“ 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 wire 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. " —Lightnin' Hopkins
Have you noticed how everybody, their mom, and Warren (no relation to Jimmy) Buffet, is playing a ukulele these days? The Uke has a new found respectability, with it’s own superstars like Jake Shimabukuro, Nellie McKay, the late George Harrison, YouTube darling Danielle Ate The Sandwich, and of course, Tiny Tim. Kudos to those who have taken up the long neglected little four-stringer. You saved it from its lowly fate as a Hawaiian theme party prop and the instrument of choice for those pretending to relive great grandma’s flapper days.
The ukulele, roughly translated from Hawaiian to mean jumping flea, was introduced to Hawaii sometime in the late 1800s by Portuguese cabinetmakers who immigrated to the islands. The cigar box guitar (cbg) is believed to date back to as early as 1840 although the first illustrated documentation comes from an 1876 etching of two civil war soldiers from the Union side, one playing a cbg as his compatriot plays a fiddle.
When comparing the ukulele to the cbg, it’s not the Beatles vs. the Stones, or Lady Gaga vs. Black Flag. It’s closer to a Van Gogh vs. whittling thing. And I heart whittling. The ukulele has rules. Rules as to size, number of strings, tuning, and construction.
The cbg, on the other hand, has virtually no rules.
As stated in the cbg documentary Songs Inside The Box
“If you build a homemade cigar box guitar, you're going to have to try and tame this beast to play your own music.” “There’s no rules of how to play it, how to tune it, how to string it, how many strings are on it. So now you're making your own music.” “It’s freedom. I could never play anything before because I didn’t have the patience to learn the way people wanted me to learn.”
The cbg community has its stars too. Shane Speal is the runs the Cigar Box Nation website and is owner of Pennsylvania’s amazing Cigar Box Guitar Museum. Speal is also the self-proclaimed (though no one really disagrees) King of the CBG. Speal made his first cbg in 1993 after reading about a cbg that the legendary Carl Perkins once had. He’s gone on to make countless more guitars since then. Memphis luthier John Lowe makes a one, two, three, and four-string CBGs called the Lowebow in acoustic and electric models. The electrics feature pickups hand-wound by Lowe and use a 25 cent piece for the pickup contact. Richard Johnston was one of the first to own a Lowebow. He used it at the 2001 International Blues Competition to blow the judges minds and garner the IBC’s first place, as well as the Albert King Award. This was the first time a cbg had won an IBC award, let alone the first time a diddley-bow (one string guitar) had won. John Lowe has hand-made hundreds of cigar box guitars; and his instruments are owned by the likes of Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, Kid Rock, who got his Lowebow from Dickinson and proudly displayed it on CNN’s Larry King Show, Bo Ramsey, guitarist for Greg Brown and Lucinda Williams, singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, and me.
Lowe was honored last month at the first annual Lowebow Fest in Orlando, FL. It featured four nationally known Lowebow CBG-based bands: Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin's Purgatory Hill, a two-piece led by Pat McDonald, known for his hit The Future’s So Bright, Philadelphia’s Hymn For Her, Florida’s Ben Prestage, and John Lowe, who performs as Johnny Lowebow.
Bill Jagitsch, whose nom-de-blues is Blues Boy Jag, is another well-regarded CBG builder. Since seeing plans for a cigar box guitar in a copy of Make Magazine in 2006, Jagitsch, who numbers each guitar, has built over a thousand guitars and has become a one-stop shop for the one-man band genre. Developing his own cottage industry, Jagitsch builds cool little amplifiers housed in cigar boxes, as well as bass drums built from thriftstore suitcases, fretted and fretless cbgs, as well as wooden carrying cases for his guitars. In an interview I did last week with Bill Jagitsch he said, “I also make Dobro style resonators cbg's, cb basses, dulcimers, ukuleles, acoustic cbg's and 6 string cbg's. Over the years I've added other items such as my Boogie Board Foot Stomper which is an electric bass drum/stomp board for solo acts, my hand wound pickups which are designed specifically for cbg's, a how to play dvd with several gigs of videos and tunings as well as fingering tricks, slide tips and so forth.”
The cigar box guitar scene is not limited to the U.S. England has it’s own happening scene with artists (who have certainly more colorful names than the Americans) like Chicken Bone John, Blues Beaten Redshaw, Seasick Steve ( actually a Yank ), and Hollowbelly, who said in a recent cbg documentary titled Cigar Box Revolution:
“It’s a sort of anti-commercial, anti-technological, anti-establishment thing to do. They are just unbelievable instruments. They’re very democratic. That’s what I like about it. You don’t have to be rich; you can make one, and get playing it. I thought, even I could make one. It’s a stick in a box, right? I strung it up and I thought, there’s no way it’s going to work. But not only did it work it sounded super-fabulous!”
