It had been to Mount Everest and into space, but until we tried it out, the Backpacker Guitar hadn’t been on the back of a horse.
Last fall, while I was running errands in Bozeman, Montana, I walked past a house with a front porch crowded with guitar-playing Montana State University students. They sat on ratty couches circa Mork & Mindy, jamming to a never-ending Grateful Dead tune. One instrument in particular caught my eye, as it looked like a cross between a cricket mallet and a ukulele.
”It’s a Backpacker Guitar,” the player said, handing it over.
I’m no Eric Clapton, but I can strum an E chord, and sure enough the gizmo sounded like a regular guitar. And, true to its name, it is typically hauled around in a backpack.
Like most musicians, I enjoy playing music anywhere – especially around a campfire. But after an ill-fated attempt at packing a guitar on a packhorse I’d given up hope of playing in the backcountry. As I strummed the pint-size picker, a new realm of possibility opened up.
Turns out, Backpacker owners are fanatical about their port-a-guitar exploits, writing Martin Guitar Company, maker of the Backpacker Guitar, hundreds of letters and e-mails each year. Among other exotic travels, Backpackers have journeyed up Mount Everest, down whitewater rivers and even into space, says Dick Boak, Martin’s Backpacker guru. Between servicemen in Iraq and hippies in Nepal, the guitars have been “pretty much everywhere,” Boak says.
Except, we soon found out, in the backcountry, slung on the side of a saddle. So, Boak proposed a challenge:
“We’ll send you a demo model to conduct a horseback field test. But don’t pamper it. Sing loud, and scratch it up!”
The Backpacker arrived a week later, looking more like a Fischer Price “my-first-guitar” toy than a bona fide instrument. The fret board and strings were the same as those found on a regular acoustic guitar, but the body was reduced in size by two-thirds. That reduction gives the guitar portability but at the sacrifice of sound, as the size of a guitar’s body affects amplification. But at $200, the Backpacker isn’t an instrument meant for Carnegie Hall. Rather, it offers backcountry riders the opportunity to play their favorite tunes without worrying about every grain of trail dust depreciating an expensive investment.
In that spirit, a friend and I tossed it into the horse trailer and headed into the mountains.
I tried three methods of transporting the guitar by horseback. First, I slung it over my shoulder by the carrying strap on the guitar’s soft-shell case. That worked fine for short stints in the saddle, but for a longer ride I tied the guitar and case to the cantle. The Backpacker’s dimensions were awkward, but manageable: 24-inches in circumference (about that of a large bedroll), and three feet in length (throw your leg wide when mounting, and be careful not to side-swipe any trees). Finally, I loaded it onto a pack animal; the guitar travels well stashed in a pannier or thrown on as a top load.
One word of warning: the guitar is portable but not indestructible. The backside of my Backpacker developed a 10-inch crack during testing, either from being tied down too tightly with a lash rope or my overly zealous dog jumping on it while in the back seat of the truck. But even with that beauty mark, the Backpacker sounds a whole lot better than playing air guitar around the campfire.
Learn more about Martin Guitar Co.’s Bakcpacker Guitar at mguitar.com.