Live Music On The AT. It’s Worth The Weight

While so many thru-hikers are obsessing over minimalist strategies to lighten their loads, others are saying “fuck it, I’m bringing my guitar!” This write up is an ode to my fellow musicians carrying instruments on the AT, along with some change of plans in my own hike.

Music is within everyone, whether you think your musically inclined or not. Music can be as simple as banging a stick on a rock, or just being the hype-man for your freestylin’ buddy. It’s all good. There is no wrong way to make music. In this AT culture, where people have taken to a 6 month lifestyle out of a back pack, away from the distractions of social media and Pokemon games, It is so amazing to see the positive impact that playing live acoustic music has on thru-hikers in the woods. The reception to the banjo has been amazing and I encourage anyone who can carry a tune to carry an instrument on the AT.

The Extra Weight

Ultra-lite backpacking seems to be all the rage. Everyone is striving to have the lowest base weight. It’s a great thing! I have seen some very clever ideas and I have seen some people go a little too far. When I got a shake down in Monson from two ultra lite packers, one guy showed me his tooth brush. Not only was it cut in half, but he drilled holes in the remainder of the handle. The other guy joked that he still left too many bristles on the thing. It’s a trend that makes obvious common sense, except all too often the fun luxury items get left out as a result.  Musical instruments seem to be an exception. When I had my shake down, niether of those guys questioned the logic of having my banjo. I think having a lite pack just opens more doors for your luxury items.

The banjo might be pushing the weight limit a little for a comfortable thru-hike. But I wouldn't trade it for anything else.

The banjo might be pushing the weight limit for a comfortable thru-hike. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

I originally set out on the AT to find local music along the trail with my 5.2lb banjo. I am definitely finding that! But what I didn’t expect was the abundance of musical culture on the trail itself! It has made for some epic shelter and hostel jams.

I ran into this fellow Canadian from New Brunswick with his small bodied guitar. He had a hint of "Bubbles" in his accent. Then I found out his trail name was "Samsquanch"

I ran into this fellow Canadian from New Brunswick with his small bodied guitar. His trail name is “Samsquanch”.

I just got out of Southern Vermont where I passed through the NOBO bubble. One day I was passing NOBO’s every minute or so. I’ve been seeing hikers with instruments from the beginning but it was meeting the bubble where it really became obvious to me that having music on the trail is just as essential to some people as their trekking poles. They can get by without them, but they don’t want to.

Booby Trap with his guitar rigged on the back

Booby Trap with his guitar rigged on the back

These ultra lite packers aint got nothing on Gonzo when it comes to "bass weight". Get it? That's me and Gonzo with his bass uke pickin' at a shelter.

These ultra lite packers aint got nothing on Gonzo when it comes to “bass weight”. Get it? That’s me and Gonzo with his bass uke in mid harmony at a shelter.

What’s out there?

The Ukelele seems to be the most popular but I’ve seen some pretty unique noise makers out there. I think I still hold the heavy weight title with my banjo(except for a guy some years ago that apparently thru-hiked with a tuba!) but here are some other, more weight friendly instruments I’ve seen. Guitalele, bass uke, jaw bone, trumpet, harmonica, kazoo, mandolin, small bodied guitars, a dijeridoo, drum sticks widdled right on the trail during lunch breaks, and of course there is the first instrument known to humans, the voice. I love singing on those downhills but it’s a struggle uphill! And of course there is always the awkward moment when your singing your heart out then someone comes around the corner. Then I stop abruptly and awkwardly say hi.

My old trail family, Mojo and White Walker with their Guita-lele's

My old trail family, Mojo and White Walker with their Guita-lele’s.

Logistical Factors

Ok so maybe bringing a musical instrument might be a little risky if it’s your first time doing a thru-hike. There are so many factors to consider. What if it gets wet and ruined? What if you fall and Break it? What if you Never play it and it’s just dead weight? Maybe you already got too much weight and a guitar will put you over the top! These Were all on my mind when I planned for the Banjo. They were all an issue for me.

When hiking through Maine and New Hampshire there were times when I slipped on the rocks. Luckily I always turned in a way where I fell on my hip, instead of my banjo. I saved it every time. The most wear and tear my banjo took was on the head. I had it mounted upside down so everytime I set down my pack the head would bang on the rock. So I set my pack down in a much more delicate way than most hikers. There were other times when it rained and it got wet. This often caused buzzing on the frets and rust on the strings but it was temporary and minor. My banjo is not expensive and I wouldn’t advise anyone to bring a quality instrument on the AT. Bring something cheap that can take a bit of a beating.

