It might sound like a cliché, but it’s absolutely true: music connects people. This fact gains additional value for travelers. Wherever you go, music can make it easier for you to meet people and share very special moments with them.
If you’re already a musician, you might have found it hard to take your passion on a journey with you. If you aren’t a musician yet, you might have thought it’d be too difficult to carry an instrument and practice on the road. It can be, indeed, but it mainly depends on what kind of an instrument you want to play. Of course it’s impossible to backpack around with a piano attached to your bag, but luckily there are a number of instruments out there that are portable enough for roaming souls. Here’s a list of 16 suggestions. We also include some links to videos, so that you could easily understand how the listed instruments look and sound like.
Small when it’s about the size, but huge when it’s about the charm, the ukulele is a perfect instrument for vagabonds. It’s light, handy and fits in a small backpack. Because of its Hawaiian origins, the ukulele brings to mind sunny beaches, colorful flowers and fresh breeze of the Pacific island. Despite of its innocent look, the instrument can be quite impressing. To get what we mean by impressing, check out this video of Hawaiian virtuoso Taimane playing Bach’s Tocatta; then, to see the contrast, take a look at this delicate song by James Hill.
The guitar isn’t exactly a small instrument, but it’s still relatively portable. It’s one of the most popular instruments, so wherever you go, you’ll find some fellow guitarists to jam with, exchange tips and discuss techniques. Guitar producers understood it and right now there are a few special models available on the market. If standard-sized guitars are too big for your luggage, you may consider getting one of those designed particularly for travelers. Here you can see one of them, the Martin Backpacker.
Can’t decide whether to get the uke or guitar? Guitalele is your thing then. It’s as small as the ukulele, but has six strings and bigger chord possibilities. Some of the instruments have a built-in microphone, thanks to which you can either use them as an acoustic guitar or increase their power with an amplifier. In this video you can see exactly how the guitalele looks like (and cry a bit because of the Elton John’s romantic song).
The flute is one of the oldest instruments in the world and can be found nearly all around the globe. There’s a lot of types to choose from, but all are relatively small, so whatever you pick, you shouldn’t have trouble with fitting it in your bag. You might associate flutes with mystic sounds of folk songs, but their abilities are way wider. Take a look at this insane Jethro Tull’s performance. As you see, the flute can totally rock the stage.
The harmonica is one of the smallest and thus inconspicuous instruments, but remember: looks can be deceiving. Once you learn how to use it, the harmonica turns out to be powerful. Just look at this performance by Juzzie Smith. There’s one thing you should be aware of before you get the harmonica: your playing possibilities will be limited to what key the harp is in. That’s why, after a couple of weeks, you might find yourself with a collection of harmonicas in your bag. It’s addictive, so sooner or later you’ll want to be able to play more and more songs. Don’t worry though, they’re relatively cheap and even if you carry 5 of them, it won’t make your luggage neither heavy nor large.
Because it’s small and affordable, the recorder is often used at music lessons in schools. Many people have played it at least once in their lifetime, but few actually learnt how to use it properly, so despite of being somewhat known, the recorder is a quirky thing. Forget the simple songs you have associated this instrument with and listen to this. Surprising, isn’t it? Moreover, the recorder is cheap is and very easy to carry around.
The mandolin is just adorable. It looks pretty, it sounds awesome and gives you a lot of possibilities to play various melodies. Since it’s quite fragile, you must be especially careful while transporting it, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Even though it’s most common in folk and bluegrass, you can play all sorts of melodies with the mandolin, for example cute pop songs like this one. The mandolin gives you a wide range of chords to play, so you can really improvise a lot.
Sophisticated and difficult to play, the violin is an instrument for patient musicians who are ready to commit many hours to learning. It also requires a lot of care in maintenance. Nevertheless, the violin is pure magic. This somewhat elegant instrument is usually associated with fancy venues and theatres, but it sounds equally amazing on the streets, just like in this case. Once you learn how to play it and take care of it, the violin can turn out to be a perfect instrument for travelling.
