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The Cigar Box Guitar

Mar 19, 2013

by Karen Brown

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

“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 earliest known picture of a cigar box instrument.

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?

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4 Featured Comments

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 3 years ago Featured

    Last year at the Heirloom Expo they had the most amazing collection of handmade instruments I ever saw in my life, truly. Little bands from all over the country were playing handmade instruments, singing songs they wrote themselves. Thank you all for your comments, and I agree: it seems that nothing can suppress the music inside all of us.

  • 1FarmBoy

    1FarmBoy from FrontPorchBlues said 3 years ago Featured

    Thanks for the feature. I absolutely love making these instruments. I've been at it for a few years now, and still learn something new on each one. The best part for me is the moment it comes to life with the twist of a peg and the first pluck of a new string.

  • allstarorganics

    allstarorganics from allstarorganics said 3 years ago Featured

    And within the beauty of the guitars themselves is the beauty of the anonymous artists who designed the artwork on the cigar boxes. We used to lavish such attention on everyday things. This layer of tradition upon tradition is rich and moving.

  • Ellareki

    Ellareki from Ellareki said 3 years ago Featured

    I really enjoyed reading this (even though I haven't got a musical bone in my body!). I have always loved the ingenuity of functional and often beautiful objects using whatever resources were available to the maker.

104 comments

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 3 years ago

    These cigar box guitars are amazing! I was lucky enough to see a couple who hand makes them at the Metallica concert in Atlantic City last summer. Really neat process and product!

  • mrscsglutenfree

    Veronica from MrsCsGlutenFree said 3 years ago

    This is Fantastic ! This is really what Etsy is really all about. Something new, made with love by real people. Thank you for these listings.

  • jessgreenleaf

    Jess Greenleaf from GREENLEAFblueberry said 3 years ago

    It is fascinating the things that can be made and accomplished with on-hand materials. These cigar box guitars remind me of a book I picked up at the library years about that was all about small works of art created by men at war. The detail on small metal and wood pieces was amazing. It is a good reminder about what can happen when drive and the creative spirit are combined, and that lack of materials is not necessarily a limiting factor in creating.

  • LandonField

    Robin and Merle Van Houten from LandonField said 3 years ago

    It's great to see an article which highlights material reuse. Job well done to both the author and the craftspeople! We've had a lot of fun centering our etsy shop around reuse. For those readers who have never given it a try I highly recommend it. It's ingenuitive, fun, exciting and rewarding!

  • FrejaMoon

    Freja Moon from LikeFreja said 3 years ago

    this is amazing! never thought it is possible:)

  • artforfirfurtrinket
  • jwlc

    Josephine from MettleMakes said 3 years ago

    Kind of reminds me of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fXynrsrTKbI The innovation and spirit of seeing the potential and beauty in things is wonderful.

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 3 years ago

    Fascinating. Great video! I'll be passing it on. Thanks.

  • BemusingBaubles

    Sarah Laguna from BemusingBaubles said 3 years ago

    This reminds me of trying to make guitars out of kleenex boxes when I was little, and drums out of pots and leather--fun times. These are very cool indeed.

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 3 years ago

    Amazing what the human mind can conceive!

  • BemusingBaubles

    Sarah Laguna from BemusingBaubles said 3 years ago

    Also, in response to Jess's comment about men at war making things--I've also read a lot about the great depression, and it seems as if, when down in spirits and circumstance, one of the first things people do is try to create music.

  • divinecartomancy

    Bren from PsychicBren said 3 years ago

    This is absolutely remarkable, I love the history behind this, if it were not for this article I would have never known that such a thing was being made back in the 1800's. I love history, we are all connected in one way or another. I think its wonderful that your keeping what was once known as a pass time, alive today. Thank you for sharing. Divine.

  • bedouin

    Nicole from bedouin said 3 years ago

    Innovative minds really do exist... beautifully done . Love music and this feature showcasing educational arts and resources for endless possibilities.

