My Martin Backpacker Guitar
(All about my Martin Backpacker travel guitar, including a large collection of Backpacker lore and links.)
I'll tell you a story ...
One summer night found my neighbor Mary at my door, desperate over an assignment due the next day: she had to make a three-minute film of someone teaching something, and as her husband had gone off somewhere unknown, she now wanted me to be the subject, and according to her teacher's obnoxious rules no children, animals, computers, or clutter would be allowed in the film because they were supposedly too confusing and/or distracting. (I think the teacher would have a nervous breakdown if she ever saw my house. :-))
We went over to Mary's house, where her first idea was to have me teach how to peel a banana. This was something her teacher had mentioned as an example, but I really balked at the idea of making a total fool of myself on film by taking three minutes to peel a banana.
Her second idea was that I should teach how to plug an old electric guitar into a little battery-powered clip-on practice amp. This did not seem to offer us three minutes worth of material either, but hey, I know: I'll go get my Martin Backpacker guitar instead -- I know I can talk about it for at least three minutes!
So the following is more or less how the film went:
"Hi, my name is Tané, and I'm going to tell you some things about my guitar and teach you how to plug it into an amp."
"This is the famous Martin 'Backpacker' travel guitar, the most popular and well-known travel guitar. Backpacker guitars have been all over the world, and even out of this world -- people have taken them up on the space shuttle, to Antarctica, to the North Pole, to Mount Everest base camp, and so on. I personally have taken this one across the country to Connecticut and back a couple times, with the only 'complication' being that some people see its long, thin black case and think 'gun'."
"I like to joke that it weighs about as much as a bag of chocolate chips, but it actually weighs about two pounds. Between the light weight and the small size it's almost like playing an air guitar -- like the body is just not there. I think this would make it a good guitar for young people because there's not the huge body to reach around. I've also read about a historical reenactment guy who uses one, because the Backpacker is unusual-enough looking that people who aren't familiar with it assume it's some sort of period instrument when seen in that context (though of course it's much cheaper and easier to play)."
"Some people who don't like the Backpacker say that it both looks and sounds like a canoe paddle, but I think it's very pretty, and that the small size gives it a nice kind of banjoesque sound." [plays some chords]
"This model of Backpacker has a built-in pickup down here where the strap connects [I point the bottom of the guitar at Mary while she zooms in], so you can plug it into an amp, which makes it sound like a really loud, full-size acoustic guitar."
*** To be continued ***
The rest of the story ...
In this section I'm going to talk about various other matters that didn't make it into the above story.
I got my Backpacker on eBay in January of 1999 (so I've now had it for over ten years, yay!). I do believe in supporting local music stores (and there are some very good ones here in Santa Cruz that do get some of my money), but at the time I found the deal the guy was offering impossible to resist.
As a young teenager I would sometimes accompany my classical-guitar-teaching friend to a music store and watch/listen to her trying out the acoustic guitars. Yamaha, Gibson, etc. were OK enough guitars, but according to her Martins were the ultimate. So now many years later, I can play my own little Martin and think fondly back to those days. The Backpacker may be the lowest-priced guitar Martin puts out, but it's still beautifully made with careful attention to detail.
When making this web page I chose this particular wood background for the text (and adjusted its RGB balance to give it a warmer, redder tone) so that it would look as much as possible like the "top wood" of my Backpacker. But there's a fair amount of color variation and even type of wood variation from Backpacker to Backpacker -- when I saw one in a music store a few weeks ago I was really struck by what pale top wood and dark fretboard it had compared to mine. Around the same time I wrote to Martin asking what wood was used for the fretboard -- it wasn't named on their specs web page and didn't look like the rosewood fretboards on some of my other guitars.
Here's what I heard back from a very helpful Martin representative who I have since pestered with other questions as well:
The Martin Backpacker uses two different type of wood for the fingerboards. The first type is a reddish-orange wood named Paduak or Paduach. It is an African wood. The second is Morado. It is a Bolivian Rosewood. It has various shades of brown stripping.
