Hardshell Case or Gig Bag? It Depends on How You’ll Use It

(Image credit: William Baeck)

Several years ago, I was buying a new guitar from my local shop. The salesman opened the cardboard shipping box the guitar came in, removed the foam packing sleeve from the guitar, handed me the packing sleeve and the box, and told me with a smile, “Look, a gig bag and a case!”

Which brings up the question about which is better. OK, not the ones that came with that guitar—but gig bags or hardshell cases in general.

Not wanting to decide on just my own experience, I began by looking up what other people on the internet had to say on the subject.

The posts I found ranged from the well-considered comments of a packaging engineer who tests these sorts of items all day long using a shake table to model the effect of items traveling by truck, to a musician who questioned the sexuality of anyone who uses a gig bag in public. The engineer concluded hardshell cases are more likely than gig bags to transmit vibrations and sudden shocks to an instrument.

Meanwhile, I decided not to pursue what the musician concluded regarding gig bag-based sexual preferences. But going through a couple of hundred responses made a few things clear. First, discount false comparisons. It’s as unfair to compare a $100 hardshell case to a $15 unpadded vinyl gig bag as it is to compare a $100 gig bag to a $15 unpadded chipboard case. Yet I saw dozens of posters who used some form of this straw man argument.

Second—and sorry to sound like an ad from Planned Parenthood—the best form of protection largely depends on your lifestyle. That is, the right choice has a lot to do with how you plan store or travel with your instrument. Each has its advantages.

For the sake of arguing apples to apples, I’m assuming we’re comparing a well-constructed case to an equally well-constructed bag. And I’m not discussing air travel as that’s an issue worth its own article. Let’s start with cases. A hardshell case is more crush resistant than a bag. For instance, if a car backs over your case (an unfortunate but common bit of internet folklore) or if you leave your case lying on the floor and someone steps on it, the guitar inside is less likely to be damaged than if it were in a gig bag, especially if it’s an acoustic guitar. (Though, to be fair, I doubt many cases with acoustic guitars survive being run over by a car.)

Similarly, if you’re in a band and everyone tosses their equipment into the back of the van at the end of the gig, then a case could provide better protection should an amp come loose and decide to bang into your Martin dreadnought during the 3 a.m. drive home. In addition to the superior protection in these scenarios, there’s just something cool about a guitar case, which can add more to the perceived value than a gig bag does if you ever decide sell your guitar. On the other hand (literally), a case can be a disadvantage if you live in a big city and take public transportation.

Carrying 15 pounds of guitar plus case in your hand for an hour in the rain to get across town can leave you with a tired and sore hand by the time you arrive, perhaps with a wet guitar and even a ruined case. The problem is doubled if you’re trying to carry an amp in the other hand. (Meanwhile, I’m avoiding picturing anyone plugging in and switching on a wet amp.)

It’s a pain to navigate a hardshell case in and out of public transport, as well as try to hang onto a strap in a moving bus while your case sways back and forth banging into fellow passengers. And when you finally do get to that bar jam, there may be no room to lay down a case and open the lid without you and the case getting trampled. With a gig bag, your hands are free. Plus it’s typically lighter than an equivalent case. Moving about is a relative breeze, and most bags take wet weather better than a hardshell case—tweed-covered cases can be particularly susceptible to moisture damage. And a really well-designed gig bag can even handle a drop onto concrete without internal injury.

Once you arrive at your destination, you can unzip a gig bag without laying it down. Then just take your guitar out, and literally toss the bag into the corner or fold it up and stash it under the table. If you’re unloading other equipment, you can make it in one trip—amp in one hand, effects case in the other, and guitar on your back. Here in crowded, public-transport-filled London, I’d say gig bags outnumber cases five to one.

However, when I lived in California, where everyone drives a car, and would drive two simultaneously if they could afford the gas, most guitarists used hard cases. But then again, how often is your guitar even going outside the house?

For instance, if your stay-at-home electric didn’t come with a case and you just want to keep the dust off, you could buy an inexpensive, padded gig bag. The advantage being the bag would be lighter and take up less room than a case. Plus it’s easy to reach over your other stuff and lift a bagged guitar out single-handed. However, if you’re storing an acoustic in a way that something might fall onto it (at the bottom of a top-heavy closet for instance), a case could be a much better choice.

So for me in London now, a gig bag is the way to go when I leave the apartment, though most of my guitars live in guitar cases when they’re home.

When I used to live in California, where I had a car and plenty of room to leave my guitar in its case on the floor, a hardshell case would have worked just as well. My conclusion? It depends on how you’re going to use it.

Bag zipped. Case closed.

William Baeck is a writer, photographer and hack guitarist living in London. You can check out his webpage at williambaeck.com and reach him on Facebook andTwitter.

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