Winning the lottery, flaming skull tattoos and flying with guitars

flying with guitarMy partner flies a lot and tells me that she often sees people boarding planes with guitars in cloth cases. My response is usually, “Yeah, and some people win the lottery, buy a Caribbean island and drink pina coladas while watching a beautiful sunset each night.” Me? I live on a modest folk singer’s salary, in a small house where you can see the sunset, but only if you looked through the far right of the back window at exactly 6:57 pm in June. And I wrestle with airline personnel almost every time I fly. Maybe I should become a WWE professional with a name like Queen Bad Ass Musician Who Tries to Sneak Guitars on Planes … nah, that would never fit on a costume.

I’m not really a bad ass. However, I have tried to get guitars on a couple hundred planes. The responses are varied – from a kind pilot who carefully put my instrument in the first class closet, to a baggage handler who must have tossed my guitar down the entire length of the baggage ramp, because when I opened the case there were picks and other accessories all over the inside. (There’s no other way that all of that stuff would fall out of the separate compartment inside.)  Maybe he was once kicked out of a music store for violating their no “Stairway to Heaven” policy. They say that ex-smokers are much more vicious than non-smokers. Same goes for ex-musicians.

I started touring in the late 80’s. On those early trips I thought it was smart to bring my guitar in a hard shell case and not one of the commonly used cardboard ones. I was able to carry it on a couple of flights, but after three rounds with a flight attendant who clearly needed more coffee, I realized I needed a much more substantial case so that I could check it in with the regular baggage. I bought The Case. Made with quarter inch plywood and lined with thick foam, my guitar could fall out of the plane at 30,000 feet and get nothing more than a scratch (and only because it hit a duck on the way down). A friend dubbed the case Big Bertha. Men twice my size would stare open mouthed as I hefted it across several feet to get to the check-in counter. I smiled and didn’t sweat or grunt ‘cause those airline agents can smell weight. I’d say in my best going-to-church voice, “Over weight? Gosh, I don’t think so.”

At a San Francisco airport I was confronted with a young airline employee whose only job experience must have been a summer job at Dairy Queen. Jabbing a finger in my direction, he intoned in his best Big Boy voice, “You have to pay $80 for that.” I sweetly replied that I’d already flown from North Carolina to there without the extra charge. He sighed and  slowly explained to me that he’d measured it and indeed it was Too Big. He didn’t know who he was messing with. I’ve seen Bambi. I batted my eyelashes, a few small tears appearing at the corners, and asked if he could please bend the rules just this one time. “All right,” he admonished, “But don’t do it again.” That’s good because my next plan was to fall on my knees and it was a cold concrete floor.

Where the hell is my Academy Award?

After a few flights with Big Bertha I settled into a routine. I always checked in with a sky cap. No paltry one dollar tips from me. It was always a twenty and big smile. They never charged me extra. For airports without sky caps, though, I was in deep doo-doo.

I’ve tried various arrangements over the years. I arrived really early. I borrowed guitars. I rented them. I bought extra insurance. Really, though, nothing beats my own guitar and with Big Bertha, the only damage I ever had was a couple of times when the electronics shook lose. A little duct tape fixed that. The case, on the other hand, looked like the entire cast of So You Think You Can Dance tap danced on it in spiked golf shoes. They had even managed to pry loose the metal covers “protecting” the corners. We’re talking grommets, the same things that hold space stations together.

Then 9/11 happened and all bets were off. TSA agents started asking if I had guns inside that case. They wanted to take my strings, my guitar cord and asked what I did with the guitar stand. (I resisted the temptation to say “whack surly airline attendants.”) One TSA dude took my wire cutters. They were Craftsmen too, their sleek tips doubling as pliers. Those babies would survive the apocalypse but not TSA. Two weeks later the US lifted the ban on flying with wire cutters.

They aren’t consistent. Just last week I was able to gate check my guitar on the first flight, but for the second flight my polite request was greeted with a look like I had just asked the airline clerk to strip naked and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Her hands on her hips, she soberly informed me that it would have to be checked in as regular baggage. In my younger days I might have tried to reason with her, but I’m middle-aged now and I’m tired. At my destination a baggage handler hand carried it out to me. There’s a guy who’s going to heaven.

