MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH CIGAR BOX GUITARS

So I went ahead and made me a guitar. I got me a cigar box, I cut me a round hole in the middle of it, take me a little piece of plank, nailed it onto that cigar box, and I got me some screen wi  re and I made me a bridge back there and raised it up high enough that it would sound inside that little box, and got me a tune out of it. I kept my tune and I played from then on.

Lightning Hopkins  (1911-1982)

Cigar Box Guitar - Ashton 6 StringHi! I’m Dave from Junkbox Guitars: I build cigar box guitars. I’ve grown passionate about these lil’ ol’ guitars ever since I found out about them (quite by accident) and built my first one mid 2014. And then I built a second, a third…and a hundredth, and many more! There is something seductive, enchanting and irresistable about these simple, basic instruments.

I started making cigar box guitars  in about July 2014.

I have always been a conventional 6 string player with a love of blues and jazz: but whereas I knew of ‘drop D’ or ‘double drop D’ and other alternate tunings , I had never really tried them. Fast forward to the wonder of Google and an internet search for alternate tunings… and there it was! Up came YouTube and amongst conventional guitars and alternate tunings were videos of these wonderful little guitars… with 3 or 4 strings! And so started my passion for these little cigar box guitars.

I have always loved playing the guitar, and over the years have sometimes dabbled with slide guitar.  A trip to the music store to buy a slide, eagerly race home, re-tune the guitar to an open tuning, and try to play slide and… invariably, not have much success. The sound wasn’t right, the action is way to low, just can’t ‘get’ the feeling or the technique happening. That and the hassle of tuning one of my regular guitars to open tuning (and then back again) tended to discourage my efforts.Until… I discovered cigar box guitars!

Discovering CBG’s (cigar box guitars) was the solution to many things for me. One of the great things that I found out, playing a 3 or 4 string guitar, is that the instrument itself can lead your spirit and creativity to another time. The tonal quality, plus the simple tuning can immediately show you where the folk and blues music came from. The drone effect of the repeated octave  (if used as one of the 3 string tuning options), the slightly banjo quality in sound of many of them all evoke a sound that regular guitars don’t have.

Played as fretted or fretless instruments, they can be a great guitar for slide or bottle neck playing. I love that with many of them it is just as convenient to play them lap style. Choice of slides is huge. From store bought steel, brass or glass slides to home made genuine bottle necks, sockets etc, often a certain guitar will sound best with a particular slide. One of my favourites to use when playing lap- style is a slide or bar I made using a brass drawer-pull attached to a short piece of broom handle. Shaped like a ‘D’, I find it very comfortable to use, gripping the wood of the broom handle.

The more that I made and played them, the more I realized the whole ‘reality’ behind these and other homemade instruments: they were created out of necessity. Music is a fundamental to so many peoples’ lives and yet owning a ‘real’ instrument is often just not a possibility due to poverty. Solution? Well, of course, just go and make your own! Find an old broomstick or stick of wood, some kind of box, etc etc. The making of home-made instruments is a practice found all over the world: in the USA, from approximately 1850 onwards, cigar boxes were plentiful and served ideally for the body or resonator of small stringed instruments. A new American folk tradition was born.

The diversity of these guitars is something I love. They all can sound different, and look different. To make them, I like to use found materials – old boxes from the thrift store and see what I can create. Jewelry boxes, cookie tins, cutlery boxes, tool boxes – used them all! (And they all sound great!)  Old hinges and drawer pulls can find a use. Old baking pans might make a great resonator body. And so on…

Acoustically, the guitars can vary, depending on the box used. Not knowing exactly how it will sound is one of the thrills of making these cbg’s. I ‘electrify’ these  guitars, either with a piezo pick up or an electric guitar pickup, so they can all be enhanced by playing through an amplifier, adding effects – delay, chorus,reverb etc – if desired. Often they can sound really great with a little bit of ‘dirt’ added.

I can honestly say that I love these guitars! The size, the sound, the individuality are all compelling and attractive features. To try to create good music from something that is not that perfect (for these instruments will always have minor blemishes of character) is a rewarding challenge. Referring to the Lighting Hopkins quote above, these instruments teach you to play with soul, because you have to get familiar with them and learn all their foibles, their strengths and their weaknesses. I just love ’em!

I find it so satisfying to make these beautiful, albeit less-than-perfect instruments: but even more so satisfying is PLAYING them! Each guitar has its own voice, its own personality waiting to be recognized. How 3 or 4 strings can make such beautiful music is at first a surprise to us guitarists, familiar with the 6 strings as we usually are. These instruments truly opened my ears and heart to a new appreciation of roots music, and really showed me just how fundamental the blues, (the music originally played on such instruments by many influential guitarists in their early years) was to the development of Rock and Roll music.

I’m certain that if you ever have a cbg in your life you’ll love it too.

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