Musicians feel the pull of cigar box guitars
The pages of newspapers, or history books for that matter, don’t runneth over with stories of happy accidents involving chainsaws.
But that’s just what put Philadelphia musicians Lucy Tight and Wayne Waxing, who tour as Hymn for Her, in possession of a musical instrument that changed the direction of their career.
The incident also brought them into a surprising community that’s sprung up in the last decade around one of the most primitive tools of the trade: the cigar box guitar, a simple homemade instrument that in decades past has been the first instrument for many blues, folk and country musicians with great musical passion but little financial means.
“We were in Memphis, Tenn., on tour,” Tight said during Hymn for Her’s recent swing through Southern California. While one of their cohorts was helping a friend they were staying with cut up some trees that were downed during a storm, “the chainsaw bucked, hit him in the head, and he ended up in the hospital. As a parting gift, because he felt so bad about the accident, our friend gave us one of his cigar box guitars. It definitely has changed our sound a lot.”
The particular instrument she’s talking about is called a Lowebow, named after the friend who created it and gave it to them: Memphis-based musician and luthier John Lowe. It consists of a broomstick handle melded to a bona fide cigar box across which run three strings: one bass string for the low-end notes, and two guitar strings for rhythm accompaniment and soloing. Plugged into a high-wattage amplifier, it produces the sound of the mythical hellhound on proto-bluesman Robert Johnson’s trail.
It’s one example of a mushrooming number of modern-day versions of the primitive cigar box instruments of yore. Their popularity is growing, not coincidentally, during a technologically sophisticated age of mass-produced instruments that allow players to mimic the sound of virtually any vintage guitar, or amplifier, ever made.
Some cigar box instruments, like Lowe’s, remain consciously low-tech, using just one, two or three strings; others, often employing four or sometimes even eight strings, apply sophisticated guitar-making skills, resulting in functional instruments that exemplify artistic mastery of the luthier’s craft.
And what initially may look like a novelty item good for a laugh at a cocktail party is being taken increasingly seriously by professionals.
Marc Ribot, a respected session guitarist who has worked extensively with producer T Bone Burnett and singer-songwriter Tom Waits, has played one that belongs to Waits on some of the iconoclastic singer-songwriter’s recordings.
“Old-style instruments evoke the recordings which were made using these types of instruments and the world those recordings represent,” Ribot said. “They’re a way for musicians to play, not only with notes but with history.”
“At first glance you might not take it seriously,” said ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, “until you pick one up and start strumming it.” Gibbons quickly became an enthusiast after hearing a band member messing with one in the back of their tour bus after a concert. “It’s patently amazing what you can do with just two notes. For the most part, people are quite pleasantly surprised to hear what you can get out of one of these.”
Rock guitar hero Steve Miller, in a separate interview, agreed: “When I saw Billy’s, I thought, ‘What a really simple thing to play!’ … Now I have two of them. They’re extremely expressive, funky little instruments.” With a laugh, he added, “It’s probably what Bo Diddley had when he was little.”
The Diddley connection
The name of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Bo Diddley is a hallowed one in the cigar box instrument community. The rectangular-bodied electric guitar with which he pounded out the song and proto-rock beat that carries his name in the 1950s was directly modeled on the crude cigar box instruments he and others first learned to play. It was not limited to blues players such as Blind Willie Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins but was a tool that rock, country and jazz greats such as Jimi Hendrix, Carl Perkins and Charlie Christian played when they were young.
In fact, the Mississippi musician born Otha Bates Ellas McDaniel took his nom de stage from the Diddley Bow, a single-string instrument created by wrapping a piece of bailing wire around two nails hammered onto the side of a house, a barn or plank of wood.
For many musicians, a cigar box guitar embodies purity of musical expression.
“Musicians like myself, we want that grit,” said Shane Speal, who created the Cigar Box Nation website that now claims about 3,000 members. “We want an instrument that kicks our … — that’s what happening. There’s no central musician that’s leading the charge.”
“It’s like this pack of discontented musicians that have joined together and used Internet to connect,” Speal said. “The only thing I’ve done is to create a forum where they can do that and to be a cheerleader about it.”
One irony of the cigar box guitar phenomenon is that the first instruments were a byproduct of technological advancements during the industrial revolution.
