Cigar box guitars were an inexpensive means to make music by using discarded materials and are gaining popularity again today.
A three-string guitar at a music festival
My home town of Fremantle in Western Australia hosted a very successful Blues and Roots festival for a number of years. It featured some stellar local and international performers, including the likes of Robert Plant, Santana, Paul Simon, Mavis Staples and many others.
But as well as the well-known musicians, it’s always fun to listen to people you haven’t heard of before. At one festival, I happened across a guy called Seasick Steve who was playing amazing blues-rock on a guitar that only had three strings. The music this guy was making without any support musicians was astounding.
It turned out that he had recently been “discovered” after an appearance on the Jools Holland show in 2007.
Seasick Steve told the story of how he’d been a homeless hobo for many years before settling down and then, in his 60s, had some recorded songs favourably received by a record company. That, it turns out, was a bit of a fabrication on Steve’s part – a 2016 biography indicated that he’d actually been gainfully employed as a session musician most of the time he was supposed to have been riding the rails.
As a Guardian article at the time stated: “A biography of the bluesman with the hobo backstory found that he’d made up his myth”. But the article then asked the question “But does it matter?” Inventing or embellishing past life stories is not uncommon in the music world, and Seasick Steve’s music certainly found a willing audience regardless of who he actually was. He’s still touring and making good music.
The Three-String Trance Wonder
Seasick Steve called his guitar “The Three-String Trance Wonder”. It’s most likely a guitar made Japan in the 1960s, with a pickup stuck on with duct tape. Apparently he was given the guitar by a friend, and it had only three strings on it – so he decided to keep it that way. He has it tuned to open G (DGDGBD), which translates into GGB when the 1st 4th and 6th strings are missing.
Steve has been known to call the guitar the “biggest piece of shit in the world, I swear.” Despite that, it’s become a bit of a phenomenon amongst certain genres of guitar geeks, and there’s even a YouTube video with instructions on how to make your own version of it.
Samantha Fish’s cigar box guitar
It took a while for me to realise that Seasick Steve was simply emulating an old phenomenon with his 3 string guitar. Indeed, although most guitars these days have 6 strings, there are, in fact, no rules as to how many strings are required. Even one string can sound pretty amazing in the right hands. 1,3,4,7,8 or more – with of course, the 12 string as a well-established mainstream variant too.
A chance encounter with another wonderful musician opened up a whole new world for me, via a video of Samantha Fish playing a 4 string cigar box guitar. Samantha Fish came from Kansas City and hit the music scene around 2009, playing amazing blues guitar. She plays a number of different guitars, but the video I first saw had her playing a cigar box guitar she’d picked up in Arkansas. Her music has evolved in many directions from her early days, but she still retains a healthy dose of good ol’ blues in her repertoire – and the cigar box guitar gets regular airings in live concerts.
In recent years, she’s also been centrally associated with the New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival, now the Samantha Fish Cigar Box Guitar Festival. The festival, focusing on alternative instrument events, attracts musicians and fans from far and wide to celebrate the creativity and versatility of cigar box guitars.
The term “Cigar Box Guitar” refers to guitars made out of old cigar boxes but is also used more broadly to describe unique, homemade stringed instruments created from just about anything. These instruments have their roots in the pervasive desire to make music combined with the lack of access to, or ability to buy, commercially produced instruments. They were a central part of the birth and early development of most American music traditions, but perhaps are most associated with southern blues.
William J Jehle, who describes himself as a “detritomusicologist”, has written the definitive history of cigar box guitars, titled “One Man’s Trash”, with its second edition published in 2016.
Cigars themselves have a long history – for centuries, people have been rolling up tobacco leaves, sticking them in their mouths, lighting them up and inhaling the resulting smoke.
Tobacco was grown mainly in places like Cuba and other parts of central America, but was then also established in the parts of the US with climates favourable for its growth. Tobacco smoking grew in popularity across Europe after the Spanish brought tobacco back from the Americas in the 1500s. It is reputed to have been brought to the UK in 1586 by Sir Walter Raleigh, who had discovered it growing in Virginia. Comedian Bob Newhart famously depicted how the idea of tobacco might have been received initially back in England.
Tobacco cultivation has been associated with a variety of social and environmental issues, including slavery, deforestation, pesticide and heavy water use. And, of course, the health issues associated with tobacco use are now well understood.
Why cigar boxes?
