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…

Seeing this hurts me.

Seeing this hurts me.

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

Guitarists of a certain age know this case well.

Guitarists of a certain age know this case well.

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

Gig bags can have very little padding, like this one...

Gig bags can have very little padding, like this one…

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.

...Or look like it can survive a polar freeze (it can't).

…Or look like it can survive a polar freeze (it can’t).

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.

Some gig bags can cost as much or more than the guitar.

Some gig bags can cost as much or more than the guitar.

The Hard Case

These cases have lots of extra room for cables, strings and pocket combs.

These cases have lots of extra room for cables, strings and pocket combs.

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.

Expensive and heavy, flight cases are great when someone else does the carrying.

Expensive and heavy, flight cases are great when someone else does the carrying.

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?

A Tie?

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 potential looks like.

What potential looks like.

What cases do you use? Do you prefer one type over the other?


Dave Eichenberger

About Dave Eichenberger

Guitarist Dave Eichenberger composes ambient music using guitar technology and looping, yet still has time to record and perform with international jazzy soul artist Julie Black. Follow him @Zoobiedood on Twitter.
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  • Greg Gottsacker

    I have a lot of guitars and almost all of them have hard cases. I never got into the flight case thing but until I get a phone call from the Stones to back up for Keith, I’m, not going to worry about it. I do have a couple of gigbags, too. They’re okay for very short distance, but I’d still rather use a hard case. There is no rough estimate when it comes to safety.

    One of my buddies got a Gibson Melody Maker from his parents for his birthday when he was a kid. It is a ’59 and came in one of those cheap chipboard cases. That guitar is now worth about $1,800.00. It might be time to upgrade that chipboard case. (I think he told me it had all but fallen apart, anyway.) I guess the lesson here is that even if it started out life as a cheap guitar, you never know how its going to appreciate in value over fifty years, so you’d better take care of it.

  • G665

    For Gibson style guitars with a tilted back headstock I never want to leave them anywhere except a stand or the proper hard case to avoid a headstock break. If it was a Fender style guitar I have no problem stowing it in a good padded soft case and taking it anywhere. I feel that the tilted back headstock, while it is great for tone, really needs extra care and caution.

    • Martijn

      tilted headstock great for tone? hmm..

  • Carlos Córdova

    I prefer the combinations between the gig bag and polystyrene inside.

    • Jaka Jarc

      I use foam cases myself – they are much harder to perforate than a normal case, they are lighter and they really fit a guitar well. The only downside is the zipper, it will not last as long as the rest of the case.

  • Peter Bradley

    My latest guitar came with a hard case that I like as much as the guitar (Fender 60th Commemorative Strat). I’d have to put the case in a case before I let anyone handle it. Maybe I can put the whole thing, case and all in a padded gig bag if I have to take it anywhere!

  • Tom Verney

    None of my basses leave the house unless they are in a hardcase. The hard cases I have are quite light but I’ve just bought a fender skb case and that will be my main case for gigs and practice.

  • Sasha Tanker Rogich

    For me it is Hiscox cases and Reunion Blues bags.

  • JST

    I have SKB cases for around the area…They are like a Gig Bag on the outside but have a full padded Hard Case inside…Best of both worlds

  • Frank

    A very good case is the Tric case from Godin, which is made of the same material they use for car bumpers: shock resistant, and extremely light.

  • deathrash

    they forgot to add that they make gig bags that can hold 2 guitars.

  • Dell Davis

    I use both, just depends on where I’m going and what guitars I’m taking !

  • jack ringca

    I use the mono m80 gig bag similar to the one in the photo and it protects my guitars from shock better than some of my hard cases could. I have also had to walk it through the hurricane-esque florida rains on my way into gigs without incident. i cannot comment on weather or not it would protect my gear in a polar freeze, however.

  • stratman Al

    its Hiscox for me .if im travelling , otherwise ive got gigbags and OEM hard cases for storage

  • JKG

    I like using a gig bag, but most of the time (and for all four gigs that I’ve played) I use public transit to get there (and really patient bus drivers and siblings/roadies), so my guitars don’t leave the house without a case. I have a few cases, at least one for each type of guitar I have, but I also have a few gig bags for when I can wear it and I’m just jamming with a friend.

  • Devi

    Once I was carrying my guitar in a gig back and almost cracked the guitar. Even though the case I have for it is old and heavier I prefer not to use the gig bag and to use the particle board case- it did protect my guitar during moderate rains

  • slide6

    Gig bags are great. I also have hard cases, but I loathe rectangular cases and I will never, ever use one.