Back when I was in my first Top 40 band we had a tragic (or so it seemed at the time) accident regarding a case or, rather, the lack of one.

 

We were on our way to a gig and, as usual, the drums and P.A. were piled in the back of an open pickup. One pothole jarred the truck enough that a rack tom went flying out of the truck and shattered when it hit the road.

 

I wish I could say that I learned my lesson from that experience but, the truth is, when my family moved from L.A. to Las Vegas a year ago, we loaded a rented trailer with things we didn’t trust the movers with. That included heavy P.A. gear along with fragile art works.  There were also at least four guitars without cases wrapped in bubble wrap back there.

 

They all made the trip without a problem but it could have easily been otherwise. About the same time, I was on a gig and had to spend precious set-up time fixing a digital piano that had gotten knocked around a bit and the gig bag it was in did not help much. I ended up having to replace a half dozen of the keys. Call me a slow learner…

 

Are You Serious?

 

It may seem like a bit of a stereotype, but as I work sound and production gigs, I can often tell the serious musicians from the wannabes solely by the way they transport their gear.

 

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Yes, there are exceptions but they are pretty rare. If you are serious, you need good gear and if you have good gear, you need to protect it.

 

So what is the best case? Depends on the gear and how you use it. When it comes to protection there are a few basic types—gig bags, fiber cases, wood cases, molded plastic cases and at the top of the heap true flight cases. Let’s take a look at each and their pros and cons.

 

Gig Bags

 

I never have been able to understand why these are called “gig” bags. My guess is that the term originated with NYC players who got to the gig on the subway and just needed a bag to carry their axe in.

 

As it was being carried and not packed—even in a car trunk—the need was for something to transport the instrument without it getting scratched. Just a guess but it makes sense so that is what I am going with.

 

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A gig bag is generally a durable nylon fabric bag molded in the general shape of the instrument. (Whatever the material, if it is molded to the shape of a specific model of instrument, we are going to call it a case.)

The bags close with a zipper and usually include a shoulder strap or backpack-style straps for easy lugging.

 

The pros of a gig bag include light weight, low cost and a degree of protection against scratches and bumps.

 

On the con side is just the lack of real protection.

 

Remember that piano? It was in a good gig bag but that did not stop it from sustaining some real damage. Like many, I bought the gig bag because I did not have the dough for a real case. It ended up being a bad decision.

 

Fiber or “Soft” Cases

 

These are supposedly a step above a gig bag but they can actually be worse.

 

At the low end of this type of case are the cheap cases that come with some inexpensive acoustic guitars. Fiber—at least in this case—is a nice word for “cardboard” usually covered with cheap vinyl. These kinds of cases are usually mass-produced and are not form-fitting for a single instrument (say a Martin 000-18 guitar) but a bulk of the same ilk (like all acoustic guitars).

 

At the higher end of this kind of case is what is best described as a gig-bag-on-steroids.

 

An example is pictured here. While the outside is nylon and the top and back offer little more protection than a good gig bag, the sides are reinforced and the inside is fit to the instrument.

 

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The low-end models offer almost nothing on the pro side. They offer little protection and they look crappy and cheap.

 

Truth is, if your instrument (usually a guitar) came with one of these then it is not a pro instrument.

 

The soft cases are a different story. I would not use one if I had to pack the instrument in a truck, but it is great for a “throw it in the backseat” gig or to carry on an airplane.

 

Another thing to consider is that a bag or nylon case is a bad idea in a very dry climate.

 

Some guitars suffer major issues that are directly related to the dryness here in the desert… and none of my other instruments in hard cases have had comparable problems to those I had in these lesser cases.

 

Hard Cases

 

This category covers a lot of ground–from the good cases that ship with a good instrument up to P.A. racks and even flight cases.

 

On the instrument end, they resemble that Traveler case except they have a wooden top and back surface and the entire thing is covered in vinyl or leather. They are molded inside—in the instance of instrument cases—to the specific instrument (say a Martin 000-18 guitar). On the rack side, plywood top, bottom and sides are either painted or covered with a thin plastic or metal panel.

 

This kind of case generally offers good protection, and the thing that separates one from another is usually the hardware.

 

In an instrument case, look at hinges and latches and handles.

 

Are they beefy or whimpy?

 

How are they attached to the case?

 

I had a case for a Fender Strat that over the course of checking it for a dozen airline flights, the handle came off and all of the latches were broken. I still have and use the case, but have had to put new latches and a handle on it.

 

(yes, you can chalk it up to rough treatment at the hand of some baggage handler but that happens when you check an instrument.)

 

I have another wooden guitar case for a ’72 Gibson ES335 (original case) that I have had to retire because it was just falling apart. I keep it for sentimental reasons and the stickers on it but it is useless as a case. (ed. note: it might make a nice lamp.)

 

In a rack case, look at latches, corners, and castors. These are the things that are going to fail…not the case itself.

 

Castors, especially, take some real abuse and you want the best ones you can get with large wheels that will roll over rough ground easily and lock when you need to make sure the case is not going to roll away when you don’t want it to.

 

Molded Cases

 

As it is with all other kinds of cases there are different grades here. Even within a particular brand there can be different grades—heavier or lighter weight, quality of hardware and other features. While these cases offer a high degree of protection and will do the job for most musicians, they are still not quite what is considered pro or “flight” cases.

 

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That being said, I own a half doz
en of them in different sizes and formats. All of mine are SKBs, a name once synonymous with the molded case but now other companies have entered into marketing their own molded case designs.  The competition has resulted in more choices in terms of both styles and prices.

 

As always, hardware matters and with this type of case it is mostly about the latches.

 

Here is something else to consider: I have a couple of molded rack cases with built-in wheels and a retractable handle much like a ‘roll-aboard’ suitcase. They work OK, but instead of fully removable front and back, there is a removable front and a small removable panel on the back. This makes it tough to get to connections, especially in the dark and in the heat of battle.

 

Another consideration should be shock protection (not the electrical variety), but rather a hard physical shock—a real hard hit or even a drop.

 

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The inner frame is suspended by springs in the corners to protect the rack gear from physical shocks to the outer casing.

 

A shock protected rack case will have either a layer of foam between the sides of the case and the gear (good) or a suspension system that actually isolates the gear inside from the case allowing the case to take the hit while protecting the gear inside (better). This type of case is significantly more expensive than their non-isolated counterparts.

 

Up, Up and Away

 

You will see some cases referred to as “ATA” rated.

 

What does that mean?

 

ATA stands for the Airline Transportation Association and that group publishes standards for shipping containers including cases.

 

But just calling a case ATA rated does not necessarily mean much because there are many ATA ratings.

 

For example, Specification 300 category 1 means that a container has been determined to be able to withstand at least 100 flights.

 

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ATA cases.

 

Some ATA cases will include a warranty that covers the contents of the case up to a specified dollar amount. Look for this kind of deal if you are looking for a really good case and remember that most case warranties cover one thing and one thing only—the case itself.  

 

That expensive gear inside? Sorry, dude, you’re on your own.

 

 

– Rev. Bill