For centuries, tobacco had been transported from seller to buyer as raw leaves in large bundles. When manufacturing techniques improved in the 19th century, facilitating the production of pre-rolled cigars, they started being shipped in more consumer friendly wood boxes. Once the cigars had been smoked, the boxes were disposed of — or repurposed for other uses, including homemade musical instruments for those who didn’t even have a few dollars with which to purchase a used one.
Modern luthiers with a zest for folk art have been attracted to the challenge cigar box culture presents in making legitimate instruments from homespun materials.
“In general what we perceive is a kind of renaissance in guitar making,” said Tatiana Sizonenko, curator of the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, an arm of the National Assn. of Music Merchants trade organization for musical equipment manufacturers and dealers. “I think it’s in reaction to the technological development in a way.
“In guitar making, the way for many producers to cut the cost of instruments is to ship orders to China, do the machinery there, then ship back parts that they assemble here,” Sizonenko said. “People look back and say, ‘With all the tools we have, we can make more beautiful handmade instruments.’ This movement is growing. We’re seeing more and more makers every day. And there’s more sharing of information on how to make guitars. It’s no longer tied to a specific family secret; people share recipes, like they do in cooking.”
He added that the Internet has facilitated the growth of many new musical communities: “There are ukulele groups, steel guitar groups, vintage guitar groups, slack key guitar groups, accordion groups. In Southern California there are very active communities of people who, because of social media … now have the possibility of making homegrown musical festivals.”
The Southland has its own repository of cigar box guitar makers, including North Hollywood’s Matty Baratto and Highland Park’s Mark Melchior.
When he isn’t building or repairing conventional guitars for customers such as KISS, Marilyn Manson, Sugar Ray, Zakk Wylde and the Goo Goo Dolls, Baratto makes a cigar box model he calls the CigFiddle, which he’ll be showing off Saturday at the Lowebow Cigar Box Guitar Festival in Orlando, Fla.
CigFiddles sell for $400 to $500 for basic models and up to $1,500 for combinations that come with one of Baratto’s equally down-to-earth wine box amplifiers.
Johnny Depp owns one — he reportedly gave one to his rock ‘n’ roll pal and “Pirates of the Caribbean” fashion role model Keith Richards — as does British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, who used one on her 2007 album, “White Chalk.” Other high-profile CigFiddle owners include Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather musician-singer Jack White and Queens of the Stone Age heavy metal musician Josh Homme.
“Some guitar-maker friends ask why I’m wasting my time doing these,” Baratto said. “They’re working with revolutionary technologies and making instruments from space-age materials like titanium. I feel like I’m going backward: I’m using things I can find at the hardware store. For my resonator model, I use a paint can lid. And I use sink covers for drains on the sound holes. I’m all about making them on the cheap.”
Melchior has recently built his 50th cigar box guitar out of his residence in Highland Park, and sells the instruments mostly by word of mouth. Several are on display at La Luz de Jesus in Los Feliz as part of the gallery’s annual Everything But the Kitschen Sync group exhibition that opened Friday and runs through March 27.
“I’ve left a footprint in a lot of areas, but this seemed like fertile ground, something with which I could get neck deep into American folk art,” said Melchior, who is also a singer and songwriter. “It’s taken me a lot farther than anything else I’ve done. This is very pure [craftsmanship] in an old world way,” which is how Melchior was trained in Wisconsin, working as an apprentice to Italian-born accordion builder Alfonso Baldoni.
“Guitar technology is moving into things like self-tuning bridges. But if you can’t tune your own guitar….” he said, letting the thought finish itself. “I’ve got to grab the reins and do my thing. I feel like a frontiersman, and this is a lot more exciting.”
Beyond the possibility of that direct connection, for many of the most devoted practitioners, it’s about the supremacy of expressivity over technology.
“At first I was a little intimidated by it because it requires a lot of lead playing, which I wasn’t used to. But once I started messing around with it, I find it more liberating,” said musician Tight, who with Waxing are recording their latest album, “Lucy & Wayne and the Amairican Stream” in their Airstream trailer while touring the country.
“When everything gets so technological, with everything that’s there to break down, you want to get back to the raw essence of what music is all about,” she said. “It’s definitely a passionate instrument. When you play an instrument that’s handmade like this, you feel the passion.”
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