What to Take on Vacation – A Musician Weighs In!

Today’s post comes to you from ‘musician country’ – Nashville, TN!

Almost every year I hit this city, taking in its great musical heritage, learning from its storied past and present, and investigating new ideas, contacts and relationships to help my music forward. It helps to have relatives here too (thanks, brother Steven)!

This year my son Caden is with me, and his friend Tyler, since they’re both on spring break from school. We’ve travelled from Michigan, hitting several musical friends of mine along the way, with whom I do music online. It’s great actually meeting them face to face, not to record but just to hang out and invest friendship which, after all, is more important than music. One of the few things!   lol

Mixed in with all our usual luggage and personal items is my G.A.S. Emergency Kit! These are things I must have when traveling, in order to “light the fire”, “stir the pot” and spur me to create new music whenever the opportunity arises.

What to take on vacation

Now, if you’re here because you were asking yourself what to take on vacation, regarding all the normal stuff, sorry to say your answer’s not here. But if you’re a musician and/or songwriter… well, then check this out – perhaps you relate…!

Happy Guitar Traaaaaaails to You….

Do you have a travel guitar? Have you ever in the past?

If not, I highly recommend to you to get one. Blame it on your G.A.S. Blame it on me. Just do it. It’s sooooo helpful and inspiring, and perfect for when you only have so much room for what other people might consider “non-essential items”. If you’re a guitarist and travel at all, you want, no, you neeeeed… a travel guitar.

The Yamaha JR1 guitar
Grabbing my Yamaha JR1 before departure!

I personally go with the Yamaha JR1. It’s not marketed as a travel guitar, but rather as a “reduced scale” acoustic guitar for kids.

I find though that it’s just the ticket for getting that “real acoustic sound” (since it is one) in a compact unit. Its spruce top makes for really good top plate resonance and gives me a sound reminiscent of my bigger “adult” guitars back home.

Its dimensions are 33″ long x 12.5″ at the widest part of the body. In its cloth case, this guitar is small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of a plane. It’s also great for driving, since it’s tiny size allows you to fit it easily in anywhere with your other luggage pieces.

Now, you can get other travel guitars that fold up, if you need something even smaller. than the JR1. There’s electric models, other acoustic models, some with hollow bodies, solid bodies… NO bodies! Some acoustic and some you’ll hear only through headphones.

The Airlines rep frowny face
“You want to bring… THAT… on the plane?!”

A myriad of choices, but they are all designed to give you something to shred on that won’t make the airlines rep give you that frowny face.

Yea, you know the one I’m talkin’ about.

For me tho’, the JR1 is the perfect musical travelling companion. And I’ve written maaaaaany a song on it.

Obviously, don’t expect this guitar to give a booming low end. It’s too small to shake the foundation!

Also, I find the strings closer together quite a bit, so when I fingerpick I have to adjust my placement. A subtle but noticeable difference that you’ll have to deal with if you fingerpick as I do at times.

If those two things are acceptable, then you’re good. Give a travel guitar a try. I don’t think you’ll ever go back once you experience how many songs you’ll produce while seein’ the world!

By the way, it doesn’t have to be just for travel. I keep my JR1 in my living area downstairs from the studio and if I have a quick idea I grab it and record on my phone. Never let an idea get away again!

I’ve recorded with this guitar too and gotten a really good final product, though the EQ will differ compared to your typical acoustic. To be honest, it actually sits in the mix better than my bigger acoustics sometimes, especially if in a mix with bass and keys. I don’t have to dial out any bottom end!

Yamaha did a nice job with this one, and tho’ it’s meant for kids… this adult turned out to be a fan!!

In Good Shape-o With a Capo

Let’s face it: if you write in the same keys all the time, no matter how good a lyricist you are… you’re gonna start sounding the same. No one’s music should be boring. We work too hard on these songs, right? So mix it up a bit and use a capo.

The Glide Capo
The Glide Capo rocks… and rolls!

If you haven’t delved into Capo-Land before, you’re in for a treat. Basically, you can change the key you are writing or playing in by just putting the capo on the appropriate fret. If you’re playing open chords in C, for example, if you put the capo on the FIRST fret, you’d be increasing the key by one half step, putting you in C# or Db. The SECOND fret would increase the key by one whole step, putting you in D, etc.

When writing it adds so much variety to your songs. If you just put the capo anywhere on the neck, you’ll be sounding different than if you play only your regular open chords down by the nut.

I also find my melodies sit differently when I put the capo higher on the neck, because fundamental frequencies of the guitar strings (80 Hz to 330 Hz) are now higher, and therefore they interact (and sometimes even interfere) with my tenor voice (80 Hz to 330 Hz) more. All that just means… you’ll create differently, and that’s always a good thing.

Guitar capo is what to take on vacation!
Guitar capo on fret one

There are a large number of artists that write with capos. The one that springs to mind immediately is Paul Simon. When I was first learning guitar I memorized a lot of Simon & Garfunkel tunes. Most people know these tunes and sing along with gusto when they’re performed. Plus they really force you to have your fingerpicking skills down pat.

James Taylor, Phil Keaggy, Joni Mitchell… heck, even our modern songwriting wiz-kid Taylor Swift slides her capo on all the time. They’re out there if you’re looking, so keep your eyes open.

When I’m on the road, my capo sits in the top shallow pocket of my backpack, right in with my phone. That way it’s always within quick reach if a song idea is at my fingers.

Multiple capo madness!
Multiple capo madness!

You can also get really creative and use multiple capos for songs. Phil Keaggy does this. Trying to figure out his material is, because of this, is really hard! I often have to look up videos of him playing to figure out how he got ‘that sound’, only to see… it’s two partial capos placed at different places on the neck. What a trickster!