My brother once brought his guitar on board a flight. The instrument even had its own ticket that said “Mr. Guitar.” A flight attendant still wanted him to check it in. My brother is over six foot, rides a Harley and paid good money to bring it on board. She backed down. Maybe I should get a huge tat on my biceps that proclaims “Born to Ride” around a flaming skull.

If you’re getting ready to board a flight, please don’t glare at the mild mannered folk singer next to you like she’s some broad who over packed. She’s just someone who had to figure out how to pack a guitar, CDs, guitar stand and other accessories, and still have room for her socks. I am getting better, though. When I started touring I’d have three heavy suitcases, my purse and the guitar. With experience (and because I’m cheap) I’ve got that down to a small backpack, a compact suitcase and my instrument. Pretty soon I’m going to show up for gigs with just a CD and a pair of underwear. I can always sing a cappella.

If there was a game show about packing, I’d not only win but I could sing the theme song too.guitar on plane

When I meet other musicians who are dragging along a huge flight case the conversation usually starts with, “So, do you check it in?” We bitch about damages and exchange information about insurance. (I get mine through my union Local 1000. It rocks.) Horror stories are told in hushed tones – did you hear about so and so whose guitar arrived in splinters? Or – my favorite – the musician who ended up with a guitar case that bore tire tracks?

Everyone knows about the guy who made the video about how United destroys guitars. Great song, but it’s not just United who can drive a fork lift through an instrument and claim it was damaged because it’s a fragile item. (I’m not saying that’s what happened to this guy or to anyone, for that matter. My lawyer made me say that. Who am I kidding? I don’t have a lawyer. I’m a folk singer.)

I sold Big Bertha recently. It was getting harder to lug it around and I wasn’t flying as much. I now have a plastic molded case that really isn’t a flight case, but it’s lighter and is a step above a regular case. It doesn’t fit in the overhead of smaller planes. However, they sometimes let me gate check it. If I do have to hand it over I say a little prayer and envision it in white light.

I wonder how much a tattoo would cost?

flaming skull tattoo

********************

Before I get a plethora of tips I’ll warn you that there probably isn’t anything I haven’t tried and no, I don’t want to hear about your brother-in-law who always puts his vintage Martin in a gig bag and takes it with him on every flight. Have him buy you a lottery ticket ‘cause he’s one lucky guy.

I also don’t mean to disparage airline and TSA personnel. I realize that most of them are only trying to do their jobs (just like I’m trying to do mine). I’ve only thought about injuring one with a guitar stand; my therapist says that fantasies are good for me.

Tell me your flying with an instrument story.

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About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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28 Responses to Winning the lottery, flaming skull tattoos and flying with guitars

  1. I fly Southwest whenever possible. I take my guitar is a padded gig bag, and Southwest has never given me trouble about taking it onboard, where it fits nicely in the overhead bins.
    Delta is not so nice. I have been on a nearly empty plane with a Nazi flight attendant who absolutely refused to let me strap my guitar into an empty seat. They had let me fly to New York with it, but she was by no means going to let me get home. You don’t know scared until you see your guitar in a gig bag going up a ramp into the underbelly of a plane.
    I love Southwest!

  2. LANE says:

    Maybe someone should invent a guitar with a folding neck! Right where it meets the sounding board. I bet someone could re-invent the instrument, maybe with a smaller body but still with super sound qualities, and when it’s folded it would go into the overhead compartment. Sounds silly, to be sure, but NOT being a musician, I can imagine it’s possible! 🙂

  3. LANE says:

    –Forgot to say–great entry! Loved reading this.

  4. mefoley says:

    THAT was your FUNNIEST blog post ever!

    (Sometimes I think that nothing breeds humor like anger…)

    Don’t have an airline-broke-my-instrument story, but I did see from the plane window once a case tumble from the baggage compartment onto the tarmac. I didn’t recognize the case and thought it might have been a violin, but the owner was sitting near me and said it was a dulcimer. Don’t know whether it survived, because I had to run to make a connection.

    I hate to think of more bad luck headed your way, but it sure does make for some good reading when you write it all down…

  5. Great article, Jamie! Your posts are so great and witty. Just a joy to read! Thanks for sharing your insight.

  6. Hey Jamie – I’m big on Southwest too. I use a padded gig bag and purchase insurance from Clarion. After 9/11, I purchased a beautiful Calton case, but found that it was too heavy to carry around for weeks at a time. Anyone want to buy it?