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost said 3 years ago

    I have always been enchanted by cigar boxes -- they have what seem to me like old postage on them, adding art, texture and adventurous possibilities on what would otherwise be.... just a box.

  • avarodan

    Ava Rodan from almafashionjewelry said 3 years ago

    interesting. I've never heard of those cigar box guitar. but its a cool idea. seems like really a blues thing.

  • ScrapHappyLyrebird

    Tess from GildedNotes said 3 years ago

    ooh how amazing are these! Love what happens at the crossroads of music, art, history, and passion.

  • HansHolzkopf

    Natalie from HansHolzkopf said 3 years ago

    wow! how cool and interesting!!!

  • gossamer531

    Gossamer Tearoom from TheGossamerTearoom said 3 years ago

    This is brilliant! I love seeing people making what they need out of what they have and really love that you can make something to play music on. Want to see another great example of making a musical instrument out of nothing? Check out the trailer of the documentary "It Might Get Loud". Jack White of The White Stripes makes an electric guitar out of some wood, nails and a coke bottle and then plugs it into his amp and ROCKS OUT! Love seeing ingenuity like this!!

  • baconsquarefarm

    baconsquarefarm from baconsquarefarm said 3 years ago

    I've always admired the cigar boxes made by Squier and this makes me happy to see one of there's in your article...facinating read and video as well...wish all these shops great success with there combinations of music, art and love of creating.

  • MaisyBrownReproRetro
  • H88255

    H88255 from HillarysSuperfoods said 3 years ago

    Such a creative idea. That is wonderful!

  • LoverofLeonard

    Colleen Smith from UnderABedWithLeonard said 3 years ago

    My brother makes these kinds of guitars out of old vintage Christmas tins. It's always a neat thing to bring out around the holidays! He bought his first one and he has never looked back. He was hooked from the getgo. Good job guys!

  • fbstudiovt

    Laura Hale from FoundBeautyStudioArt said 3 years ago

    I'm going to second Gossamer Tearoom's suggestion to watch "It Might Get Loud". That was the first time that I realized musical instruments were just as DIY accessible as all the other things I work on. Somehow, and perhaps it has to do with being the granddaughter of a concert violinist and a member of a family of cut throat classical musicians, I never realized that making music was everyone's birthright. I'm so incredibly grateful for the folk musicians, the experimentalists, and the DIY instrument makers for reshaping my idea of what music can be. It's a completely liberating new world!

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts said 3 years ago

    What great history! I love this

  • SamSammie

    Sam from SamieSam said 3 years ago

    Love instruments made from everyday items. Great piece!

  • GeorgieGirlLLC

    D George from GeorgieGirlLLC said 3 years ago

    I would love the opportunity to see one or how they are made! Fantastic video, thanks for sharing.

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 3 years ago Featured

    Last year at the Heirloom Expo they had the most amazing collection of handmade instruments I ever saw in my life, truly. Little bands from all over the country were playing handmade instruments, singing songs they wrote themselves. Thank you all for your comments, and I agree: it seems that nothing can suppress the music inside all of us.

  • 1FarmBoy

    1FarmBoy from FrontPorchBlues said 3 years ago Featured

    Thanks for the feature. I absolutely love making these instruments. I've been at it for a few years now, and still learn something new on each one. The best part for me is the moment it comes to life with the twist of a peg and the first pluck of a new string.

  • jnorvelle

    Jayne Norvelle from jnorvelle said 3 years ago

    Wow how cool! I have never heard of these what a great history!

  • PaperWoodVintage

    Kristy from PaperWoodVintage said 3 years ago

    I am loving this feature! A wonderful selection of items. The cool thing about these guitars is not only are they functional, but they're also a piece of art. My husband has been a guitar player for 20 years and decided to try his hand at making cigar box guitars, we have a huge appreciation for them. We have made quite a few locally and each one is unique. The best part is retelling the history of them...You have captured the beauty and magic of these instruments well. Thank you so, so much for adding one of our guitars!