So I guess the Paduak/Paduach is what I have.
While I don't generally play my Backpacker through an amp at home (more typically I would be sitting with it in the back yard, or in the kitchen playing a board game), in the living room I occasionally play it through my Fender Blues Junior (a nice basic little tube amp -- Spinal Tap fans take note, it goes to twelve!), and I also have a "Beatnik Burgundy" (!) Danelectro HoneyTone mini-amp (of the battery-powered belt-clip variety), that I take along with the Backpacker on trips mostly because other people have a lot of fun with it. As I had said above, IMHO hooking it up to an amp makes it sound like a loud, full-size acoustic guitar.
I got a note asking if I knew which guitar stands were appropriate for the Backpacker -- my only experience with this is that I have all my guitars hanging on the wall by means of "String Swing" guitar hangers (a short yoke attached to a block of wood). With the Backpacker I loop the strap over the yoke and then have the neck going up through the yoke, so that even though it kind of looks like it's hanging by the headstock, it's actually hanging by the strap -- look at this picture of my son Sam standing by the Backpacker and other guitars on my living room wall and you'll see what I mean.
More later ...
How to hold a Backpacker
The Backpacker's very light weight and slim shape make it easy to carry around, but unlike heavier, larger-bodied guitars neither its weight nor its shape serve to hold it in place while playing. At its worst, it can tip and slide all around, especially if you're sitting down and not wearing the strap, or you may find yourself using your hands and/or arms in ways that hold the Backpacker firmly in position but restrict your motion for playing. The standard Backpacker party line is just to Always Wear The Strap, but recently I had two strapless experiences :-) that I found very interesting and which I wanted to describe here, so here goes:
I was playing a Backpacker belonging to another person, who had the strap hitched way too high up for me to be able to comfortably wear and play it. Not wanting to mess with his preferred strap adjustment I was experimenting with different ways to sit, hold and play it, and what I came up with was to sit with one foot on the floor, the other leg bent so that my ankle rested on top of the first leg's knee, and the Backpacker held firmly in place by both legs so that it stuck up almost vertically.
I found this a really interesting way to play. My left arm, not being used to being held up so high while playing, would get tired pretty quickly, but my right hand and arm seemed to have much more freedom of movement than they do with more-standard playing positions. Usually when playing a guitar I have my right arm resting on it one way or another, but holding the Backpacker this way my right arm was totally free to make all kinds of swirly dramatic gestures while playing. I was really enjoying it.
Shortly afterwards I wound up taking an unexpected four-day cross-country train trip. Fortunately, I had my Backpacker along. Unfortunately, I did not know as many train songs as I would have liked to when finding myself in such a situation. :-) Anyway, despite train seats being larger than airplane seats there is still not room to have a guitar neck sticking out to the side when sitting next to another person, so I once again found myself seated as described above, with the Backpacker's neck sticking almost straight up. Once again it worked very nicely.
Fall semester of 2005 I took a beginning classical guitar class with Guy Cantwell at the local community college, and because I don't have a classical guitar and am used to taking my steel-string Backpacker all over the place, yes, I took it to class every week. I faithfully rested my left foot on the footstool like all the other students even though because it had no curve to rest on my leg this had absolutely no effect on the Backpacker. So what I did do to hold it steady was to loosen the strap so that the end of the backpacker would be low enough to brace it against the inside of my right leg.
Jeff Meek writes:
I recently discovered a good way to hold mine... I use a Dynarette guitar cushion (http://www.vamu.se/) that Guy Cantwell (Cabrillo) had suggested for "proper" classical guitar positioning. Got it at Sylvan's. I stuck with the footstool, but it makes for a nice support pad for the Backpacker!(I'll note that if your local guitar store doesn't carry the Dynarette, you can buy both the large and small sizes on Amazon.com.)
