Building a Road-Ready Guitar Rig for When the Road Is a Business Trip

I was heading out for the road for a few weeks. Multiple stops in unfamiliar places, planes, trains, automobiles—you name it. This was going to be an epic tour. Wait, did I mention this travel was for my day job, far from rock ‘n’ roll?

Whether your time away from home is a work trip, a vacation, or any form of family (mis)adventure, paring down your gear for travel involves a maze of decisions. As I entered into this experience, I used three questions to establish what would work best for my mobile rig.

While everyone will need to determine for themselves what prized gear is worth the haul and what is best left at home, asking yourself these questions will help you come to the right answer for you. And no matter what decision you make, this guide is full of travel-friendly amps, guitars, and effects, so you can still chase your tone far from home.

Should I Bring the Guitar I Love or One I Can Handle Losing?

The first issue is sorting out which guitar will be your road companion. Should you go with an instrument that checks of most the boxes but won’t send you into an emotional crisis if it experiences the many bumps of life on the road? Or do you pack your prized possession and risk it getting lost, damaged, dinged, or stolen?

Let’s say you go with option one. The great news here is there is no shortage of used electrics around these days, and many that pack a lot of value at low price points. My magic number was up to $250 USD. For this price, I found a huge market of more than serviceable Squiers, Epiphones, and Ibanez options. I even unearthed some funky vintage items by Teisco and Danelectro. The bonus of many of these buys was they already came with a gig bag, which kept a bit of cash in pocket for other gear.

If you go with option two and tote along your prized possession, it’s worth spending some time thinking about protection. Ideally, you’ll check your guitar as oversized carry-on. (If not, just insist it’s a baby stroller case and negotiate your way forward.)

Yet even as a carry on, it’s worth investing in a case or gig bag with enough stiffness and padding to protect your precious cargo in the event the airline insists on checking your guitar or—as recently happened to me—actually tosses it in with the luggage. For my money, the Mono Vertigo series of gig bags—or really, a sturdy hybrid of gig bag and harder case—are the best option for flight-ready travel.

Should I Use a Practice Amp or a Headphone-Only Smartphone Setup?

I can only survive so long unplugged. The good news is there are many options for getting great electric tone while travelling. For the most part, your decision is behind one of two doors.

Door number one—a micro amp. The tiniest amps I considered were the Yamaha THR10, Vox Adio Air GT, Boss Katana Mini, and Boss Katana Air. Anything bigger than these and you’re likely to have your neighbor in the hotel room next door pounding a beat on the wall.

For their small footprint, these all offer exceptional, pint-sized amp modelling, a modest array of onboard effects, and the option to play through speakers or headphones. To sweeten the deal, these micro amps double as a home stereo to play music from a smartphone, either through Bluetooth or direct connections.

Door number two: Set up a virtual rig using a smartphone. No matter what operating system you run, there are tons of apps to jam, write, and record guitar. To make the most of, say, Apple’s GarageBand or IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube, you’ll need an interface.

These don’t have to be expensive or complex. For example, the IK Multimedia iRig, BandLab Link, and Line 6 Sonic Port are all compact interfaces with two-digit price tags. The big thing here is that your hardware needs to be compatible with the connectivity of your smartphone. So before you buy, be sure to see the exact connections you’ll need.

Should I Build a Mini Pedalboard or Acquire a Multi-Effects Unit?

Let’s say you didn’t like either door above and decide instead to kick a hole in the wall. Congratulations, you’re an effects pedal addict. If you can’t leave home without some effects setup, you’ll need to consider how to distill your array of effects options at home into something you can reasonably describe as a "personal item" at the airline counter.

Let’s say you go with a bona-fide pedalboard. It’ll have to have to be small, like, Pedaltrain Nano small. These are brilliant options for between four and seven pedals and typically include a soft carrying case. You can maximize this real estate with mini-format pedals, dual-effect stompboxes, or even options by TC Electronic enabled with TonePrint zapability.

If you want to run the pedalboard out into a set of headphones, be sure to leave some space for a cabinet simulator. These range from Corolla to Cadillac, with options like the Mooer Radar and Neunaber Iconoclast.

Solution two for the effects question is to leave the daisy chain and patch cables behind and go with a multi-effect unit. This option has a lot to offer in terms of convenience, creativity, and connectivity straight into your headphones. Here again, options abound, but there are some strategies to keep costs down without compromising on sound.

As a player who grew up in the 1990s, I’ll always have a place in my heart for the now-near-vintage Line 6 Pod or Behringer V-Amp. While effects aficionados still toss barbs at these digital blobs, the fact is they’re bargains, nearly indestructible, and can even come with their own cozy gig bag. That makes them ideal travel gear on all counts.

These days, multi-effects makers are re-establishing themselves in the pedal market, which means huge leaps forward in sound and more gear to choose from. For the purposes of jamming on the road, the Atomic AmpliFIRE or Mooer GE-200 check of the essential criteria of packability, playability, and sonic options. These are both full-featured units with endlessly tweakable effects, amp models, and will even save an extra bit of space with their onboard tuners.

Afterthoughts and Practical Considerations for Your Road Rig

Being away from your own world of gear also means you’ll need to plan to be your own roadie and tech. No matter where you’re off to, bring a basic bench of accessories and items for quick fixes.

Pack a few sets of your favorite gauge strings and a guitar multi-tool to make for quick and easy maintenance. After all that time toiling on effects options, be sure you’ve got the right amount and length of patch cables. If you opt for a headphone setup, save yourself the pain of perching over your gear due to a short cord and buy a headphone cable extender.

Finally, if you’re travelling internationally, be sure to source out an appropriate power adapter for the wall socket on the other side. It would be a shame to go to all this trouble to have your plans thwarted by an international outlet staring you in the face.

While I can live without sleeping in my own bed for months on end, I can’t say the same about stepping out of my home studio. Pair it down, pack it up, and find inspiration in playing from entirely new places around the globe.

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