The Best Backpacking Guitar Ever!

I was immensely impressed with a fellow student and friend of mine, Sergio, who, on the NOLS Instructor Course I took during the summer of 2012, brought along a small ukulele to play music during the expedition. I will admit that I am all for the peace and quiet of the great outdoors but on extended trips and, particularly in a group environment, it’s nice to be able to have some varied forms of entertainment during downtime. You can only play so many games of Yahtzee or Pigs before looking for something else to do. It was mostly an afterthought that he even bought the thing, running (literally) to the music store across town as we were packing up the bus to head out to our starting point. There was just one catch; Sergio doesn’t know how to play the Ukulele. He’s a bloody clever guy, though, so he bought a set of baritone uke strings and restrung the ukulele like a guitar. At the time it seemed to me like magic, but I’ve since learned that it’s not actually that difficult, and we had fantastic music throughout the course played on Sergio’s ukulele-guitar, which from here on out I’m calling a ukitar.

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Here I am playing Sergio’s ukitar. I have no idea what I’m doing, but it sounds good.

Why a Ukitar?

I’ll be honest, if you’re already a whiz at the ukulele and don’t know how to play the guitar this probably isn’t a great option for you but I’m guessing for most folks that isn’t the case. In fact I would be willing to bet it’s usually the other way around; Learning an entirely new instrument isn’t the easiest or quickest undertaking (It took me 6 years to actually learn to play my guitar!). Also, plenty of people have at least a little guitar knowledge so it makes for a better community experience when you can pass the ukitar around and everyone gets a chance to play.

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Seriously, just look at how small it is!

Other great reasons? It’s small, it’s light, and it’s cheap. There are some nifty travel guitars out there but nothing you find is going to come close to the compact, lightweight, inexpensive package of a ukitar. The one I have weights in at 16.2oz (462g) and is about 20” (51cm) long. That means not only is it going to be easy on your back, it’s going to stay mostly out of the way wherever you strap it to your pack. It’s also easy on the bank account, with uke + new strings running me about $50. I’d be sad if it broke but it’s not going to break my bank account. It also makes a great backcountry photo prop.

The Life

Relaxing with the ukitar after a hard day teaching and fishing.

I ended up, much like Sergio, purchasing my uke at the last minute. I was peer pressured by my co-leaders and students the day we were to head into the field this past summer. I ran (not literally, I didn’t cut it quite as close as Sergio) to the music store and, after much assistance from the proprietor (not only is he immensely knowledgeable and friendly, he is also blind and navigates the store and instruments with incredible dexterity) left with my fire engine red ukulele, a set of baritone uke strings, and some detailed (yet vague in my head) instructions on how to re-string it.

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These are Aquila synthetic ukulele strings. They aren’t actually what I wanted, but I haven’t done this enough to have realized that when I bought them. They still sound fine, but they have a higher pitch than the previous baritone strings I used.

Having owned a guitar myself for close to 7 years now, I didn’t actually know more than a single song until a year ago when I took a WEMT through the WMI. We were based in Kelly, Wyoming at the Teton Science School campus. It’s a fairly remote place and I spent a majority of my downtime actually learning how to play. To this day, though, I still have not ever restrung my guitar, so the initial process on the uke was rather daunting. So how do you do it?

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The normal ukulele would have strings in the order G / C / E / A. That’s just nuts (if you want to play like a guitar that is)!

How to string a ukulele like a guitar

A ukulele differers from a guitar in a couple ways, namely there are 4 strings instead of 6, it’s tuned G / C / E / A, and the two middle strings are deeper (in tone) than the two outer strings. While we can’t put in any extra strings, we can use the strings we’ve got in a more guitar-like manner. Mine is set up up like the 4 high strings on the guitar, tuned D / G / B / E. It’s easy to do, you just need to pay attention to which strings are going where. The ukulele strings, ordered thickest to thinnest, are C / E / G / A and that is how were going to put them on the instrument. As you hold the uke like you’re playing, the C string will be on top, the rest following in descending order of thickness. If you’ve never strung one of these before be sure to do it 1 string at a time. This will let you easily look over at the neighboring string and see how the knots are tied. There are also, of course, plenty of YouTube videos to help you with this!

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This photo is before I re-strung it for the second time. The ukitar still has the set of baritone strings I originally purchased. They make a nicer sound, I think, than the all-synthetic strings I just used. One problem, though, after a couple months use in the wilderness (and a fair bit of rain) they started to rust!

How do you play the ukitar?

Assuming you know some guitar chords already just leave out the two bass notes (E, A) and play the rest of the chord with normal fingering, it’s as easy as that. If you don’t know guitar chords already…learn some! You can forget the two bass notes and just focus on the 4 high notes (D, G, B, E). As an added bonus, because there are only 4 strings, anything with barre chords is also crazy easy to play!

My favorite songs thus far on the ukitar are Mountain Sound by Of Monsters and Men, Cinder and Smoke by Iron and Wine, and Riptide by Vance Joy. Do you have a travel or backpacking guitar? What are your go-to tunes?

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