Regardless of these issues, trade in tobacco and cigars was extensive, and cigar smoking was common through the 19th and 20th century, even when cigarettes came on the scene. With increasing popularity, ever greater volumes of cigars were transported from where they were made to where they were smoked.
Originally, cigars were shipped in bulk in barrels that could hold 5,000 cigars, but as time went on, shopkeepers wanted the cigars packed in smaller numbers, sand there was an increasing requirement to keep records of how many cigars were being produced. Hence, they were repacked into smaller boxes.
From the early 18th century, governments started imposing taxes on luxurious items like soaps, perfumes, photographs, playing cards, medicines, alcohol, and tobacco – primarily as a means of funding war efforts. Tobacco and alcohol became some of the government’s most supervised products. In 1865, changing tax regulations required factories to pack and seal the boxes before the cigars left the factory. The seal indicated that the necessary tax had been paid.
Boxes came in many forms. Some were made from cardboard or metal, but most were made of wood and sized to hold 20 or more cigars. William Jehle points out that cigar boxes could not be re-used for holding cigars once the tax seal was broken. Hence, in the same way that barrels can only be used once for bourbon, the cigar box was basically single-use item. Hence, most probably disappeared as firewood – but some were reused in various ways.
When I was growing up in Scotland, cigars, pipes and cigarettes were pretty much ubiquitous. Most of my relations smoked, and tobacconist shops were common.
Paraphernalia associated with cigars and other forms of tobacco use provided a rich array of raw materials for handicrafts. I didn’t encounter many cigar boxes, but my uncles smoked cigars that came individually in thin metal tubes. These, combined with other items such as the tops of toothpaste tubes, could be readily fashioned into rather sleek spacecraft or aircraft. (Now you can find how to make these on the internet, of course: rockets and planes). Matchboxes, pipe-cleaners and other items also had endless uses.
Looking back, as a young boy, I also made rudimentary “guitars” using elastic bands stretched over wooden measuring rulers and containers such old breakfast cereal boxes or biscuit tins. I was obviously tapping in to a venerable tradition I had no idea existed! Box instruments first started appearing in the mid 1800s, and the first visual record was an etching by artist Edwin Forbes, showing a solider playing a cigar box fiddle during the American Civil War.
Cigar boxes were fashioned into violins, banjos, ukuleles and guitars. The box was combined with other readily available materials such as old broom handles and thin wire gleaned from wherever it could be found. Larger instruments were also possible – like the washtub bass that used a metal wash bucket as a resonator. Assorted musical ensembles were therefore possible using entirely scavenged materials.
If you are keen to delve more deeply into the history of cigar box guitars, there is an hour-long documentary “Songs Inside the Box, the Cigar Box Guitar Documentary” available on YouTube.
But where do cigar boxes come from?
As we’ve seen, in the United States from 1865, tax laws required cigars to be packed in wooden boxes – usually of 25, 50, 100 or 250 cigars. After the U.S. Civil War, cigar boxes were everywhere in the United States. Between 1800 and 1960 around 80% of all cigar boxes were made of wood. That amounts to an estimated 8 billion wooden cigar boxes. That’s a lot of cigar boxes! Given that they could only be used once for cigars, it’s hardly surprising that they became a ready source of materials for home-made instruments.
But where did all the wood for the boxes come from? Although cigar box guitars are excellent examples of recycling and reuse, the boxes came from trees originally. The wood used for cigar boxes was, and continues to be, mostly Spanish cedar Cedrela odorata. It is generally considered the “best” kind of wood for cigar boxes because of its appearance, odour and insect-repellent characteristics.
C. odorata is known by many other names, including Cuban Cedar, Mexican cedar and even cigar box cedar. It is native to large areas of the tropical Americas and can grow to 40-50 meters tall. It occurs in both primary and secondary (regrowth) forests. The timber of large, mature trees is considered very valuable, and C. odorata is an important commercial timber species, not just for cigar boxes. Its fragrant, insect-repelling properties have also made it a very popular choice for clothes storage and many other uses.
Large-scale commercial exploitation of C. odorata over the last 200 years significantly impacted the species in its natural range, and it is now listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. C. odorata is grown widely on plantations throughout the tropics, including many African countries, and the timber from these plantations has, to some extent, reduced the pressure on the species in its native range.
Perversely, the species has become a troublesome invasive species in many places, including the Galapagos Islands. It spreads very quickly due to prolific seed production and wind dispersal, particularly invading disturbed areas. It can displace native species, change forest structure and alter the frequency and intensity of forest fires.
