Travelling with a guitar helps indie travel

A guitar gets me behind a Railway Reservation counter in Ayodhya, India... / picture by Davide Antonello

Last week, Lindsey Rue’s post on Vagabonding inspired me to reconsider slowing down to enjoy the music from another perspective: the musician’s.

I have been a punk rock guitarist for the best part of my twenties, and I have started to love travelling because of the long, inspiring van drives linking venue A to venue B across beautiful unfolding scenery. At that time, the goal was to hit a stage, play a great show, set the crowds “on fire”, and leave excited for the next town. As I started travelling for the sheer pleasure of vagabonding a few years later, the experience I made as a touring musician proved very helpful in many ways. However, besides an MP3 player filled to the brim with my favorite classics, I preferred not to include music on my travels. In fact, music was such an overwhelming part of my previous life on the road that I preferred to put it aside, and enjoy travel to a different extent.

I did not realize how wrong I was until this past January 5th, when I decided to pack a little ukulele-sized guitar in my backpack, and embarked on a flight to Kolkata, India. This instrument is custom-made: unable to find a proper suitcase, I had to pack it inside of a small daypack I always carry on my chest, sandwiched among the electronics and my valuables. In such a position,  the fret board sticks out, and is always visible. In little over a month, this proved to be a fantastic way to boost the possibilities of “taking it slow” and “make meaningful connections” as proposed by the Indie Travel Manifesto.

Here is the lowdown on why it worked for me, and why, if you are a musician, you should consider bringing your instrument on the road with you.

Easier immigration procedures
A man with a guitar does not look like trouble. As I reached the immigration desk at Kolkata airport and the officer saw my guitar sticking out, his first question was “Are you a musician?” and the moment after my passport was stamped, and handed back with a big smile. He even asked where I was performing, because he would have loved to come and watch.

Greater interaction with the locals
Every single day I have been stopped by someone asking me about my guitar, and not only in ever curious India; I even got approached by the next standing urinal user at Kuala Lumpur’s airport, in a very awkward moment:

“Wow!! Is that a guitar?”
“Wow!! Can you show me how you play?”
“Well, give me a minute, man… my hands are busy!”

Make the street kids happy
Whenever some street kid tried to approach me for money and I had my guitar handy, I instantly pulled it out and started strumming a simple blues. This did not only work great to make them desist; the guitar also made them laugh and smile, transforming a nuisance into a chance to give these kids a break from their ungrateful lifestyle. And maybe new ideas to embrace an artistic future, why not??

Make your hosts satisfied and happy
On my travels, I tend to use the Couchsurfing project massively. It is a great way to get beyond the guesthouse scene, and really experience the local culture by staying with great hosts willing to share some of their lives with you, the cultural outsider. By having a guitar, any moment can be turned into an impromptu jam session, and it is just up to you how to make it end… I generally propose  to perform a little show in front my hosts’  families, friends, and sometimes even neighbors and pets.  So far, they have always wanted for more.

Earn a few bucks as you go
If you carry your guitar when travelling in Western countries such as Australia, Europe or the USA, you may try to sit down at the roadside, put a hat down, and start playing. This is called “busking” and more often than not can generate a little side income to fuel your travels. Cities like Paris, London, Berlin or Sydney and Darwin are particularly good places to indulge in this activity, as their police officers do not care too much about street artists. But be careful because in some places, by basking you are breaking the law, and I cannot encourage it!!

There is, of course, a downside: an instrument, unless you play harmonica, is an extra bag to carry on your travels. And the bigger it is, the more inconvenient it may get.

Personally, I have experienced a deeper connection with people and places by going the extra mile and carrying a guitar on my travels, but you may have a different opinion, which you should share…

Have you carried an instrument on your travels? How did it go? Do you have any memorable experiences or fond memories? As you think, I will play a small blues in E minor to warm up the atmosphere…

Posted by | Comments (8)  | February 16, 2012
Category: Backpacking, On The Road, Travel Gear, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Styles

8 Responses to “Travelling with a guitar helps indie travel”

  1. Rolf Potts Says:

    Not so long ago I got a strumstick:

    I usually just fiddle with it at home, but one day I might take it on the road with me, since it’s pretty easy to play (and thus share with local folks). Size could be an issue (it’s longer than a ukulele), but at some point, perhaps on a shorter journey, I’d like to try it.

  2. Jasmine Says:

    I recently bought a violin and bongos here in Medellin. Not sure if I’ll travel with the violin much but I think the bongos will be a great way to start conversations and meet people – especially musicians.

  3. David W Says:

    I consider myself an ultralight minimalist traveler and I recently picked up a 1930s parlor guitar which must, must come with me. This piece is exactly why it’s important to travel with a bit of love and music. It makes life better!

  4. GypsyGirl Says:

    Hooray for music! Thanks for reading and cross-posting my thoughts from last week, Marco. Much of the time I travel with a Lakota Sioux(Native American) flute carved from canary wood. Gosh, I’ve had the flute since I was 15, and it’s been all over with me! Being that it’s carved all of wood, the pitch and key changes with temperatures and altitudes–quite fascinating. I’m slightly shy about having an audience while playing, but granted, it has led to a few intriguing conversations in my travels.

  5. Volunteering in Bangladesh at Rishilpi | Vagablogging :: Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog Says:

    […] some of my travel time to others in need: this year, as I was exploring the Indian subcontinent, I brought along a guitar which I used to entertain street children and the disabled. But for as much as this sounds […]

  6. Jake Says:

    Music makes good travel memories great travel memories. Not to mention a perfect way to meet people when abroad. Thanks for the insight!

  7. Stephen C. Shapiro Says:

    I’ve got a Yamaha GL-1 “Guitalele” that I took with me to England. It’s about the size of the guitar you have pictured. I’ll probably end up getting a actual soprano ukelele for ultimate portability.

    Melodicas are great fun travel instruments too, but my girlfriend can’t stand the sound it makes, so mine won’t be coming with us any time soon.

    I’m always on the quest for a good, fun, portable instrument. Combining music performance and travel is my ultimate goal 🙂

  8. Sean Says:

    A guitar is a good companion but it is also hard to carry for long journey:)