Here are some other pages I've found with suggestions (other than the standard Always Wear The Strap) for keeping your Backpacker stable while playing it:
Jed Marum's So What Do You Do With A Backpacker? page recommends tying the strap to the head of the guitar.
The Backpacker Classical Guitar Page seconds that recommendation, and also includes a letter from "a reader" who inserted BB-filled beanbags into the end of his Backpacker to help it stay in position while playing (though this would seem a little counterproductive if you wanted a lightweight travel guitar).
Bill Fontaine has developed and is selling the "Compadre" Travel Guitar Stabilizer, and sent me two of them to test. The Compadre is a lightweight (only six ounces) and sturdy guitar-curve-shaped attachment of corrugated plastic and high-density closed-cell foam, with elastic cord loops that easily attach to the strap buttons of any Backpacker model. (There's also a third loop you can use to hang your Backpacker from a hook.). When I tried it it was quite a trip to sit down with my Backpacker and have it immediately go into place like a full-sized guitar, without needing to wear the strap and brace the end of it against the inside of my right leg as usual. The Compadre is also small enough to fit in the case with the Backpacker, but you have to take it off first. Check out the Compadre web site for photos, videos, and ordering information. He is also .
Darrell Martin Whittaker has developed and is selling the "ClipRest" -- an acrylic support that snaps onto your Backpacker to give it a curve that will sit solidly on your leg. Check out his ClipRest video and ClipRest web site to learn all about it. He in addition to on his web site -- you can also read some brief .
"GuitarWingz" attach to your Backpacker's strap buttons to create an outline of a full-sized guitar body, in Dreadnought, Cutaway or Strat styles. Unfortunately their inventor is no longer manufacturing them due to lack of time, but you can see some photos of them in this album.
Phil Parker had a boat-builder friend make him a pair of hollow, lightweight, Velcro-attached "wings" giving his Backpacker the shape of a full-size guitar.
The January 2006 issue of Martin's "The Sounding Board" newsletter includes a picture and description of the "pop-apart" plywood support Ed Rossi built to make his Backpacker "more stable while sitting and playing in his favorite easy chair".
The July 2006 "The Sounding Board" includes a picture of the small stand Bud Strickland attached to his Backpacker to make it "more comfortable for classical positioning".
On Harmony Central's user review page for the Classical Backpacker, Leif Saul describes how he uses foam "Deluxe 7 inch canoe blocks" from a sporting goods store to grip the Backpacker and hold it steady, making it sit higher on his lap and providing a rest for his right arm.
On the Better Guitar site, "Mike" recommends Hamre Music's NeckUp Guitar Support 2" Mini support and strap for playing the Backpacker in a seated position -- scroll down this Steel String Backpacker page until you come to Mike's section explaining how he uses/attaches it. (You can buy the NeckUp from either Hamre Music or on Amazon.com.)
It's also very important to point out that for some people the Backpacker's small size and weight make it much easier to hold and play -- to quote from the January 1999 "The Sounding Board":
We have also seen a tremendous amount of interest and sales of Backpacker guitars to practicing Music Therapists because of its light weight, portability, and price. Practitioners have used it with clients who are bedridden and have even enabled folks who are physically challenged, or in wheelchairs, to be able to play the guitar again because they don't have to wrap themselves around a large-bodied Dreadnought. Some of the success stories we've heard have been nothing short of miraculous.
In that vein, "this little guitar saved my Life!" is what Beverly says about getting a Backpacker after a spinal-cord injury made it difficult to play a full-size guitar.
Backpacker history, reviews, and general info
Martin introduced the Backpacker in 1991, and as of early 2010 had built over 200,000 Backpackers -- they are now manufactured at Martin's Navojoa, Mexico plant. Here are Martin's official pages listing the specs for the Steel String Backpacker, Classical Backpacker, Backpacker Mandolin, and now-discontinued Backpacker Ukelele. You can take a look at Martin's official timeline page to see how the Backpacker fits into the history of Martin guitars. And check out Martin's PDF catalog page for the different backpacker models, featuring this story of "The origin of the Martin Backpacker":
One day in the early 1990s, [Martin Chairman and CEO] Chris Martin was perusing the craft booths at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. An unusual guitar designed by luthier Robert McNally caught his eye and ear. Chris felt the instrument had enormous potential, and Martin Guitar entered into a collaboration with Bob McNally to manufacture and distribute these unique instruments.