Hollowbelly has risen quickly to become the best known cbg player in the U.K. Seasick Steve is perhaps more well known but he uses an eclectic choice of instruments including the cbg and Hollowbelly sticks solely to the cbg. With the howl and blues feel of an English Jack White and a U.K.-centric punk and political sense, Hollowbelly pounds new nails in the old timey bridge between the British mines and isles, and the American blue ridge mountains punk, piney hill country hollers, and dirty south soul. In an interview I did with Hollowbelly for my Deep Blues blog in May of last year I asked him how he got into playing cigar box guitars:
“Well, I'd moved out of London 10 years ago and headed West. I had money for the first time ever- I was bored with standard tuning guitar so I found out about blues open tuning and resonator guitars- I can laugh at myself now- I blew the money on this stupidly expensive National resonator guitar from California- you know- those steel guitars you see the old black bluesmen play- I thought 'yeah man-now I'm a real bluesman' -ha ha ha!! An arsehole is what I was.
Well, to my dismay it didn't sound anything like Son House or Fred McDowell. I sold it at a loss, then stumbled across cigar box guitars on the web. Two characters need to be mentioned really- Shane Speal, an American who was out there promoting cbg's long before they became better known about- and Chickenbone John, a Brit who I often refer to as the Godfather of the cbg movement here in the UK. I bought a little £30 CBG from 'bone, and holy cow- there was the sound I was after- I shoulda guessed that an instrument that was made from poverty would give that sound, given where blues came from. So then I made my own very crude CBG out of a bannister rail and an old tin and started writing some tunes. Nine months later I'm at (London’s famous) the 100 club.”
“You can’t get much closer to the punk ethic of do it yourself than making your own guitar, right? Can't afford a Gibson? No problem- shove a stick in a box, stretch some strings across it and you're good to go. It ties in with my loathing of social inequality. That whole 'anybody can do it' thing is so appealing and central to the movement. I mean you need zero cash- so its 100% inclusive. Open tuning also democratizes- put a slide on your finger and away you go- you don't need to know scales or read music or whatever- start picking and sing what's in your soul. There- you're playing your blues- how cool is that? Very damn cool I'd say. No more staring into music shop windows dreaming about a Gibson or a Fender. When the CBG revival was started in the States there was, and still is, a 'no rules' policy- which is also true to the original punk ideology- heavy metal on a cbg-why not? Funk music on a 2 string? Go for it. Oh yeah, that's the way things should be.”
Shane Speal, known as The King Of The Cigar Box Guitar, has a story about his discovery of the cbg that runs somewhat parallel to that of Hollowbelly, and it will be familiar to most blues fans. It involves the usual fanboy tale of the reverse engineering of musical history. In an email interview I did with Speal he said,
“In high school, I played bass in heavy metal and thrash bands. When I went to college, I discovered the blues and was totally blown away. It started with the usuals...Hendrix, Ten Years After and Led Zeppelin. Then I started asking the question, "who came before them?" That's when I discovered Muddy, The Wolf and Hound Dog Taylor. I kept searching for the deeper links to the blues, ending up with the delta guys like Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson. I was beating an old Stella acoustic and struggling to play slide on it just like them. In the meantime, I kept wondering, what came before the delta guys? That's when I discovered the stories of guys building cigar box guitars. It was the one step deeper than the delta blues...a music so primal that you had to build your own damn guitar to play it.”
Playing a cbg puts you in good company. Jimi Hendrix played one as a kid, George Benson played a ukulele-style cbg, the aforementioned Carl Perkins and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ted Nugent, Charlie Christian, Roy Clark, Albert King, Hound Dog Taylor, Robert Pete Williams, Big Bill Broonzy, Eddie Lang, Josh White, Johnny Depp, Billy Gibbons, and Scott Dunbar who played his like a violin. Countless more musicians either got their start on the cbg or picked one up later in life. Here’s the thing that I dig about cigar box guitars: It’s an elitism-free instrument and totally egalitarian. You can make a guitar for ten bucks that can sound just as good as one that cost a lot more. There are no rules. No worries about structural acoustics or whether or not your neck is made of some exotic wood or cut from scrap. Nobody cares if you play a Lowebow, a Shane Speal, a Blues Boy Jag model, or a homemade thing you slapped together out of that cigar box your dad kept spare change in or grandma’s old jewelry box. It doesn’t matter if the parts to build it came from the big box hardware store or some box of junk in the back of your shed. You put it together; you string it up, you figure out how to play it in the way that sounds good to you. Anywhere you take it you’ll hear people say, "Wow! That's so cool! Can I see it? Can I hear it? How can I make one?" Each cigar box guitar is different and unique, and as long as it plays, is completely valid as an instrument and, perhaps more importantly, valid as a work of art as well.
Do you want to build your own cbg or a cigar box uke, fiddle, banjo, violin, diddley-bow, amp, or bass? For the beginner or the expert craftsman, cigarboxnation.com has all the plans you’ll need. Join the nation and your fellow members will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have along the way. Need a real Ukulele? Check out our local favorite uke store Grampa’s Uke Joint in Flagler Beach or at grampasukejoint.com/