If you’re going to be leaving your house with your guitar, you need a good case or gig bag. There are exceptions, like Michael Bloomfield, who famously showed up at the sessions for Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album with his unprotected guitar over his shoulder, dripping wet from the afternoon rain. Then he simply dried the instrument, plugged it in and rained brilliance all over the tracks.

Bloomfield was also notorious for leaving his guitars at his gigs and in his car’s trunk for weeks at a time. Assuming you’re going to be more cautious, here is some advice about how to protect your beloved six-strings.

There are three means of protecting your guitars for travel: gig bags, hard shell cases and flight cases. For a simple gig across town, a jam or light travel — where your guitar doesn’t have to hold its own against a van or truck full of shifting gear — a gig bag should suffice. While a gig bag won’t protect against major impact, it will keep your guitar out of the elements and cushioned from scrapes and light bangs.

Gibson guitar case

A few things to look for on gig bags are high quality metal zippers, which will last longer, and comfortably thick padding about a quarter-inch on the sides and front and thicker around the guitar’s heel and headstock. Most gig bags also have pockets in front, which will do double duty by protecting the face of the guitar inside. Usually gig bags are made of several materials, with polyester and nylon leading the pack. Nylon is a bit lighter, but poly bags generally offer more protection due to their stiffness. Regardless of material, be sure to get a bag that is waterproof. Some manufacturers make leather gig bags, which are highly durable and, in return, pricier.

All decent gig bags have a handle, for case-like carrying, and straps, for backpack style transport. Make sure the stitching is secure all around. I once had a gig bag’s backpack strap let go, sending the neck of the guitar inside crashing to the sidewalk. Luckily, it was a bolt on model and suffered no damage a costly repair couldn’t correct.

Eventually a gig bag will begin to collect dirt and dust inside. It can be wiped down with a clean, damp cloth and returned to service without a hitch. Another note: choose a gig bag that fits the instrument you are trying to protect as snugly as possible. Wiggle room makes any impact far worse. If you’re shopping for a bag or case of any kind at a music retailer, always bring the instrument you’re aiming to protect.

Hard shell cases are the tried-and-true method of guitar storage and travel protection, since at least the turn of the previous century. Once made exclusively of wood with a fabric coating, they have evolved considerable since the days of Robert Johnson, Wes Montgomery and Freddie King.

Gibson guitar case

Today’s hard shell cases are either wood, plastic and metal hardware construction or plastic and metal hardware. Both typically have plush linings and storage pockets for picks, strings, capos, straps and whatever. Often the exterior of wood framed cases has a leather or tweed style finish. Brand-name cases are a good option. Nothing cradles a Gibson Les Paul, SG, Explorer, L-5 CES or whatever quite like the case built for it.

Wood shelled cases should not flex when pressed on. Do NOT buy a wood shelled case that gives under hand pressure. These will not sufficiently protect your guitar at a gig or in a vehicle with other gear. The same applies for plastic — more specifically, molded polyethylene — cases. If they have give, they are not what a serious guitar owner needs.

One advantage of OEM cases is that they fit the guitars they were made for perfectly. High quality replacement cases do, too. Regardless of its origin, the case you buy should fit your guitar securely — without head to tail or face to backside give. The neck of your guitar should also be firmly supported and held in place. There should be no angling and no room for that neck to move when the case is closed. Also, a case that is too fat for the body of a guitar will not support the neck properly and can trigger breakage. Be sure guitars fit flat and securely in their cases.

Gibson guitar case

A good hard shell case will protect a guitar from the perils of the road. Once, while playing a punk club, the dancing got so intense during the opener’s set that a few rude-boy slammers decided it would be cool to stand on top of one of my guitars in its polyethylene case before diving back into the pit. The hinges and metal trim of the case popped, but the guitar was untouched inside. Compared to that, the pressures of being jostled in the storage section of a jam-paced van or being packed in the same with minimal care are negligible.

Fiberglass hard shell cases are also available — mostly for acoustic guitars. They are lightweight and durable, and cost only a bit more than polyethylene cases. 

The most secure way to carry your guitar is in a flight case, but the weight and cost of most flight cases make this prohibitive unless, of course, you’re actually flying and checking your guitar as baggage. The traditional flight case is made of heavy wood and steel construction and costs $250 and up, compared to a bit more than $100 for a standard hard shell case. There’s a new generation of plastic molded flight cases that meet military specs – a higher level of protection than required by the Air Transportation Association. They are comparably priced to wood-and-steel; they are also waterproof and much lighter. The same rules apply: you want a tight fit with no wiggle room and walls that don’t flex under the touch. Although most ground crews have the sense to handle instruments accordingly, I’ve seen them cases tossed like duffle bags, so a loose fit can be disastrous.

Check out Gibson’s collection of high quality cases here.