“In a world of limited resources, we need to be resourceful,” said Dale Dougherty, the founder of Maker Faire. And perhaps nowhere in the world of craft is resourcefulness more evident than the pursuit of music. Instruments have been fashioned out of every conceivable material, from the finest woods and metals to lowly castoffs like cake pans and bedpans. You could say that resourcefulness is the soul of soul music itself, beginning with the cigar box guitar and the birth of the blues.
The humble cigar box guitar was a down-home source of uplifting music when times were tough. The earliest known picture of a cigar box instrument was copyrighted in 1876 by Civil War illustrator Edwin Forbes. It shows two soldiers at a campsite, one playing a Figaro cigar box fiddle. Like the banjo, the cigar box guitar’s origins can be traced to the African banjar, a stringed instrument with a gourd body. Banjars were played with a “diddly bow,” a device that some say provided the stage name for guitar master Bo Diddley.
Many early artists of rock, soul, and blues first learned to play music on a cigar box guitar. As blues giant Lightnin’ Hopkins relates, “I felt the blues was in me, 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…and got me a tune out of it. I kept my tune and I played from then on.” Rockabilly great Carl Perkins picked his first tunes on a cigar box guitar. Because his family could not afford a real guitar, Carl’s father built one for him from a cigar box and a broomstick. Too poor to buy new strings, Carl tied his strings in knots when they broke. The knots cut his fingers, so he bent the strings rather than sliding his fingers along them while he played, inventing a twangy new “blue note” in the process.
Etsy’s resourceful cigar box guitar makers draw on this tradition of making do and doing it yourself —and they make great music in the process, too. “My whiskey box guitar project failed,” said Jake Chase from JellyHawk. “I have always known about cigar box guitars (especially Bo Diddley’s famous one) and I decided to look for a cool cigar box and make one.” Chris White from White Hot Glass started making cigar box guitars when he became the owner of a pre-made guitar that was “pretty rustic, to put it nicely. I thought I could do a little better.” Chris got more than just a nice sound out of it. “Creating music and art taps into a vein of human culture that pre-dates history,” he said. “It’s satisfying at a real core level.”
What should you look for if you’re in the market for a cigar box guitar of your own? “Customers need to look for quality craftsmanship, just like with any guitar or other instrument. If it looks cheap, it probably is cheap,” said Jake. “You want attention to detail,” adds Chris, “And a little soul.”
How good can a cigar box guitar sound? Check out this performance by Delta bluesman Super Chikan, on a cigar box guitar with a broomstick neck:
Have you ever played a cigar box guitar?
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.