    Over the years, I’ve had a bad experience with United (busted up the case pretty badly) and Delta. The gate agent literally came on the plane and chewed me out in front of the other passengers. He announced that he had alerted the folks in Atlanta about me and kept on ranting. What he didn’t know was that I was terminating in Atlanta, and since the guitar was already in the overhead (tada! I told you that it fits.), there wasn’t much he could do. He made a complete ass of himself and lots of other passengers let me know that they were on my side.

    I have learned to stay under the radar. My case is tan colored, and I hold it by my side during boarding. I sit in the aisle and make a point of helping people with their luggage. If I am given a gate check tag, I simply pocket it and walk on the plane.

    Lately, it’s been OK, but because Southwest still has free check in, it’s the best option. There is simply more room in the overhead bins.

    Gotta love these times we live in!

  7. Sharon Abreu says:

    Having given up on risking having to check a full-sized dreadnought in a gig bag and lugging a heavy maybe-protective-enough case, I have taken to traveling with the “Little Martin.” I love it. It has a decent sound – speaks quite well – and the fingerboard is a good size for my small hand. It’s 4 inches shorter and not as wide as a full-size guitar. In four years I’ve had no problem bringing it onto planes. And when I also have my fiddle with me, I’ve put both instruments in the overhead, one on top of the other. I got a pickup installed in my Little Martin (which cost almost as much as the guitar – $300 with the case at Guitar Center) and the sound is huge and beautiful when plugged in.

  8. chris taylor says:

    jamie-

    good grief! we haven’t been lucky (??) enough to be offered any gigs that we’ve had to fly to…yet. after reading this i’m beginning to wonder if we ever should attempt it…lol!!! so, obviously, i don’t have an “airline broke my instrument” story but i REALLY enjoyed this post. not only do we have guitars to worry about but keyboards as well-we have some heavy duty cases (supposedly “ATA” approved) but now i’m wondering if we ought to try to sneak them onboard as carry ons (they’re small).

    anyhow-thanx for the post-it’s a real eye opener. also, the video (while i feel bad for the guy who had that happen to him) was hilarious! again, thanx!!

    • jamiebobamie says:

      My pleasure. It’s even harder for a band since y’all have more equipment. Sometimes clubs have a back line you can use or you can share instruments with co-billed bands. There’s always a way to do it. 🙂

  9. Jaime – have you ever tried a Back Axe? It enables you to wear a cased guitar like a backpack. Doesn’t help getting your guitar on board but it sure makes a difference navigating your way around the airport. Don’t know it this link will show: http://www.berkshire.net/~mmipro/gtr.html. googgle back axe if it doesn’t work.

  10. Marg Herder says:

    Years ago I was flying to San Diego to see the Indianapolis Women’s Chorus perform at GALA. I’m an audio engineer and had just purchased a couple fancy new Earthworks mics which I was bringing along so my engineer friend Paul, who lives in San Francisco, could try them out. Earthworks mics are weird looking things. Though I think most mics tend to look like they came out of the Good Vibrations catalog, these mics are designed such that, well, you might find them in an altogether different section of the catalog. I won’t, on your nice blog here, tell you what Kara Barnard calls them. Anyway. I had a pair of them in a fancy wooden case in my carry on. Now if you’ve ever seen a James Bond movie where someone assembles a handgun out of a pen and some other little pieces, let me tell you, this is just about what those mics must have looked like on an x-ray machine. I was nervous about getting them through security. So as I loaded my carry on onto the conveyor belt I was preparing all kinds of technical explanations that would prevent the security guys from messing with my new, expensive and very fragile microphones. I was stunned when the bag came out the other side, without a peep from the guy staring intently at the monitor.

    As I slung the bag over my shoulder and walked away I said to my partner, “I can’t believe the guy didn’t hassle me about the mics.”

    “Maybe,” she said, “He thought he knew what they were and was embarrassed. Maybe he gets the Good Vibrations catalog too.”

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Hot damn that was funny. Reminds me of the time a TSA dude slowly pulled the beaded bra from my bellydance costume out of my carry on, held it up … looked at it … looked at me … looked at it. When I told him I was also a bellydancer, his lips formed an “Oh” and he gently put it back.

  11. Johanna Halbeisen says:

    So are you going to write the update (or sequel) to Tom Paxton’s Thank You Republic Airlines? So many parts of your piece reminded me of that song, like “may a team of mad flamenco dancers do to your face what you did to the neck of my guitar”. Take careful aim. Tom says Republic Airlines went under not long after he wrote the song.