In Chris Martin's video "Martin Guitar in Mexico" you can watch/hear him tell a longer "origin of the Backpacker" story in the context of the history of Martin's Navojoa plant -- the part about the Backpacker goes from 2:12 to 6:07 in this 15-minute video.
Backpacker-designer Bob McNally also designed its relative the Strumstick. The Strumstick site includes a Backpacker page where you can order Backpackers signed by McNally. Check out his comments on Backpacker design choices in a letter written to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. And here's a picture of Bob McNally with all the Backpacker models, that guitarist Chris Newman took during a Martin factory tour.
Bob McNally has also created some unusual Backpacker models of his own -- check out this picture of a 12-string Backpacker and a Backpacker with a larger body.
OK, so this item doesn't really belong on this page, but to see another sorta-proto-Backpacker check out John Fogerty's 1985 baseball-bat-shaped guitar "Slugger". :-)
Martin recommends using Martin Extra Light 80/20 Bronze (M170) strings with the steel-string Backpacker, but I just got a set of Newtone Heritage Light strings for my Backpacker (after appreciating the difference Newtone Heritage Light/Medium strings had made with my resonator guitar -- designed to have "a reduced and virtually equal tension on each string", Newtone Heritage strings are billed as being especially good for "Vintage guitars, light braced guitars and people who have problems fretting due to arthritis or tendonitis") and like those better.
Here's a nice Classical Backpacker page by someone whose name doesn't appear anywhere on the page, among other things featuring some discussion of making hard-shell cases for the Backpacker.
Another person whose name I can't find has a photo album showing a foam-lined wooden case they made for their Backpacker.
Thomas Hamel made a really great-looking Backpacker-shaped wooden case for his Backpacker, and is wanting to build more for people wanting to buy them.
Etsy seller MusicalMiscellany makes very colorful custom Backpacker cases that are even backpacks!
BackpackingLight.com has a forum discussion about making a soft waterproof case for the Backpacker.
Musician's Friend's backpacker pages include large numbers of customer reviews of all the different models, plus being a good place to buy one if your friendly local stores don't carry them.
zZounds also has a page of user reviews of the steel-string Backpacker in addition to selling it.
Sam Ash Music's steel-string Backpacker page also contains some customer reviews in addition to selling it.
Music123.com's Backpacker model listings also contain some customer reviews in addition to selling them.
As you can imagine, many of the books written about Martin Guitars include information on the Backpacker.
The Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum site has a new "Backpacker Society" forum that's been getting a lot of traffic -- share your Backpacker experiences, tips, and tricks!
Peter Widenmeyer's German Classical Backpacker page features detailed descriptions, photos and maintenance information auf Deutsch.
Jed Marum wrote a long article about his "rewired" (different string gauges and tunings) Backpacker "Emily".
"Better Guitar"'s great Backpacker page features a detailed review followed by a very large number of user reviews with helpful tips.
Henry Matthes wrote a Backpacker review for the Wholenote On-Line Guitar Community.
Kenneth Brown wrote a a very detailed review of his Backpacker as a blog entry.
Composer/Professor Roger Bourland enthusiastically recommends the Backpacker.
Playboy Magazine's Backpacker review kind of cracked me up: Be a "Wandering Jimmy Page wannabe"! Impress "hiker chicks"! Etc. etc.
About.com has a page for Martin Backpacker reviews.
Joe Sacher created a waterproof bag for his Backpacker using waterproof heat-seal fabric.
