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by Matt DeBlass

I made the jump to a mostly car-free lifestyle early last year, for both personal and financial reasons. Using an eight-speed bicycle as my main mode of transportation was of great help to both my extraordinarily slender bank account and my extraordinarily not-slender physique, but it created some challenges in regards to my part-time job playing music.

When playing out with a group, I could usually car pool with one of the other musicians, and I could always borrow or rent a car for a better-paid solo performance; but for regular rehearsals and local gigs, it was up to me and my bike.

Mandolin in a sturdy travel case bungeed on to a front rack with a small platform; this is my rig to get to rehearsals.

I play several instruments, and my needs vary by situation. Sometimes all I have to move is a mandolin, other times I have to haul a folk harp, guitar and small PA system. My approach varies depending on what I have to carry.

Moving musical instruments–regardless of whether by foot, car or bike–requires a bit of diligence. Acoustic instruments in particular can be fragile and sensitive to climate. They have to be protected from sudden changes in temperature, from shocks and from moisture. (They don’t particularly need to be insulated from road vibrations, since they’re designed to make noise… by vibrating.)

Hauling gear

There are a few ways of carrying your gear, depending on the size of the instrument, the distance you have to travel, and your budget.

One of the simplest and least expensive ways to haul instruments up to the size of a guitar is in a gig bag with shoulder straps. Just sling it over your shoulder (or shoulders) and go. This works especially well for short distances, and for oddly-shaped instruments that might be hard to attach to the bike. There are many lightweight, and inexpensive instrument cases that are designed for just this sort of thing.

One disadvantage of the gig bag are that your instrument is not as well protected as it would be in a hardshell case. A major crash would likely cause damage to you and the instrument regardless of what case you’re using, but harsher jolts and bumps (and low-hanging tree branches) can put a deep ding in a guitar’s headstock.

Mandolin in a gig bag in a basket

Having an instrument strapped to your back can get pretty uncomfortable over long distances. In hot weather you’ll sweat, and unless you have a really upright riding position you can’t carry a guitar angled straight up and down or the neck will bang you in the back of your head. So you have to sling it at a diagonal with the weight on one shoulder and the neck sticking out to the side.

You can also attach baskets to your bike and use them to carry a gig bag or hard case. Small wind instruments, mandolins and violins can ride in a front basket, and big “paperboy” style rear baskets can haul full-size guitars and brass instruments with relative ease.

Another mandolin in a basket

Baskets do add weight and bulk to your bike, and make it much harder to lift onto parking racks, carry up and down stairs, but they’re also handy for groceries, laundry and beer runs. If you have an instrument that fits in a rectangular case of some sort you can also put it on an ordinary flat bicycle rack with straps or bungee cords.

Cargo hauling rigs

If you’ve got the money and the desire, a specialized cargo bike can be great. They come in a variety of configurations, with cargo boxes or platforms mounted either in front of or behind the rider. Musicians have used cargo bikes for car-free tours around the entire country. Some like Ben Sollee even carry large instruments such as cellos this way.

The last, and perhaps most versatile way to transport instruments is with a bicycle trailer. Trailers can be attached to just about any type of bike, and they keep heavy loads lower down, helping your balance. They come in a variety of sizes and I’ve heard of at least one musician using a custom trailer with an electric motor to help boost her over hills with her instruments and her sound gear!

My full cargo-hauling rig: Bike with a flatbed cargo trailer, with guitar and harp

Trailers can be expensive, but if you’re a DIY type you can often make or modify something for your specific needs. Often you can find a good deal used child trailer that’s been outgrown by its original occupants, and these make a good platforms for instrument trailers.

I use the trailer option for the larger assortments of stuff, which is in some ways simpler, if a bit cumbersome. I bungee and tie the various pieces of equipment to my old child trailer stripped down to a flatbed, and away I go. If the weather is questionable, I put a tarp over the gear.
The trailer works well enough, but affects the handling of the bike, and makes it hard to travel some of the rougher trails and places where I have to lift the bike over obstructions. This limits a few of my shortcuts and means no curb-hopping. One of the benefits, though, is that drivers seeing my “wide load” tend to give me a bit of extra room.

Because of the awkwardness of the trailer, I don’t tend to use it on my most frequent trips, which are to rehearsal about ten miles from my home. I play mandolin in my regular band, which, as far as string instruments go, is probably one of the easiest to carry on a bike.

Hauling my axe

After a good amount of experimentation, I ended up using a lightweight semi-hardshell case (a nylon shell over a rigid plastic and foam body) lashed to the front rack of my bike. This insulates the instrument from the weather and serious shocks, while letting me attach it to the bike’s rack securely enough that it doesn’t sway or bounce around.

While I’ve made it to performances, jams and practice sessions by bicycle, I have yet to do any overnight travel with instruments. Hopefully within the next couple years I’ll get the opportunity to give it a shot, but in the mean time, I’ll be pedaling my axe all over Central NJ.