Ever fancied being a guitar hero but don’t really have the cash to splash out on a brand new Gibson, Fender, or one of the many boutique custom shop guitars that are out there? Fear not my friends, there is a much cheaper version that will get you going in the meantime, the cigar box guitar.
Now on the face of it, you may be going, what, are you nuts? Crazy maybe, but crazy like a fox, cigar box guitars are a big deal and believe it or not, they have been around forever and interest in this peculiar looking instrument is growing at an unusual rate.
The earliest evidence of instruments made from a cigar box dates back to 1840 to the 1860s. A cigar box instrument was even copyrighted in 1876 by two Civil War Soldiers. There was illustrated proof in the form of an etching of the two at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle. The etching clearly shows the cigar box fiddle has the brand ‘Figaro’ on the side of the cigar box.
As well the etching, Daniel Carter Beard, the co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, published plans for a cigar box banjo in 1884 as part of ‘Christmas Eve With Uncle Enos.’
Those same plans were then retitled ‘How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo’ and were published in Beard’s American Boy’s Handy Book in 1890, and gave the reader a step-by-step description on how to build a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.
As well as the cigar box guitar, fiddles were made from the very same materials, and as you can imagine, were very important in the rise of jug and blues bands at the time.
Jug and Blues performers were generally black Americans who were living in poverty, owning a “real” instrument was not an option during that time so this led to the use of the washtub bass (similar to the cigar box guitar), jugs, washboards, and harmonica in order for black musicians to write and perform.
The 1930s ushered in The Great Depression and a resurgence of homemade musical instruments. Any type of instrument was, in reality, beyond the paygrade of most people, but with a little time, some effort, an old cigar box, a piece of broom handle and a couple of wires from the screen door, you could get yourself an instrument together and play.
Let’s keep in mind that guitar makers such as Fender and Gibson have revolutionized the guitar and music industry, but, from this humble little instrument came some of the blues’ biggest names. Muddy Waters, Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Jimi Hendrix, all started off tinkering around on homemade cigar box guitars.
The great Carl Perkins, who wrote classics like “Blue Suede Shoes,” also started his musical odyssey on a cigar box guitar. Without the resources to buy a real guitar, Carl’s father built one from scratch from a cigar box and a broomstick. When it came to changing strings, the family were far too poor to purchase new ones, adapting, Carl tied his strings in knots when they broke. As you can imagine, the knots in the middle of the strings cut his fingers, again adapting, Carl bent the strings rather than sliding his fingers whilst playing and introduced a twangy new “blue note” style to his songwriting and playing in the process.
Over the years the cigar box guitar has developed into a seriously collectible instrument and as you can imagine, the craftsmanship has got better and better and the newer versions play as good and most guitars.
If you were in any doubt as to what you can do with such a limited instrument the check out the video of Justin Johnson playing his track (Rooster Blues) below:
Also attached, an instructional video that claims that with a little time, a little patience, and a few tools you can build your very own cigar box guitar. Have fun….