Jam sessions, especially the spontaneous and improvisational kind, are a sacred and universally revered ritual amongst musicians across the globe. Better yet, where spoken language fails to connect us, music can.
And where travel is already a deeply enriching endeavor, bringing the music with you adds a layer of connection to a place and its people that few other experiences can.
Unfortunately, bringing along your primary instrument or instruments may not be feasible, even if you’re only making a quick jaunt to a neighboring city. (Honestly, upright basses are straight-up human-sized.)
Not to be thwarted in our musical ventures, we’ve compiled a handy list of 13 portable instruments that are easy to travel with and fun to play!
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There’s simply no substitute for strings, and thankfully, there is no shortage of travel-sized string instruments for players on the go.
The four-stringed Hawaiian ukulele is beloved by many for its sweet, uplifting sound. Better than that, it’s compact and lightweight, and practically begs to be a musical traveling companion.
Plus, it’s a relatively easy instrument to learn and play. With just a few chords and some basic strumming patterns, you can start jamming in no time. Grab a soft, padded case to keep your ukulele safe during transport and hit the road!
To the great gratification of wanderlusting guitarists everywhere, the realm of travel guitars is one marked by numerous choices and innovations.
The simplest travel guitars are just miniatures. But don’t let the “mini” moniker fool you. These pint-sized guitars can still pack a punch, and they come in a variety of configurations to dial in the playing experience you prefer.
For example, you can get a half-size body while keeping a wide fretboard with something like this mini from Cordoba. If you’re going all in on the mini experience (thin fretboard and all), even Martin has you covered with their ¾ size Little Martin, a favorite of Ed Sheeran. If the classic acoustic body shape is just too bulky for your adventures, try slimming down with something like this Martin backpacker mini.
When you just can’t compromise the volume and feel of a full size, consider a collapsible full-size guitar with a folding or detachable neck, such as this one from Journey Instruments.
Not to be outdone, electric guitar makers also offer travel-sized models such as this scaled-down version from Traveler Guitar or this collapsible electric also by Journey Instruments.
Ultimately, there is no shortage of guitar choices to satiate your inner road dog.
As the smallest of the classical viol family, the violin needs no modifications to travel well. And while many non-violinists may shirk at the thought of traveling with an instrument that is so difficult to play, remember that you’re not going to be sitting in with prestigious symphonies on the road.
Indeed, with a bit of study into scales and how to use the bow effectively, you may be surprised at how much you can contribute to an impromptu jam!
Like a compact harp for your lap, the affordable melody harp is oriented like a zither and generally has about 15 strings to play with. Truly — no technique required. Just pluck.
One benefit to the melody harp is that it is already tuned to a specific key, making it an extremely beginner-friendly instrument. With a basic understanding of notes, you can easily translate that tune in your head to the instrument in your lap. Anytime. Anywhere.
Handheld Instruments Of the Wind Variety
Some of these instruments are so small they can fit into your pocket …
Few other instruments evoke the image of the quintessential American nomad more than the trusty harmonica.
A small, portable, and extremely affordable instrument that can be easily carried in a pocket or bag, the humble yet sturdy harmonica projects a strong, multi-faceted sound simply by blowing into it. It’s easy to learn, easy to transport, and lends itself well to a variety of musical styles.
Grab one by Fender, one of the most trusted names in instruments, and don’t leave home without it.
The sweet and haunting ocarina is a handheld, flute-like instrument with 12 holes and ancient roots. Traditionally, it is crafted in ceramic, but modern models may be made of plastic, wood, or bone. In any iteration, it is a durable instrument that stows away nicely in the pocket of just about any size bag.
In addition to meeting the size criteria for a highly portable instrument, the ocarina employs a very simple fingering system that is easy to learn and easy to play. It also ranks among the more affordable travel instruments. Pick up a simple one online to bring a unique sound to any foreign ensemble.
The tiny but mighty pan flute lends an ethereal feel to any soundscape and has featured prominently in cultures across the centuries. Best of all, it fits in your two hands and requires only your breath for power.