  • PrayerNotes

    Prayer Notes by Cynthia from PrayerNotes said 3 years ago

    This is exactly why I love etsy! Yep! Great article and loved the video! SWEET!!

  • fineartstoneware

    fineartstoneware from fineartstoneware said 3 years ago

    Wonderful and so interesting!

  • TopRackPinup

    Nina McCaskey from WeddedKiss said 3 years ago

    those are terrific! what a great blend of old and new to make something functional and beautiful is a task in itself!

  • OnceUponAGem

    Madi from OnceUponAGem said 3 years ago

    Really cool!

  • tranifer

    Tranifer Lovely from WonkyCritters said 3 years ago

    Oh mannnn... I've always wanted one so badly. They're so light, beautiful, and get a really great sound. I remember when I was fifteen I went to a concert, and one of the opening bands had a guitar made out of a boat battery. Needless to say, I was totally in awe and in love.

  • richardlithgow

    Richard Lithgow from RichardLithgow said 3 years ago

    Woah, those are pretty terrific! I love the ones with artistic designs on them!

  • peshka

    Peshka from Peshka said 3 years ago

    Fantastic !

  • Bessiescreations

    Bessie from BessiesCreations said 3 years ago

    I wouldn't have ever imagined! This is great! Thanks.

  • lovelygifts

    Linda from lovelygifts said 3 years ago

    Really awesome!!

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 3 years ago

    Never seen anything like this before...Kudos for your creativity!

  • ElChocolatin

    Elena Petryanina from ElChocolatin said 3 years ago

    amazing story! This date the inspiration

  • OhFaro

    Faro from OhFaro said 3 years ago

    FUn!

  • allstarorganics

    allstarorganics from allstarorganics said 3 years ago Featured

    And within the beauty of the guitars themselves is the beauty of the anonymous artists who designed the artwork on the cigar boxes. We used to lavish such attention on everyday things. This layer of tradition upon tradition is rich and moving.

  • irinisklavounou

    irini from IrinisWorld said 3 years ago

    Thanks for a great post and especially for Super Chikan who will now be staying with me for the rest of the day. Debatably, there is nothing more 'high culture' than a self made musical instrument that can carry a tune.....The 'gray masses' definitely need to rethink what they are doing here!!!

  • KMalinka

    Natalia from KMalinkaVintage said 3 years ago

    Awesome!

  • GisieArt

    Giselle from MyArtAndFashion said 3 years ago

    Amazing and unique guitars. Great history!!!!

  • KnitByCoutureStudio
  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 3 years ago

    Wonderful!

  • catchaleaf

    eva andrews from catchaleaf said 3 years ago

    A fascinating feature and yet another revelation - I learn so much through being part of etsy!

  • Ellareki

    Ellareki from Ellareki said 3 years ago Featured

    I really enjoyed reading this (even though I haven't got a musical bone in my body!). I have always loved the ingenuity of functional and often beautiful objects using whatever resources were available to the maker.

  • kathyjohnson3

    Kathy Johnson from kathyjohnson3 said 3 years ago

    I remember making musical instruments out of anything we could find when we were kids so this post brought me back! Thank-you for sharing!

  • ikabags

    IKA PARIS from ikabags said 3 years ago

    Formidable !

  • lcarlsonjewelry

    Liesl Carlson from lcarlsonjewelry said 3 years ago

    Fabulous story!!! I love it my husband makes them and my sons play on them. I think that it is amazing.

  • swaggjewelry

    April McGee-Riess from RawLuxGems said 3 years ago

    This is really cool. I love hearing about alternative ways we can use unconventional things to make something fabulous.

  • russtaylor

    Russ Taylor from russtaylor said 3 years ago

    To talk about the statisfaction and enjoyment of making things yourself would certainly be "preaching to the choir" here at Etsy. I'm glad to see this creative element in a world where technology seems to be moving us away from the process of creating. They just don't seem to understand the words of the prophet: "You never understood that it ain't no good. You shouldn't let other people Get your kicks for you."........Bob Dylan

  • wrensroost

    Marsha from wrensroost said 3 years ago

    Great article, shows the deep passion for music, imagination and innovation!

