’t keen on having only a few keys after playing a full-size piano.
Others – I ruled out instruments that were especially hard to learn (violin, mini harp, flute and trumpet, for instance). And that brings me to the final criterion – silence. When you’re learning an instrument, you don’t want the embarrassment of playing in front of others. And I’m pretty sure other campers don’t want to hear tuneless screeches from a tent. So, I wanted an instrument no-one could hear. The answer was…..
The PERFECT instrument for travelling
The RISA electric ukulele. I know, I know…a ukulele. I laughed at the very idea at the start of my search, put off by all that jokey, happy strumming music. But then I started to research and found people like Samantha Muir playing classical and fabulous fingerstyle music, and the Quiet American playing beautiful old folk. Think of it as a four-string guitar and no genre of music is out of bounds.
The RISA is an exciting-looking instrument too – no-one would even guess it was a ukulele. It has no headstock and is made (in Germany) from one solid piece of wood. Without an amp, it’s quiet so that you can practise without disturbing anyone. With a portable amp (the Roland MicroCube was my choice for its size, battery option and effects), it can be ‘acoustic’, thrash metal, prog rock and anything in between. I also have a tiny Marshall amp that can even attach to your belt. You can plug in headphones to hear yourself in guitar mode.
And wow! The Line 6 Sonic Port….what can I say. Plug your uke into it with the jack lead, plug it into your iPhone or iPad, run the Line 6 app, Garageband or similar and suddenly your ukulele is 10,000 variations of amp and effects pedal or any instrument you like, in fact. Listen to the audio via headphones (when travelling) and plug the Sonic Port to the amp when at home. It’s miraculous. It works with guitars too, of course. I also tried the IK Multimedia iRig Pro, which does the same thing as the Line 6, but also offers more options for connecting microphones, keyboards and so on, plus – most importantly for me – it had a facility the Line 6 didn’t have: an iPhone lightning connection rather than headphone jack so you could use your phone or iPad as a speaker. In the end, the Pro was overkill for me, so I swapped it for the iRig HD, which also lets me use the phone as a speaker. The amp can be packed away until I’m good enough for anyone to hear! The app for the iRigs, by the way, is basic unless you lash out a lot on in-ap purchases. Free Garageband is enough for me at the moment.
I chose the tenor version of the RISA (there are concert and soprano too) and swapped the high G string for a low G (ukuleles are usually ‘reentrant’ tuned g-C-E-A). This makes it even more like a guitar, though be warned that it’s harder to find tutor books and music for the low G. Chords are the same, but fingerpicking changes.
It’s small enough to fit in a backpack, not so expensive (£150-£220) that I’ll worry about it and it’s almost impossible to make it sound horrible. It’s fun to play, gives me lots of options for style and I think I might even stick with it!!