Get on the Case: Hard Shell Versus Gig Bag
By Phil O'Keefe | (edited)
Is one really better than the other?
Recently I purchased a new acoustic guitar - a Taylor 150e 12 string (you can read the details about it in this thread, or check out Russ Loeffler's comprehensive review of the Taylor 150e right here on Harmony Central), and instead of a hardshell case, it came with a nice gig bag. While I do play live occasionally, I'm primarily a studio guy so my guitars don't do a lot of traveling. Still, since I live in a fairly arid area I wondered if the soft case would supply sufficient protection. I was particularly concerned about storing it and keeping it humidified inside the bag when not in use. That led to me researching the subject, and ultimately, this article.
Whenever buying a guitar or bass, it's important to consider storage when not in use. While an instrument stand can be a good place to set it down for brief periods, it's not really an ideal long-term storage solution, and doesn't protect the instrument during transport. Specialized ATA-style flight cases (a form of extra-rugged hard shell case that meets airline industry recommendations) are great for touring musicians, but are overkill for someone who is just starting to play. Cheap chipboard cases have largely (and thankfully) become a thing of the past. That leaves two broad categories of instrument storage and protection solutions - gig bags and hard shell cases. Let's take a look at some of the characteristic features, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.
A Taylor hard shell case (top) and gig bag
Gig Bags and Soft Cases
The quality and design of both cases and gig bags can vary considerably. Bags are especially variable. I've seen everything from thin nylon bags with questionably sewn handles and straps with scarcely any padding inside all the way up to "bags" that are very heavily reinforced and padded. These sorts of bags are often referred to as "soft cases," and while their exteriors may look similar to a regular gig bag, they usually have significantly more padding; some even offer cloth-covered rigid foam inserts and padding levels that rival hard shell cases. The better the padding, the more protection the bag will provide. As for the exteriors, the bags are usually made of a tough fabric material such as nylon, Cordura, or leather. While they won't protect your instrument from being crushed, they offer protection from scratches, minor bumps and dings, sunlight and dust, and to a degree, rain, snow and temperature extremes.
Soft cases and gig bags have a couple advantages over hard shell cases. They tend to be lighter and easier to carry; in fact, many have built-in straps so you can wear the instrument like a backpack, which frees up your hands for other things - like getting phone numbers from groupies, or cashing the huge check from your gig. Many also have more built-in storage (in the form of zippered compartments) for accessories and cables than hard shell cases do. They also tend to be less expensive than hard cases, but remember, you get what you pay for; some of the nicer bags can cost as much as some hard cases do. Lower-cost models may be more appropriate for lower-cost instruments.
Hard Shell Cases
As with gig bags, the design of hard shell cases can vary too, from the materials used for the hard outer shell to the level of padding and protection they provide inside. Many are made of plywood and covered with vinyl, Tolex, or some other durable fabric. Others use an external shell made from fiberglass or polypropylene plastic. The heavier the shell material and structure of the case, the better protection your instrument will have from things that can break, bruise, ding or crush it, and increased protection from this kind of significant damage is the biggest advantage of a well-designed hard shell case. Of course, the downside is that the heavier it's built, the more it's likely to weigh.
Many hard shell cases have interiors that are filled with fabric or felt-covered EPS foam, with form-fitting molded recesses shaped into it to fit the instrument the case was designed for. This holds the instrument more securely than many gig bags do, and does a better job at preventing the instrument from shifting around inside (and potentially being damaged) during travel.
Hard shell cases tend to be heavier than gig bags and usually cost more, but they are generally your best choice (short of an ATA-rated flight case) for maximum protection, and are often included with the purchase of more upscale instruments.
Which One Should You Choose?
For many players, their decision is determined by what's included with the instrument when they buy it, but you may want to give it a bit more thought. Ask yourself these questions before shopping for a case or bag.
- Do you travel with the instrument a lot, or do you usually stay home and rarely ever travel with it?
- Do you need to travel light, or keep your hands free for other things? (Subway users, motorcycle riders, carrying other gear, etc.)
- Are you purchasing a case for an electric, or a more fragile acoustic instrument?
- Do you live in an area with freezing-cold winters or blazing hot summers, or other weather extremes?
- How clumsy or careful are you in general?
- Is the weight of the case a concern?
- How expensive is the instrument you want to protect?
- Are you on a tight budget?
The answers to these questions will help you determine whether a case or bag is better suited to your needs. Bringing it back to my new 12-string, I was less concerned with the possibility of it suffering an impact or crushing blow, but since I live in a very warm and dry area, I was concerned about how well a soft case style gig bag would retain humidity from an in-case humidifier so I contacted Glen Wolff, the Customer Service Manager at Taylor Guitars and asked him about it. Here's what he had to say:
"Humidity control is possible in gig bags as well as cases. The main thing is you’re stopping the direct airflow over the guitar either way.
Here’s something to consider: Our hard cases are made from wood, about twice as much wood as we use to build a guitar. When you humidify your guitar in the hard case, you’re also humidifying the case. This means your humidifier is trying to humidify both the guitar and the case at the same time. This can work in your favor if you’re maintaining the humidity inside the case because the moisture the case is holding acts as a reserve for the guitar should you encounter drier than normal conditions or forget to check for a few weeks. When using a humidifier in a gig bag, you’re pretty much only humidifying the guitar. The bag isn’t going to absorb the amount of moisture the wood case does, but you don’t get that reserve. Same goes for the hard bag."
So yes, it's possible to keep a guitar properly humidified, even in a bag, but you do have to be careful to check your case humidifier regularly.
As with my new 12 string, a hardshell case or gig bag is sometimes included when you purchase a new instrument. Some manufacturers include them as part of the accessory package that is included with specific models, and in those instances they don't cost anything extra. The least expensive instruments on the market tend to come without either one. As you move up the price scale you'll start to see more instruments that include a gig bag. Hard shell cases tend to be offered only as an optional purchase on most beginner and many intermediate level instruments, and are typically included in the purchase price only on more upscale models.
While buying a top of the line hard shell case makes little sense for a inexpensive starter guitar, if you live in an area with temperatures that are really hot or cold or where it rains a lot, a hard shell case may be a better investment than a bag for your intermediate-level or nicer quality instrument since they frequently provide better protection from the elements. If you throw your guitar into the band van, trailer, or your car trunk along with a lot of other gear on a regular basis, then a hard shell case would be a good investment since your instrument will be less likely to be damaged by other shifting gear than it would in a soft bag. Even beginners who travel to and from their guitar teacher's location a couple of times a week might need hard shell case protection - especially if they're hard on instruments, or generally clumsy. However, if you're like me, and travel less frequently, a gig bag or soft case may be all you really need. Both cases and gig bags are useful products, and neither one is really better in all situations, so take stock of where you live and what you need from a case, consider the value of the instrument you want to put inside it, and purchase accordingly.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.
Edited by Phil O'Keefe