The Hills (and campgrounds) are Alive with the Sound of Music!
There is nothing quite like sitting around a campfire with friends and singing a few songs on a cool clear night while out on an adventure in your RV or travel trailer. And if like me, you are a working musician, you don’t like to be away from a guitar for very long anyway. But it’s not always just that simple to pack your favourite instrument and hit the road. There are considerations to make. One of the first things to address is the space issue. If you don’t think of that, someone you are travelling with likely will! “ We don’t have room for all that music stuff”. Personally I would skip the kayak and bring an extra guitar and amp, but when you are sharing a small space for days or weeks at a time it is also about compromise.
To that end I would like to explore the options for the musically inclined to get the most out of their travel adventures and have an adventure that has a soundtrack as well as some great views.
Lets start small. Ok, some of us are travelling in small trailers and small vehicles. Space is essential. I’m thinking harmonicas. Yes, I’m serious folks. You can tuck that little guy in a pocket, practice anytime you have a minute, and take it on a hike. If you get to a campground and someone is playing music you can join in with a moment’s notice. No tuning, no amplification, nice and easy. And hey it’s not a lot of work to get going on a harmonica. Buy one in the key of C and get started. Every once in a while get another one in another key to widen your horizons.
Also on the small topic…Ukulele. The humble uke has had something of a Renaissance in the last few years and they are available everywhere at a very wide range of prices. With soft nylon strings they are easy on the fingers and easy to learn to play. When you go shopping for a ukulele please spend a little bit more than the minimum and get something that is well above the Toy category. As cute as all those $50.00 instruments are they will not stay in tune for long and you will be frustrated. And once you do learn 6 or 8 chords you will wish you had bought a better one. I would advise having a budget of at least $100.00 and you can move into a Fender or like quality instrument and you will have something you will enjoy playing. Long and McQuades music stores in Canada are first rate and guaranteed there will be one not too far from where you live. They are known for having knowledgeable staff and good prices. Start with them and beware the on-line purchase of far-away product. Like shoes, it sure helps to try them on first!
Ok, while we are talking about stringed instruments, the obvious centre of the universe, campfire constant is the acoustic guitar. I have a couple of concerns to share about travelling and camping with an acoustic guitar. As I mentioned earlier, space is an issue. A guitar in a case is roughly the size of a four year old child and although the guitar complains a lot less, you may not have room for both. To this end there are a number of back-packing guitars that save a ton of space, allow you to keep up your practice and will work at the campfire sing along in a pinch. The Martin branded backpacker guitar is the most popular of the super small guitars and will fit in anywhere and is not much bigger than a ukulele. It runs about $400.00. There are other small scale guitars available for a wide range of prices. Again, spending too little will get you a sub-standard instrument that won’t stay in tune or stand up to the constantly changing humidity associated with outdoor travel. I recently had the chance to try a Klos carbon fibre guitar and it sounded and played wonderfully. This instrument is made completely of carbon fibre and is impervious to moisture. You could actually play it in a swimming pool if so inclined. The neck of the guitar is detachable so you can take it apart and pack it wherever it will fit, no probs. Although this is the answer for most serious camping guitarists, it does have a price of somewhere between $1200.00- $2000.00. You can do your own research here at their website. klosguitars.com
As I mentioned those damp nights outside are hard on an acoustic instrument and I have a dedicated “campfire guitar”. In my case the Taylor BT1 fits in the trailer nicely, sounds amazing and wasn't a fortune to purchase. It plays nearly as well as something in my performance arsenal but it is just right for the road trip. A hardshell case for your instrument will help keep the temperature and humidity a little more stable and you won’t have to freak out when someone plops the Bar-b-que on your guitar when packing up.
Another option for the guitarist is a small backpacker styled electric and a battery powered amplifier. Most of these styles of guitars are shaped like a plank with just enough room for a bridge and the electronics with a neck attached. Often the tuning keys are on the body instead of the neck to save another few inches. I have one of these and it fits into a small cupboard in our trailer with a Yamaha THR amplifier. Don’t get me started about this little amp! It runs on batteries, makes my guitar sound like it is coming out of a big bucks studio, has a tuner built in, headphone jack and bluetooth enabled! With the bluetooth and batteries it can also play music from your phone so you can DJ that impromptu Rave under the awning.
And lastly, on the topic of creating something more than strumming a guitar around the campfire, sometimes in a organized campout or rally you need a little more sonic reinforcement. There are a number of battery powered P.A. systems and units out there. Most of these will allow you to run a music source and a guitar and a mic or two off the grid. Your needs will dictate the budget for this equipment. I own a Roland BA-330 that gives me portability, six input channels, bluetooth connectivity and plenty of volume if needed. I can put it on a stand and it is perfect for a fairly large group of campers at a rally or family reunion. And of course Long and McQuades sells that too. Its just over $1000.00
And lastly, lets not exclude anyone in the group who want to participate. There are lots of rhythm instruments you can take along to get that sing along to the next level. How about shakers, tambourines or even a washboard and spoons. It’s all in the name of good fun, and as long as your fun doesn’t infringe on others camping in your area, it will be a campout that will be remembered as a great adventure. Ok, let’s make some music!
Here’s something of a shopping list of products I mentioned in this article, and hey Christmas is just around the corner!