  12. Johanna Halbeisen says:

    What song about United? Yours?

  13. Sandy Andina says:

    Years ago, when I didn’t want to schlep a heavy Taylor 5-ply case through O’Hare and LAX, I tried one of those Back-Axe harnesses, and it was a disaster. I needed a large flat surface on which to lay it out and then put the guitar in it. As soon as I put it through the TSA belt, the agent pulled me aside, had me disassemble it and open the case so he could peer inside to make sure the pickup & preamp weren’t explosives. When he was finished, I was not allowed to reassemble the whole mess on the security-exam tables beyond the metal detectors because others were waiting in line to have their suitcases rifled. The only suitable surface I could find was the floor….and of course I promptly threw my back & knees out bending over to assemble and retrieve it. When I got to the gate I had to gate-check it anyway. I’ve tried a custom Pegasus flight case, which was even heavier and took twice as long to make (and, with delays and the resulting decline of the dollar against the pound, cost twice as much) as a Calton; it took just two international round trips to deform the gasket and render one latch unclosable. I bought a “Clam,” hoping it’d be sturdy and the wheels would make the schlepping easier–but the velcro holding the wheels kept loosening and there were several gaps in the rim of the closure, which made me leave it home on a very rainy day and take my chances gate-checking the five-ply. Bought a Gator trapezoid-shaped molded poly ATA-rated dread case, but even my dread rattled around in it. Finally found two Caltons on eBay already built for my Martin dread (semi-stock) and M-36 (someone backed out when they found out the price).

    But before I had to fly with them I found out about Voyage-Air guitars when I roomed at NERFA with Deb Cowan, who owned a custom OM made for her by V-A’s owner Harvey Leach. I was blown away–I had no idea it was anything other than a really nice OM until I saw her put it away: the neck folded and the strings were held in place by passing through, not over, the nut; and when the neck was unfolded and held in place by the strap pin, the strings were extremely close to being in tune. I forgot about it till I had to fly to San Diego on vacation and took a Larrivee Parlour in a gigbag so I could bring it aboard. I was so used to playing my Martins & Taylors at home that the parlor guitar sounded tinny and jangly by comparison. I was reading the Acoustic Guitar Forum and there was a Voyage-Air thread. I checked out a bunch of reviews and videos, and bought a VAOM-06 (solid top, lam. mahog. body) which was on special at Guitarget, and shipped the Larrivee home. The accessory/laptop compartment had to be zipped off so I could carry both parts aboard a little puddle-jumper, but zipped back together it fit in the overhead of an A-300 on the connecting flight. Then I found a VAD-2 (dread, all solid woods: Sitka spruce top, Ind. rosewood b&s, abalone rosette, gold/ebony tuners) for over a third off. I took it on the road via car and eventually had a pickup installed. Just got back from New Orleans–SW’s overhead bins are too shallow to fit both pieces zipped together, but deep enough to accommodate it opened like a book (guitar case on one side, laptop case on the other). What’s nice about it is that because a laptop fits in the accessory case, I needn’t take a laptop case big enough to hold a purse (and I don’t have to downsize my purse either). At the gig, I arrived before the first artist’s set so the place was nearly empty and nobody saw me unfold the guitar. (Although two bridge pins had fallen out and it took me awhile to find them against my black pants, black case, and black-patterned carpet). When I got onstage two hours later, nobody in the packed room knew I wasn’t playing a regular dread–it sounded great–till I folded it back up once I was done. I promptly scotch-taped the bridge pins in place for the flight home, though.

  14. Roo says:

    I’ve been lucky! My ‘flying with an instrument’ story ended with a scraped case that did it’s job: the guitar was undamaged.

    I guess the closest thing I have to a ‘funny’ story is flying with a guitar and a banjo, and giving my friend the banjo to take (it would’ve cost me way too much to try and bring both under my name) because I knew it would embarrass him. *score* 🙂

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Yeah, it always helps to have a friend on the same flight who doesn’t have their own carry on. Extra score if it’s a banjo.

      Flight cases always look like hell. Better that than the instrument.

      May we both continue to have good luck and good insurance.

  15. Pingback: Around the Campfire with Jamie Anderson | Round World Travels

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