Jim K. used a sheet of Tortoloid to create a pickguard for his Backpacker (scroll down the page for a picture and description).
Chris Register's "Traveling Musician's Delight" is a nice Backpacker review in the context of his travels through North and South America.
I had mentioned above how some people see the Backpacker's "long, thin black case and think 'gun'" -- well, read Willet's story of what happened when someone had that thought and reported him to the police!
For that matter, local guy Sean Monterastelli used a hardshell rifle case to carry his Backpacker on a cycling trip from Alaska to South America, but when his group got snowed in in Montana he started wishing there was a rifle in there instead.
Mosaic artist "floweringmoon" created and is selling a mosaiced Backpacker.
Check out Peter Cree's video of his work customizing a Martin Backpacker with a "Zen Sticks" design.
I'm in awe of this custom Backpacker with whammy bar and mini-humbucker modified by Bill Atwood of the band Echo Returns.
According to a reader of this page, in the late 1990's Martin manufactured 24 Backpackers with a black rather than natural-wood finish -- I haven't been able to find a picture of one online yet, though.
And here you can see an information card for a "Holographic Backpacker Prototype", and I'm assuming this is the guitar it's talking about.
Check out Martin's online edition of its "The Sounding Board" newsletter. Every issue ends with a "Backpacker Stories" section containing stories about and photos of people who've taken their Backpackers to interesting places (the links in the "I'll tell you a story ..." section above all go to issues of "The Sounding Board") -- check them out and maybe send in a photo/report of your own!
Facebook users can join the Facebook Martin Backpacker Owners Club, for sharing information, photos, videos, etc. For Danish speakers, there's also a Danish Backpacker Facebook group called Berejste Martin Backpacker Guitarejeres Forbund.
Jed Marum wrote a long article about his "rewired" (different string gauges and tunings) Backpacker "Emily".
A Martin Backpacker plays a role in Joseph Skibell's story/essay My Father's Guitar and Other Imaginary Things.
Check out jazz guitarist and strolling minstrel Gerry Gessie's Ambassador of the Martin Backpacker page.
Singer Judea San Pedro says, "I don't go nowhere without my Martin Backpacker ... everywhere I go I carry it, and I'll just sing and record" -- check out this video to see/hear her rocking out while strolling through a meadow next to a lake.
You can see a lot of videos of Backpacker players on YouTube, for example one of Shawn Lane jamming on a Backpacker in Shillong, India, or college student "ghandiwon" reviewing and playing the Backpacker he got as a birthday present, or online blues guitar teacher Mike Herberts playing a non-blues blues song on his Backpacker, or middle-schooler Steven reviewing his new Backpacker.
This John Jennings page features a photo of him playing his Backpacker.
In this video Jana Stanfield does a comparison of the Backpacker and the Washburn Rover travel guitar, and talks about what it's like to travel with her Backpacker and play it on stage.
"Singing Pilot" Captain Dan Mossman brings his Backpacker along on flights and sometimes serenades his passengers.
Rod Standish took his Backpacker on a coast-to-coast walk aross Canada, playing it in every city along the way, and in the process getting into the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest uninterrupted rock guitar solo in history!
Chas Stewart hiked the Appalachian Trail with his Backpacker -- 2,179 miles from Georgia's Springer Mountain to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Jeremy Wilson hiked both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail with his Backpacker, and was given the nickname "Picker" for entertaining the other hikers with his playing. In his online "Picker" Trail Journal he calls his Backpacker his "best friend on the trail", and says that he "could not imagine hiking without it".
Dr. Michael Harrison, PhD, brought his Backpacker along for the Wilderness Medicine Institute/National Outdoor Leadership School's "Medicine in the Wild" course.
The Glauer family brought their Backpacker along on their "Global Mobile Family Bike Tour" of every continent except Antartica.
Santa Barbara geologist Coyote Dave considers his Backpacker a must-have item for backpacking/camping trips.