If you’re gonna bring it, then you should probably play it. I’ve made a point of playing it everyday. In the past 3 months of hiking I’ve had 2 days where I didnt play. I’m keeping track. If you’re gonna bear all that weight it is a good idea to stay regular with playing it, otherwise you might as well send it home and save your back.

So bringing an instrument such as a banjo definitely has some complications to it but your not a banjo nerd like me, then bring something simpler. Harmonicas, Kazoos and Ukeleles are great, cheap, low maintanence and light weight instruments for the trail. They are easy to play too!

A good ol'e fashion Cloggin porch jam at the Clifftop Appalachian Stringband festival in West Virginia.

A good ol’e fashion Cloggin porch jam at the Clifftop Appalachian Stringband festival in West Virginia.

It’s Why I’m Hiking

When walking the trail, I think alot about why I am doing this. I’ve come to terms with alot of things. I’m not here to prove to myself that I can walk 2189 miles. I’m not not here to learn how to live in the woods. I’m not here to challenge my physical and mental endurance. I’m here to bring music and to find music. Music has a deep cultural connection with the Appalachian Mountains. It’s how the people of these mountains kept themselves entertained for hundreds of years. I think the trail is no different. Music on the AT is my priority. And in saying that, I will not finish the trail this year. I am going too slow. Getting off the trail to go to music festivals and taking extra zeroes just to catch that weekly jam in the trail towns etc. is setting me back too far in terms of time and especially in finances.

I was really bummed out at first when I realized this. I felt a sense of failure. So many people are rooting for me to finish it in one go and now I plan to go home half way through. “WTF Clawhammer you wussin’ out?” But I am excited now. This means I get to be part of AT hiking culture for more than just one year! I find its not worth going deep into debt just so I can rush my ass down to Springer before the snow falls. Old time and bluegrass is my jam. If I rush through the Southern parts of this trail I’ll walk right passed the best spots Where that music lives. Big miles isn’t my steeze. I love this trail, I love the hiking, I love my hammock tent, I love the people, and I don’t want to miss it by hurrying. Maybe the class of 2017 would like a banjo player around too.




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Comments 7

  • Eman : Aug 25th

    Great write up Clawham! On your time off, check out Victor Wooten’s book called The Music Lesson. It shows some deep connections between music and the world/nature that surrounds you. I’ve read it 4 or 5 times already, I betcha you would really dig it. Keep on truckin’ Lichti! Miss ya man!

    • Josh : Aug 26th

      Hey Eman!! Great to hear from you brother. I have had that book on my must read list for some time now! So far i have only watched the TED talk video he has on youtube. Hope you are well. That big durty music video is awesome man you guys rock cant wait to check out a show!

  • Deidre : Aug 27th

    Hey dude it’s your hike and I love your decision! The southern apps are definitely where you don’t want to be rushing through when your hike is your music!! It’s where I live and the good old fashioned music here is the best. I have a friend here who makes banjos and many who play different instruments. Music is the life here. If you get a chance in your rest till next year try and check out a movie called ‘The Sing Catcher’ (not sure if there’s a The in there. You’ll love it. Have a good winter and next year hike!
    PS. In Bryson City, NC every Saturday night in town there’s Music Night by the Smoky Mountain train station. Anybody can play. You wanna try not to miss that!!

    • Deidre : Aug 27th

      Sorry…it’s Songcatcher

    • Josh : Aug 29th

      Hi deidre, thanksfor those tips i will definitely keep that in mind. Ill be back on the trail next year in august. Cheers!

  • Dawn : Aug 29th

    I think it’s important to be realistic about whether or not you will play the instrument or not. I decided against taking a trumpet (they make plastic 1 lb ones now) since I was dubious as to whether or not I’d actually play it. Turned out to be a good decision for me as after a 12+ hr day I was completely exhausted and just wanted to eat and go to bed. I had a deadline which affected this. If you are going your own pace it’s a totally different story. I did meet another girl with a trumpet on trail btw; she said she didn’t really end up playing that much. For me I was happy I saved the weight.

  • Mitch : Feb 5th

    A travel tuba would be cool. 11 pounds. That’s the difference between my fat boy weight and my preferred weight. A Gold Tone Plucky would be lighter than a full size banjo but you’d be stuck in a higher key. It would be interesting to make a lightweight full scale banjo. I wonder how a carbon fiber neck and pot and titanium hardware would sound.


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