Hence, Spanish cedar is an example of a species that is vulnerable in its native habitat but an important pest in some areas where it has been introduced. This is not an uncommon phenomenon – a well-known example is Monterey Pine, or Pinus radiata. This species has a very limited native range in coastal California, and is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List. And yet it is planted extensively for commercial timber production in many parts of the world, including Australia and New Zealand. And it, too, can cause problems when it escapes from its original plantation areas and invades surrounding areas of native vegetation.
Cigar boxes continue to be made in large numbers using Spanish cedar. For instance, the Fuente company has a 50,000-square foot factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic (DR), to make cigar boxes. About 40,000 or more boxes are now made there every week – in other words, two million boxes a year. The timber comes from a supplier on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and the company asserts that it acts sustainably and replaces every harvested tree with young trees.
Cigar box guitars today
Cigar boxes – especially old ones – today are considered as collectors items by some. In addition to the box itself, there was a rich diversity in labels that adorned the boxes. These labels were usually lithographed and could be very ornate, depicting all sorts of different subjects – from suggestively-clad women to Greek mythology, Empire themes and much more.
Interest in cigar box guitars waned after its peaks in the late 1800s and during the Depression era. But, as we saw with Samantha Fish earlier, the humble cigar box guitar has made a dramatic comeback recently. Far removed from the finely crafted – and often expensive – guitars that have featured in other posts on this site, the cigar box guitar has re-emerged as a simple, inexpensive, yet fun way of making music.
Modern interest in cigar box guitars centres on the uniqueness and authenticity of the sound, recreating for many the sounds associated with traditional blues and other music styles. Most instruments are one-of-a-kind creations. The cigar box guitar scene is blissfully anarchic – basically, there are few rules and the choice of materials and degree of sophistication is entirely up to the maker. The innovative use of materials – particularly scrap and leftover stuff – leads to wacky designs that nevertheless work well.
The ability to electrify the cigar box also adds greatly to the utility and range of sounds that can be made. Here again, pretty much anything goes – any type of pickup system can go in, from simple piezos to scavenged humbuckers or Fender single coils. For gutsy blues, a cigar box guitar can sound just great. While there are many builders now selling excellent cigar box guitars across the world, there is also the possibility of revisiting the roots of the instrument and making one yourself. A range of resources are available to guide this, including several excellent books, websites and YouTube channels. For instance, Shane Speal, who did the Seasick Steve guitar conversion in the video earlier, is a leading proponent of all things to do with cigar box guitars.
Two cigar box guitars
Although I’m lucky to have acquired and played some amazing guitars – some of which have been featured in earlier posts – I also consider myself lucky to have a couple of really nice cigar box guitars that I love. The first has 4 strings and was made by an outfit called Daddy Mojo, in Montreal, Canada.
Their instruments are made from Canadian Maple, and they have a mini-humbucker pickup. Daddy Mojo has an extensive collection of vintage labels that they adorn their guitars with. The “Big Wolf” label on mine appeals to my ecological background as well as looking very cool.
The second is a Fl3tch 3 string. It was custom designed and built by Ian Fletcher, whole lives in my home town here in Western Australia. Like some of the folks encountered in other posts on this site (such as Karl Venz, Aaron Fenech and Laurie Williams), Ian came to guitar making after years of doing other things. He worked for 30 years in the Commonwealth Public Service as a manager of a government computer centre, and then in sales and support in an agricultural company. He retired in 2009 and took up building three string box guitars in 2017, and has now made quite a few guitars using a variety of materials.
My guitar is built from salvaged local woods. It has a Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) neck and body, and a Sheoak (Allocasuarina fraseriana) top and fretboard, and features a replica Redback spider on the top. The Redback is a local venomous spider that lurks in gardens and sheds waiting to bite unsuspecting victims – reinforcing the view that Australia is home to some dangerous fauna that is just waiting to jump out and get you. Ian equipped this guitar with Fender Squier single coil pickups, complete with 5 way switching and volume and tone controls.
Both of these are lovely instruments. Neither have an actual recycled cigar box. This doesn’t particularly matter, following the philosophy that anything goes in these hand-made instruments. But I do have an old cigar box – and I plan to make it into a guitar, joining the many folks who enjoy making their own instruments. It’s like going back to childhood and making things with discarded stuff – and there’s even an outside chance that the result might sound half decent!
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