Ani DiFranco tours with a Backpacker in addition to many other guitars -- scroll down this page to see a picture of Ani playing it at a Not In Our Name benefit concert.
Claudio Cardelli of the Rangzen Band uses his Backpacker to entertain child refugees on regular trips to India's Tibetan Children's Village.
Pete Kartsounes hiked the 500 mile-long Colorado Trail with his Backpacker to raise money for families going through childhood cancer.
Jon Anderson of Yes has been touring with a Backpacker modified to be a MIDI guitar with a viola headstock.
Singer-songwriter Bobby Sweet has traveled around the world -- you can see pictures of him playing his Backpacker in Nicaragua and Mali.
Bill Thompson performs at birdwatching festivals with his Backpacker -- he has a blog post about his guitar and how it was accidentally smashed, and another about how it was repaired.
The Dandy Warhols did a "mini-radio tour" featuring "mini" instruments including a Backpacker.
Here you can see Carole Nelson of Irish jazz/pop/Celtic band "Zrazy" playing a Backpacker.
Singer-songwiter Kathleen Pemble's web site features a picture of her playing her sticker-covered Backpacker.
Susie Keynes of the Australian band Fruit sometimes plays her Backpacker in concert, but I haven't been able to find a picture of her with it other than the one in July 2007 issue of "The Sounding Board".
Chris Register's "Traveling Musician's Delight" is a nice Backpacker review in the context of his travels through North and South America.
Places to buy a Backpacker
As you can imagine, my #1 recommendation would be to go to your friendly and knowledgeable local music store to try out a Backpacker (and maybe some of the other travel guitars as well) and buy it if you like it. But if that doesn't work for you, here are some places you can buy a Backpacker online:
Amazon.com's Backpacker page features both new and used Backpackers
Guitar Center's Backpacker page features both new and used Backpackers
Again, I had bought my Backpacker on eBay, and if you're in the market for one, whether new or second-hand, you might want to take a look at the listings below. Just be forewarned that (1) some eBay sellers charge even more than local or online music stores do, so do your price research before making any bids/buys, and (2) you need to be sure that any auction you bid on contains the word "Martin" in addition to "Backpacker", because there are a lot of cheap knock-offs being sold on eBay.
Martin redesigns the Backpacker
On the left you see the original "canoe paddle"-shaped Martin Backpacker, with the headstock flush with the neck, the body starting out flush with the neck and then gradually flaring out, and the Martin logo on the body just below the neck. This is what my Backpacker looks like (except with both the body and the headstock closer in color to the neck), and as you can imagine I'm very fond of it.
However, in 2002 Martin redesigned the Backpacker as shown at right. As described in the July 2002 issue of Martin's The Sounding Board magazine:
"The New & Improved Backpacker® has been refined into a more attractive, easier to play instrument [...] a shoulder at the 15th fret and the headstock bears a more traditional Martin shape. The width of the body is considerably wider and the soundhole is larger in diameter. These dimensional changes translate into a louder, more evenly balanced instrument, yielding more volume and tonal response than you would ever think possible from such a small and portable instrument."
I went to an Ani DiFranco concert here in Santa Cruz on July 3, 2001, where she did her encore song on a Backpacker. She's kind of short, enough so to make the Backpacker look bigger than usual to me in comparison, which gave me a weird feeling -- I kept thinking "wait a minute, that looks like a Bass Backpacker." :-)
Sometime after that I got a letter from John Cafarella in Australia:
I've recently bought a fretless bass that looks exactly like a backpacker. It is just a little longer, so it's actually a short scale base. It's fitted out with a decent bass piezo pickup too.
When I asked him whether it was custom made or a general commercial product, he said that as far as he could tell it was custom -- he had bought it second-hand in a local music shop, and there was no ID on the headstock or elsewhere.
And check out this picture from the July 1999 issue of Martin's "The Sounding Board" newsletter, featuring a jam session with "the world's last stone-age tribe on Irian Java, New Guinea in East Indonesia."