I have at least 8 different capos to choose from, but when I travel I almost always grab my Greg Bennett Glider Capo. I have two of ’em and they work great. They have the added benefit of being able to lower or raise song key by just sliding the capo us or down, without having to take it off. Great engineering there.

So, to keep music fresh and challenge yourself to explore new territories, always throw a capo in your bag. You just never know how your music might groove in new, exotic keys!

Whistle While You… Play?!

I travel with a penny whistle, and as Lindsey Buckingham put it, “I’m never goin’ back again!”

For those that don’t know, a penny whistle is mostly widespread and known for its contributions to Irish folk music. Am I Irish? Nope. My ancestors had their feet solidly south on the European continent, but that doesn’t stop me from really loving to play this exuberant, expressive and contagiously exciting music style!

Practicing those Irish tunes to take on vacation!
Practice makes… Irish!

I first became acquianted with Irish folk music through the violin. I was getting a bit tired of only playing classical, so I bought a small book called “Irish Tunes” to throw some diversity into my practice times. Little did I know what awaited me. Within a day of trying it out I couldn’t get enough. These songs are so much fun to play, I just kept wanting to learn more and more!!

But these songs can also be extremely tricky, mostly because of the breakneck speed at which their played a lot of the time. I noticed that on a lot of the tunes, there was this high-pitched flute-like sound that really brought the joy out in the music. A little Google research divulged that the penny whistle was the maker of these bright, happy lines, so I decided to get one and try it out. HAD to be easier than fiddle technique, right?

Well, as soon as I got it (all the way from Ireland, no less!) I was hooked. What a fun instrument. And what’s even cooler is it can stay right in your pocket no matter what you’re doing and at the drop of a shamrock… boom! You’re friends are dancing jigs around you!

The Online Academy of Irish Music

The next thing I discovered was that authentic Irish music could be learned online by a really killer website called “The Online Academy of Irish Music” (www.oaim.ie). I’ve learned a lot of great songs with the penny whistle teacher there, Kirsten Allstaff and had a blast practicing these wickedly uplifting little ditties.

One vacation departure day I was really wanting to finish mastering a tune called “I’ll Tell Me Ma” so I stuck my whistle in my backpack. That vacation I discovered just how easy and cool it was to able to pull out the whistle and bring a smile to my family’s face by playing one of the hundreds of lilting, sunny melodies Ireland has produced with this instrument.

Traveling’s never been so happy.   😉

Astronaut Catherine Coleman knows what to take on vacation to space - a penny whistle!
Astronaut Catherine Coleman takes her Irish flute & penny whistle everywhere… even SPACE!

For the record, I play a “Tony Dixon” penny whistle. You can get these in the key of “D”, as I have, or the key of “G”. Those are the two main keys used in Irish music. I find Dixon models to be aligned well for good intonation, tho’, like all wind instruments, you will have to lip up or down occasionally.

By the way, did you know that it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune, that the piper will lead us to reason? I think he’s using a penny whistle…

To Record, or Not to Record… There’s No Question!

Micro-cassettes and recorder
Micro-cassettes, recorder & hundreds of song ideas!

There was a time when capturing a new song was not as easy as today. Over the course of my career, I’ve purchased digital recorders, several micro-cassette recorders, and even (goin’ way back) a portable cassette recorder, just to be able to capture songs as I come up with them wherever I’m at.

This is crucial, especially when you’re beginning to write songs, because your mind will not always remember what you came up with days ago… or hours ago… or sometimes MINUTES ago!! No matter what, I always record my ideas. Great songs are not easy to come by, so I don’t wanna lose one potentially just because I was too busy putting gas in the car or doing some other mundane task. SO not worth it.

But these days… we’ve got our smart phones, people! No extra device needed. Got an idea? Speak or play it into your phone. Then, just download it later into the computer.

Many times, like on this vacation that I’m finishing up here, I finish the song completely with just my phone. Early this week, for example, I hummed a new melody into the phone as I was driving a long distance. Then, playing it back through the car system via Bluetooth, I came up with the words to the Chorus. Then the verse. By the time we arrived at Mike’s, a keyboard player I like to work with, the song was all done except for a third verse.

Not a bad bit o’ progress for 201.4 miles.   😉

The End of the Road

So there ya go – now you know what to take on vacation that really matters! It doesn’t take a lot, but it can sure make a lot.

As I conclude this post, I am also concluding my vacation. We had a great time in Music City, as well as other towns, and I come back with three new songs in my arsenal. I still have to flesh out all the verses lyrically, but everything alse is there, thanks to my G.A.S. Emergency Kit items!

Crack open some new music
Crack open some new music on the road!

If you haven’t tried writing or rehearsing while traveling, I hope this article is the impetus for you to give it a try. A couple songs I’ll be releasing soon on my new albums are ones that were written while traveling… one even while on vacation!

If you already write while traveling, what gear do you take? What songs have you brought to life successfully because of it? We’d like to hear, so share in the comments!

In the meantime, as I unpack my luggage AND guitar, go… make… sounds!


2 Replies to “What to Take on Vacation – A Musician Weighs In!”

  1. What instrument did you play in that jazz band, Jim??

    I started piano and guitar at the same time when I turned 17. Glad i did. They both are such expressive instruments of the mind and soul.

    Check out these articles on learning guitar for beginners and you’ll have made a great start:

    *Part One
    *Part Two
    *Part Three

    When you read through these let me know and I’ll turn you onto further developmental resources!


  2. Music is a big part of my life. I played in a jazz band back in the day but since have not played. But I have to have music as a part of my daily routine. It is great for the soul! I have always wanted to learn how to play guitar and piano, just never really did it. I am thinking a great retirement project now. Do you have lessons that a person can download?

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