Cage Match: Gig Bags Vs. Hard Cases
Cases are a fact of life for any guitarist. Even if you don’t ever intend to pile all of your equipment in the back of the van to get to the next gig, every guitar we spend money on will spend at least part of its life in a case. Just the thought of taking a guitar without a case out of the store, across the parking lot and into the car for the ride home gives me shivers. Choosing a case for your new life partner (or fleeting romance) is sometimes as easy as saying “well, it came with this case, so that is what I use.” Sometimes it is a bigger consideration, which brings me to the subject of this article. The case you choose has more to do with its intended use than anything else.
Well, I don’t gig, and this case over here is just fine…
We start here, because this is the most common situation. There are way more guitarists who don’t perform (or perform rarely) where this works just fine. Most guitars are sold with a case of some kind (and ‘Boooo!’ to those that charge extra for a case for an expensive instrument), and a hard case or gig bag is fine. Both can be lined up next to each other, although common sense dictates that hard cases shouldn’t get stacked on top of gig bags. If the case functions as a holder for the guitar, it is certainly safer than leaning the guitars in a pile in the corner. Unless you have stands or guitar holders on the wall (and you like dusting), having all of the guitars out at all times is great when you don’t know what will inspire you, but not so great at protecting them. When owning multiple guitars, it is always a good idea to keep most of them in whatever cases they have. I always keep two or three out ready to grab for inspiration, but most are in cases.
Cheap Guitars, and that Chipboard Case
These were more common about 20 years ago, and thankfully aren’t around much anymore. They are made of chipboard, or sawdust compressed into sheets and covered with a thin plastic coating. These cases have little to no padding, and even if they did, they only protect a guitar from a light sprinkle of rain or normal dust. In short, they are only marginally better than no case at all. Cheap guitars can be found with these cases, but if you value the guitar inside at all you might want to upgrade. I have not seen these cases fit a guitar well, and have seen several guitars fall to the ground when the handles break or the latches fail. If it is all you have, just carry it with two hands.
The Gig Bag
This is a zippered bag that the guitar slips into. They usually contain padding between the layers of fabric, and can range in price from almost free to more expensive than the guitar itself. These are not as durable as a hard case, but make up for that by being lightweight and easy-to-carry. Gig bags can be made of vinyl or leather, and usually contain shoulder straps, handles and various zippered compartments. The idea is that the guitar stays close to the guitarist, not thrown in the back of the van. The pockets can contain everything from extra strings to capos to laptops, and the whole thing can be carried backback-style, while hands are used to carry an amp and a pedalboard. One trip from car to show and you can sit back and watch the rest of the band complain as they complete several round trips all the while thinking how smart you are. Or something.
The gig bag is my preferred mode of guitar transport, unless we are travelling longer distances. I can keep the guitar with me the whole time, which keeps the anxiety level low when travelling. My gigbags are not the super-expensive leather ones, but looking at them now, they are all aftermarket- that is, I bought them after I bought the guitar. The guitars were bought with hard cases.
Gig bags can offer a good amount of protection, not surprisingly dependent on how much it costs. They are great at protecting from rain, as long as you don’t leave it outside during a storm. They also protect from dust at home, and take up less room than a hard case. You can also get your guitar out of the case in a standing position. You don’t have to take the case out and lay it on the floor first.
The Hard Case
Hard cases come standard with many high-end guitars, and for good reason. These protect the guitar much better than gig bags without getting too heavy. Usually made of molded plastic or fabric-covered wood, these are excellent at protecting from the elements, dust, and the occasional bumps of being wedged in between an amp and PA cabinet. Really big bumps might crack the case, but at least it wasn’t your guitar, right? These cases are fairly cheap compared to the expensive gig bags above, and are pretty easy to replace in the event something goes wrong. Usually they have lockable latches, and overall, they are light enough to carry reasonable distances.
A subset of the hard case is the flight case. Built for touring bands, where the guitarist is not the one transporting the instrument. These are the most protective cases made today, and for good reason: If your equipment is travelling alongside a PA and backline in one or more large trucks, and you don’t have time or energy to make sure the guitar is packed with care, you might need a flight case. These are bulky and heavy, and not something to consider if you are driving to the gig in your Civic.
Expensive, heavy, and made of plywood, vinyl and aluminum, they are great for touring, but not the right tool for the job when playing around town, much less storing the guitar at your house. Usually you see these decorated with stenciled names and stickers. But if I owned one, I’d stencil ‘Live Bees’ on the side so no one would steal it. I mean, who would want a case full of live bees, right?
The solution to this is simple. If you want easy access to guitars at home, gig bags work fine, and you don’t have to carry the case to the middle of the floor to get the guitar out. If you perform, you should have the option. Have a hard case for your guitar, and a gig bag too. You don’t need two cases for every guitar, since many cases and bags are universal, and you can switch them between guitars as you need them. I use gig bags the most, but if I am performing far away, and I am packing the guitar among Other Heavy Things, it goes in a hard case. I hate not having the right tools for the job, so I try to be prepared for the job that might come along.
What cases do you use? Do you prefer one type over the other?