News/Thoughts

Cigar Box Guitars

A few years ago I encountered a lady in Paint Bank, WVA who crafted string music instruments from the most unusual of found household objects. Her creations were realistic banjo and guitar type instruments, and when amplified and played by a good picker, were surprisingly easy on the ears. I considered her creations unique until someone recently asked me if I had ever seen a cigar box guitar. The closest example that I could recall was the aforementioned craft creations so I did a bit of research, and the following story is the result.

The cigar box guitar is actually a primitive chordophone; and a chordophone is a musical instrument that makes sounds by way of vibrating strings stretched between two points. When a player plucks or strums these stretched strings, they vibrate. These vibrations usually cause something else to start to vibrate and to produce sound without any direct excitation by the player. That something is said to resonate and is typically a hollow box of some type that forms the body of the stringed instrument. You can see where we are going with this discussion. Crafters of cigar box guitars use an empty, discarded cigar box as the resonator.

You Use A What?
What is a cigar box, you might ask? Since sometime around 1840, cigar manufacturers started using small, portable wooden boxes with 20–50 cigars per box to ship their product. Given the propensity for cigar smoking among the populace, there existed an abundance of empty cigar boxes and it was not too long before poor folk discovered that these light wooden boxes made dandy resonators for homemade string music instruments; and homemade string instruments cost very little money to own. There is much folklore telling of such instruments existing from 1840 to the 1860s. The earliest known illustration of a cigar box instrument is an 1876 etching created by illustrator and artist Edwin Forbes that showed a union solder playing a box fiddle that bore the name of a cigar brand on the box. Also, an 1890 issue of Boy Scout literature provided step-by-step plans for building a playable five-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.

The earliest cigar box guitars had one or two strings (modern examples typically have three or more strings). Generally, the strings were connected to the end of a broomstick or a 1 x 3 inch wood slat and to the cigar box resonator. It would be a mistake to assume that all the early cigar box instruments were crude and primitive. There is a National Cigar Box Guitar Museum that has on display two cigar box fiddles built in 1886 and 1889 that seem very playable and well built. The museum’s research revealed that the 1886 fiddle was made for an 8-year-old boy but is playable; and the 1889 fiddle has a well-carved neck and slotted violin headstock. It had been crafted for serious playing.

Use What You Got
It should be obvious to all that cigar box guitars and fiddles were most popular among musicians living in poverty many of whom could not afford a store-bought instrument. Many poor African-American jug-band and blues players used these handcrafted instruments. During the 1930s the poverty brought on by the great depression promoted a resurgence of home crafted musical instruments particularly in the southern US. While there might not have been any money to purchase a musical instrument, a player usually could craft a playable guitar with an old cigar box, a piece of broom handle and a couple of wires from a screen door.

Flash forward to the present. Since about 2011, a modern revival of these craft instruments has been gathering. Some have dubbed it the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution. There has been an increase in the number of cigar box guitar builders and performers. There is even a loose, underground group of cigar box guitar performers that tour the US east coast each summer. They are known as the Masters of the Cigar Box Guitar Tour. Recently, there have emerged a growing number of professional Luthers who have begun offering quality made cigar box guitars for sale. These offerings are tricked out with ornate design flourishes, resonator cones, and electric pickups. Then there is the DIY movement where folks strive to handcraft an item that is fairly inexpensive to make and also serves as a creative and musical outlet for them.

I Want One
The first time you see a cigar box guitar, you have an urge to build one for yourself. With a bit of skill and some common hand tools, anyone can do it. A cigar box is usually available at a local tobacco shop for about $5. A big box store and a music instrument repair shop will usually have whatever else you need. If that seems like too much for you, seek out a complete kit of parts from one of the on-line suppliers. If you are a YouTube fan
(https://www.youtube.com), you can find a variety of videos of folks showing how to build and play modern cigar box guitars.

I mentioned the Cigar Box Guitar Museum. This museum provides a free display that is dedicated to cigar box guitars and is located in Speal’s Tavern, a small blues club in New Alexandria, PA.

The walls of Speal’s Tavern present a unique display of handmade cigar box guitars, historical photos, and associated artwork. The items in the collection of over 40 cigar box guitars displayed at Speal’s Tavern were built by craftsmen all over the country and range from simple, one-string primitive instruments to complex, electrified guitars with frets, double-necks and whammy bars. The Cigar Box Guitar Museum is maintained by Mr. Shane Speal and the Speal family. Mr. Speal is a cigar box guitarist. The museum is free to visit and is open to the public. Speal’s Tavern is located at 1850 Lions Club Rd., New Alexandria,, PA. You can contact Shane Speal at shanespeal@yahoo.com

A 2008 film titled Songs Inside the Box documents the modern revival of cigar box guitars. This film was photographed at the Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza, held in Huntsville, AL each year. You can get detailed information about this at the WEB site: http://alabama.travel/upcoming-events/11th-annual-cigar-box-guitar-festival.

If this short essay has piqued your interest to know more, key the words cigar box guitar into your computer’s search engine and follow that yellow brick road wherever it leads you.

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