One of the most elegant of woodwind instruments, the clarinet can often be heard in classical music. It was popular during the jazz age and is still being used to play this genre as well. It sounds amazing in venues, bars and on the streets, like in this video for instance. As you can see, the performance takes place in New Orleans – that’s where jazz musicians for the first time started using the instrument. Interested in the clarinet? Check out one more video where a musician explains how to make it by yourself out of a… carrot.
The ocarina is so tiny and light you can easily fit it in your pocket or even wear it as an extravagant necklace. It’s not hard to play (at least on a basic level), so it’s a perfect instrument for impatient aspiring musicians who want to learn as soon as possible. The sound of ocarina is quite mystical, so it goes extremely well with atmospheric folk songs. Here you can see an elf (sic!) playing a song from the famous Hobbit movie. The ocarina perfectly suits elves, woods and mysterious melodies, doesn’t it?
The best thing about the djembe is its ability to bring people together. As soon as you start playing, wherever it’ll be, there’s going to be some folks joining you, either to watch, dance, listen or play along. The Bambara people from Mali say the djembe’s name comes from a saying that translates to “everyone gather together in peace”. Just look at this lovely street performance. Wouldn’t it be great to be a part of this team? Another good thing about the djembe – you can play a bit even if you don’t know what exactly you’re doing, just grab the thing and hit away as you please. As long as have a bit of an ear, it shouldn’t be a complete disaster. Size and weight can be a problem though, some of the drums are quite big and heavy, but you can look for smaller ones.
We have some inconspicuous instruments on this list, but the spoons win in this category. They don’t look like an instrument at all. If you see someone with the spoons, you’d rather expect them to start eating a soup than playing music. Nevertheless, with a bit of imagination and creativity, the spoons can be effective, even more so since nobody expects them to be an awesome instrument. Imagine you take out a couple of spoons from your bag and start playing Michael Jackson’s pieces like this guy. Shocked audience guaranteed.
Known also as mbira or thumb piano, the kalimba is an Africa instrument, but you can find it in Europe and the United States. It’s affordable and small, not bigger than a pocket-sized book or a smartphone. The kalimba is made out of a wooden board and metal tines. To make it play, you need to pluck the tines with your thumbs, just like in this video. As you can hear, the sound of the kalimba is charming and unique, so you can create a very special atmosphere by playing it.
14. Jew’s Harp
The Jews harp (or the mouth harp and jaw harp, as it’s also being called) is a great instrument for a hardcore backpacker on a low budget: cheap, hardy, very light and amazingly unique. It doesn’t require nearly as much maintenance as most musical instruments, it doesn’t break easily, it doesn’t take much space in the luggage. The harp looks a bit strange, but sounds even stranger, so you must enjoy quirkiness to truly love this instrument. In this TedX talk you can see two guys who are really passionate about the harp, they might inspire your enthusiasm.
The trumpet may not be one of the tiniest instruments, but it’s still small enough to be carried around. It’s also loud, fun and extremely pretty. With the trumpet you can play a variety of genres, from jazz to folk, from classical to blues. It’s a great option for creative musicians who love experimenting and drawing attention – you can’t go unnoticed with a trumpet. That’s why, if you’re thinking of playing on the streets, it’s one of the best instruments you might choose. Here’s one lovely piece for motivation. As you can see, the trumpet is perfect even for soft, popular songs.
One more alternative for those who like unique, unknown instruments. The name’s not accidental – the washboard is really made of the surface of a cleaning device. It’s being played by scraping or tapping the washboard with thimbles. If you want to surprise your audience, the washboard will do perfectly. Most people won’t have a clue what is this thing you’ve just taken out, the others will assume you’re about to make your laundry in the old-style way. Here’s one video of street musicians performing a very suitable song “Travelin’ broke”
Are you a travelling musician? What’s your instrument? Let us know! And share this article with your friends, perhaps some of them will get inspired to start playing something new!
Want to play one of these small music instruments on your next backpacking adventure? On Amazon, we found most of these instruments in our list. Most of these instruments do not cost a lot and are fun playing.