The learning curve is a tad steeper than something like the ocarina; but with some simple breath and technique exercises, you can be piping your way through simple melodies and rhythms in any setting. Plus, a simple pan flute such as this one is a durable choice that won’t bust your wallet!
When we think of percussion, we often conjure large, powerful instruments such as timpani, congas, and full drum kits. But traveling percussionists need not be left out of the party thanks to these super portable instruments …
The unassuming cajon is a staple in acoustic settings and is almost instantly identifiable by the way it is played. Drummers sit on what appears to be a simple rectangular, wooden box and use only their hands to bang on the face of the box.
Behind the scenes, quality wood and a strategically placed sound hole help project sound while some cajon drums feature interior snares.
To be sure, they are cumbersome drums; but the mini cajon serves as a portable alternative for drummers on the go. While full-size cajon drums measure upwards of 20” in height, a travel-ready mini cajon such as this measures only 13”.
Be prepared to spend a bit on a good mini cajon as quality construction is what gives this drum its tone and presence.
The handheld kalimba, or thumb piano, does double duty as both a percussive and melodic instrument. Constructed of metal tines of varying lengths affixed to a small, wooden box, the kalimba produces distinct notes in addition to an iconic percussive twang.
As if the handheld size wasn’t already portable enough, mini eight note kalimbas can be worn around your neck.
While you may struggle to be heard in large ensembles, a quaint acoustic set abroad offers the perfect opportunity to contribute to both rhythm and melody during your travels.
For a melodic drum that fits in your lap, look no further than the handpan.
If you’re not already familiar, that’s ok. The handpan is a relatively new melodic drum that lends a rather mystical, meditative sound to the mix.
Featuring one convex and one concave metal disc joined at a seam (think high hat but more pronounced and sealed together), the handpan’s tones come from carefully hammered-out dimples.
Most handpans feature one central note and eight complementary notes achieved by striking the drum strategically with your thumbs or fingers. The result is a gentle and hypnotic sound with deep sustain.
You may already be comparing the handpan to steel drums. They are not dissimilar; but handpans are lighter and smaller, making them much more suitable to travel with. Furthermore, handpans are relatively easy to learn and play, allowing you to hop right into the next drum circle you encounter!
Before you throw a pair of kitchen spoons in your suitcase, consider that professionally constructed musical spoons are designed to pack a much larger punch while taking up the same amount of space.
It is also worth considering that they are not as easy to play as one might think! Spend some time practicing basic rhythms and foundational techniques before busting these out at your next jam.
Note, too, that they come in a few different versions. Wooden spoons constructed as one piece, such as this model, set the folk percussion standard. But you can also play around with metal pieces, such as these, that look more like what might come out of your kitchen drawer.
Other Travel Instruments
Look no further for other portable instruments, some with keys and some you squeeze …
Weighing in at about 1 pound and measuring just 16” at its longest is the super rad and versatile melodica, the only keyboard you blow into.
With such a petite profile, the melodica practically begs to accompany you on your next adventure. And while a basic knowledge of piano keys is requisite, the learning curve is shallow. With a few lessons under your belt, you can rock the tiny 32-key piano-flute hybrid in a range of keys, playing both backing chords and melodies.
No jig is complete without the lively timbre of the accordion’s smaller cousin, the concertina.
In sharp contrast to the behemoth that is the accordion, the smallest concertina fits in your hands and doesn’t weigh but a pound or two.
Despite their super portable size, small concertinas, such as this one, are complex instruments with the price tag to show for it. Regardless of its complex construction, you can learn to play it competently in very little time. And with 20 keys to work with, you can play in numerous key signatures and octaves.
The concertina already enjoys a travel-ready reputation as Western European folk musicians considered it a staple of their nomadic ensembles. Indeed, any modern traveling musician can be equally proud to feature one in their set.
Never Leave Home Without One
When music is as essential to you as eating, traveling with a small, portable instrument can be as important as packing your most comfortable walking shoes.
Fortunately, some of the smallest instruments can have the biggest impact on the quality of your travel experience. When music calls, you can answer, no matter how far you are from home.