  • BeaumontStudio

    Olivia Beaumont from BeaumontStudio said 3 years ago

    I had never heard a cigar box played until I watched that video. astounding!

  • AntoinettesWhims

    Antoinette from AntoinettesWhims said 3 years ago

    Cigar boxes have always been enchanting to me with their pretty labels and the way they smell. When I was young I had a couple stashed under my bed for all those little treasures of childhood such as a round pebble and some seashells. We even made cigar box banjos in girl scouts using rubber bands, nothing as wonderful as these, but to an 8 year old it was pretty magical. I have seen PaperWoodVintage's shop and followed a link to youtube to see him play these amazing instruments.

  • meanjeanarts

    Jean from Meanjeanarts said 3 years ago

    Absolutely fantastic feature! I had no idea...this is so informative. Not only do cigar box guitars sound great, they are beautiful. Love the blues and love the Super Chikan video--you've made my morning.

  • FreakyPeas

    FreakyPeas from FreakyPeas said 3 years ago

    wow! I can't believe I never heard of this! Thank you Etsy once again for enlightening me!

  • ArtDecoDame

    Desiree from ArtDecoDame said 3 years ago

    Great story!I love the history behind these.

  • khateraahmad1

    Khatera Ahmad from Khatera9 said 3 years ago

    Very creative. Congrats!

  • carley465

    CAT Tillinghast from CATTATTING said 3 years ago

    Love this. Absolutely amazing. This has made my day. :)

  • lmouer

    Lynsey from lmouer said 3 years ago

    What an interesting post! Thanks for sharing!

  • FoxyGloves23

    Marie Cashin from MEmbroideries said 3 years ago

    Cool inspiration! Good luck to you in your creating and selling!

  • sukran

    Sukran Kirtis from SukranKirtisJewelry said 3 years ago

    What an amazing creation, cigar box is very popular here in Ybor City, Tampa, FL but I don't think anybody thought to create something with cigar box before. Big Congrats on the feature

  • BebeRMeyer

    Stephanie Lee from BobbleandWeave said 3 years ago

    I've always loved cigar box guitars. They can be so beautiful- real works of art. I think it's really, really wonderful that you've chosen to feature such an interesting part of our folk history. Oh, and the video is awesome!

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 3 years ago

    That's so cool!

  • deodorantshop

    Deodorant Shop from deodorantshop said 3 years ago

    So unique, love it =)

  • Squier

    Squier from Squier said 3 years ago

    What a great tribute to the cigar box guitar. Thanks for the writing this interesting and informative article about the history of these fun instruments! Here at Squier on Etsy we love making them and hearing our happy customers play them!

  • astarteearthart

    astarteearthart from astarteearthart said 3 years ago

    amazing!

  • SoftForest

    Betty Heppner from SoftForest said 3 years ago

    Awesome video, I play guitar but not like that!!

  • TheBondIsREAL

    Courtney Bond said 3 years ago

    I totally believe we should be more resourceful. There is something beautiful about making something from nothing...literally! Not to mention that piece creates its own wonderful story. There is no better way to add spark to a piece than creating it from seemingly under-appreciated materials!

  • livesmira

    livesmira from SEVILSBAZAAR said 3 years ago

    Yaratıcılık bu olsa gerek..

  • thevicagirl

    VaLon Frandsen from thevicagirl said 3 years ago

    My best friend bought one for her husband for Christmas, and he loves it, and we like to look at it and think of how pretty it is. One day I will have one of my own.

  • deadsetbabes

    dead set babes from deadsetbabes said 3 years ago

    really innovative use of these materials, great work!!!!

  • SpaceMauve

    Caroline Bee from SpaceMauve said 3 years ago

    Great!!!!!!!

