What’s the best musical instrument to travel with?
Which instruments are robust enough, portable and still have the flexibility to make nice music when you’re camping?
Have a look at what we’ve been strumming and blowing!
Latest update: November 2020
Travel guitars to tin whistles – the search for a camping instrument
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.
Small enough to carry and store
Not susceptible to getting bashed or to changes in temperature
A real instrument with a bit of versatility. Which is why I immediately decided against anything like an ocarina, a jaw harp or a two-string strumstick.
There’s one other criterion that I thought was essential for a learner…and I’ll come to that later!
The travel instrument shortlist
Now this is a nice idea. There are some super small travel guitars around. Very versatile because you can play folk, rock, classical or jazz.
Avoid unknown brands and opt for a decent make like the ones I’ve shortlisted here. It does pay to spend a little more because the sound quality will make learning and practising much more fun.
Lots of other options at Gear4Music too, by the way.
If I were to get one, it’d be a chromatic mouth organ like this Swan in C. The slide button gives you more range.
Cheap, very portable, available in different keys, hard to damage. But, to be honest, I don’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.
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. And I wouldn’t buy a cheap clarinet with the idea of it not mattering what happened to it. Way too screechy!
So, have a look at Yamaha’s plastic-bodied Venova instead. I’ve tried one and it’s not bad at all. It still wouldn’t be my choice, though, because a real clarinet is so much nicer sounding.
I wouldn’t bother with xaphoons, pocket saxes and the like. They’re limited and difficult to play well. I’ve tried them all.
A MIDI controller and your iPad or phone is a great idea for making music when travelling.
A tiny keyboard, an app and you’re away. 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.
And my perfect musical instrument for camping is…
So, having ruled out instruments that were especially hard to learn (violin, mini harp, flute and trumpet, for instance), let’s get to the final criterion on the wishlist – 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 is….
An electric ukulele…read on if you’re sceptical
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.
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!
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 teeny Marshall amp that can even attach to your belt. You can plug in headphones to hear yourself in guitar mode.
Add effects and make amazing music
And wow! The IK Multimedia iRig lets you attach to your phone or iPad and use apps like Garageband for all kinds of sounds and effects. Using this, you can leave the amp at home until you’re good enough for others to hear!
And, of course, an acoustic ukulele is a great option too, providing you don’t upset the neighbours!
Here I am practising in our van. A baritone is my choice because it sounds just like a guitar, so very versatile and not at all plinky!
Another small option is a guitalele, which crosses guitar with ukulele to give a lovely mellow sound.