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?

Join the Conversation


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

      1. Old comment but – When you fret a note too lightly, or with soft learner’s fingers, it usually buzzes and sounds wimpy if it doesn’t, right?
        That’s because of a lack of downward pressure at the break point of the string, where the vibrating length begins. An angled headstock provides that to all the strings. On fender guitars, the strings have to go under string trees to provide that pressure on the higher strings where the tuners are further away, or you can get guitars with staggered tuner heights.
        Gibsons are notorious for neck breakage at the scarf joint which produces the headstock’s angle – this is largely not because it’s angled, but more for two other reasons – one is that if the headstock is angled, it’s more likely that if the guitar gets dropped, the top of the headstock will hit something before the body or another part of the neck does.
        The second reason is that Gibson use a 17 degree break angle, whereas most other companies and luthiers would agree that a 13 or 14 degree angle is more than enough and that the 17 degree scarf joint is unecessary and not strong enough.(Look up scarf joints and you’ll see that the angle of the joint affects how much glueing surface you have available to you. The sharper the angle, the less join there is, the easier it is for that joint to break.
        That said, headless instruments have a lot of benefits in this regard – the lack of an extended piece of wood after the string ends means no sympathetic ringing after the nut, no headstock to break, and no headstock to resonate and cause wolf tones – look up the fender “fat finger” – it exists to stop Telecaster headstocks causing uneven response across the neck. If you build a headless instrument with a heel adjust truss rod it gets even better, because you’re not routing away important wood at the weakest point in the neck, just to have access to the truss rod.

        1. The headstock breakage issue on most Gibsons is NOT the scarf joint, but the lack thereof. One piece necks, even with the straightest quartersawn blank, have several ‘weak’ spots due to the grain structure as it dos..its linear until you get to where they angle down..then there’s much end grain exposed. Some woods handle this better than others, but I have fixed a LOT of broken Les Paul guitars with mahogany necks. The ‘cheap’ imports that have scarf joints tend to NOT break at that joint, unless it’s so badly done as to be criminal. Ibanez, Epiphone, ESP all have models with scarf joints.

    1. 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.

      1. Word. If any used YKK branded zips, I’d be all over ’em, but alas, they use generic zips that are virtually worthless. Rendering the entire “hardbag” trash in short order.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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

  9. 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.

  10. 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

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

  12. My answer is both! The 2 Gibson’s I have (Explorer, EDS-1275, double neck), require large, big, bulky cases, which are a pain in the ass to cart around. Subsequently, the lighter, less expensive guitars (Ibanez, Kramer, Fender) get the soft cases. I throw them all on a 7 rack guitar stand, and I strap the whole lot together in transport so they don’t shift around. Works for me!

  13. I have 2 hard cases 1 for my Strat and 1 For my Charvell . The other 2 I have are for an Inexpensive Acoustic and my Older fender bullet (which is only partially original) and they are the cardboard style with vinyl covering !!

  14. incase dub bag (no longer made, i don’t think) … Fits all my guitars except my semi-hollow electric … Fender EJ sig Strat and PRS SC245 ride protected in comfort, and convenience

  15. Mine never leave the house unless they’re in a hard case. As any starving (and otherwise) artist will attest, axes are expensive. I cannot afford to replace them and when you have goofy people all around your stuff, one step in the wrong direction or something shifts in the load, you’ve got your pride and joy unplayable. So, yes, a hard shell case makes me feel much better. It won’t prevent all accidents, but it can make a minor accident a whole lot more acceptable. In addition, my pedalboard is a custom that I made myself. I couldn’t afford a flight case for that so I got a large vintage hard sided Samsonite suitcase and lined it with 2 inch foam. Works like a charm and it has pockets for cables and wires and so forth. Plus, it has a handle and wheels, so there’s that. You can stand on that sumbitch and it doesn’t even bend.

  16. I splurged and bought the Reunion Blued leather bag, and I’ll never regret it. I love my ’89 PRS Standard 24, and this bag is as safe as any hard case. I’ve had it for years, and it’s still like new. Worth every penny.

  17. Anybody that puts a $2000 guitar in a gig bag is asking for trouble. It doesn’t matter how careful you are something can always hit the case.

  18. i far prefer the hard cases. ive seen guitars get far too damaged in soft cases. the one thing i do love about them though, is that you can wear them backpack style. id love if i could do that to my coffin case, its soooooo damn heavy! and it does have six clips, two of which are key lockable 🙂

  19. I use a MONO brand soft case. I travel all around the world and have had nothing but trouble with hard cases. Since making the change to this case I have not had one dent or mark and the guitar has come out perfect every time.
    Hard cases are great for protection, but airlines treat them carelessly and you have to keep buying new ones because the cases break.
    However with a soft case, they treat it with more care and pack it on the top, rather than underneath all the heavy stuff.

  20. I don’t care how careful you are , if you use a gig bag you are going to get dents. Rule of thumb for me, hard shell cases when stored, gig bag when being used.

    1. Nah, my Tele lives in one of those Levy’s Leather gigbags, and it’s indestructable. An LP would get its head broken off in no time though.

  21. Guitars have sentimental and commercial value to me. But they are also beautiful. All are in hard cases for storage except some of the lower end electrics that come in gig bags. All acoustics are in hard cases. I usually gig with three or four and they travel in hard cases. I have two lower end Crossrock 2000 fiberglass cases WITH shoulder straps, a luxury not available with most hard cases, when I play smaller events with portable PA and just two guitars and no help. That way I can make one trip in and out of the venue, which reduces opportunities for thieves. Since I really enjoy the workmanship and fine wood of my guitars, I bought and made three display cases and keep humidipaks in them in my temperature controlled music room. They are available for inspiration, are easily accessed, but also as well protected as if they were in hard cases.

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