Cigar box guitars are undergoing a renaissance, with enthusiasts and artists alike adding them to their collections and playing them on stage. Art&Seek’s Hady Mawajdeh talks with some of the musicians and builders who specialize in these primitive instruments, which are characterized by their slim necks, found boxes and inexpensive strings.
A man known only as Tony makes cigar box guitars for a living. Working out of a workshop outside Columbia in Blythewood, South Carolina, the luthier, or box of cigars guitar maker, sifts through wood shavings and screws while laying in frets and cutting the shape of his instruments. He also affixes the resonators and electric pickups that make them sound just like a normal guitar.
Tony makes his instruments in the style of the American folk music that inspired them, a tradition that dates back to the 1800s. Historically, people created these instruments from whatever materials they had available, including old broom handles, thin wire and even wash buckets as resonators. Then around 1840, cigar manufacturers started shipping their products in smaller boxes that were easier to carry, allowing people to repurpose the hinged containers for a simple chordophone.
These days, people are interested in these one-of-a-kind string instruments for their versatility and sonic appeal. They’re also a reminder of the resourcefulness of early American culture, when money was scarce and ingenuity was abundant. “CBGs represent a corner of the country’s history where resourcefulness was valued,” writes historian William Jehle in his book, “One Man’s Trash: A History of the Cigar Box Guitar.”
The cigar box guitar scene is blissfully anarchic, where makers have few limits when it comes to design and material choice. The result is a wide range of instruments, from elegantly crafted pieces to the rough and ready. Most are made to order, but some luthiers have started selling kits so beginners can build their own.
Despite their diminutive size, these instruments can produce big sound. In fact, some well-known musicians have been seen playing them – from singers to bluesmen to a Hindustani slide guitarist. The North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther Dickinson plays a six-string cigar box guitar, while Dallas bluesman and Art&Seek Spotlight Artist Reverend KM Williams uses a four-string cigar box guitar built by Shane Speal.
The instrument’s popularity is gaining momentum in the United States and beyond, as more people discover their unique sounds and rugged beauty. It’s not uncommon to see a few cigar box guitars in the hands of seasoned pros at festivals and bars across the globe.