  • LinaNstich

    Lina Rodogianni from LinaNstitch said 3 years ago

    Always love music and everything related to it!

  • theindiehandmade

    Ombretta from IndieLab said 3 years ago

    simply Amazing!!!

  • lkmccray

    Linzee from lkmccray said 3 years ago

    I'd seen these cigar box instruments on Etsy, but never knew about their precedents. Thanks much for enlightening me, Karen.

  • eshannon12

    Eric Shannon from BigBarkerDogBeds said 3 years ago

    Great backstory. I've heard these in person, they sound great and you can get really creative with the look. Nice!

  • sandrostumpo

    Sandro Stumpo from GalleryDiModa said 3 years ago

    That guitar sounds great. I seen a guy on youtube who make flutes out of vegetables. They sound good too!

  • mbueb

    Monica Bueb from MonicaBags said 3 years ago

    What I love about these instruments their approachability. Even those of us who may have been apprehensive to play a traditional guitar can't help but to give these a go when given a chance. Great article, Karen!

  • GrowingUpWild

    Kelly Engel from GrowingUpWild said 3 years ago

    These are beautiful! I love the article and the love that goes into these.

  • barrysavage

    Barry Savage from FloatingLeafArts said 3 years ago

    Cool! I am just learning to play the regular guitar myself. My father makes his own cigar box guitars too.

  • ThreeBarDGifts

    Monica from ThreeBarDGifts said 3 years ago

    That video was amazing! Incredible sound from a cigar box and broomstick!!! Thanks for this article!

  • kcparade

    Kim from TimeNSeasonTreasures said 3 years ago

    Great feature and so fitting here on Etsy.

  • ninedragons

    Elizabeth England from ninedragons said 3 years ago

    Cigar boxes almost beg to be used for something wonderful -- I'd never heard of guitar's being made from them...love the early ingenuity and the continued creativity! Great post.

  • ArlingtonStSRQ

    Sarah Nolt from MoiPochette said 3 years ago

    Necessity is the mother of invention...necessity to create, too, not only out of limited resources.

  • raccoonvalleyrouge

    Rebecca Blevins from RaccoonValleyRouge said 3 years ago

    These are great! We have one here in Raccoon Valley made out of an old paint thinner can. Still smells like paint thinner! Ha! They have a one of a kind sound! Rebecca Blevins www.raccoonvalleyrouge.etsy.com

  • modernpoetry

    Elizabeth Loring from modernpoetry said 3 years ago

    Thanks for the great article! If you want to learn to build your own cigar box guitars or just see pretty photos of them, you might be interested in this cool book: http://cigarboxguitarbook.com/Welcome.html

  • mtfrisbie

    Mark Frisbie from GergenStudio said 3 years ago

    Fantastic article! Thank you so much for including Gergen Studio's CBG's...My father and love making these and we strive to combine the primitive with high quality...the history of these guitars is very rich and I am so grateful for this article and the interest it has created...great job!

  • lapetitenina

    Marina Palovaara from LaPetiteNina said 3 years ago

    That's so cool.. I have never seen that before.

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 3 years ago

    For those who want to try to make a cigar box guitar yourself, there are several good "how to's" and kits available on Etsy. Rock on!

  • alangood

    alangood said 3 years ago

    I actually have a wonderful cigar box guitar from Charlie Mojo, from Kentucky. It is wonderful thing of great beauty and simplicity. A true folk instrument. Thanks for letting the world know about this wonderful tradition.

  • knitsbycaitlin

    Caitlin Edge from knitsbycaitlin said 3 years ago

    So creative. Love it!

  • Talking1

    Richard - TalkToMeGuy said 3 years ago

    "You could say that resourcefulness is the soul of soul music itself". To me the soul of the Etsy and Maker communities ! Another wonderful, fun romp through the world of handmade. Thank You Karen! Thank you Etsy

  • bojacobson

    Bo Jacobson said 3 years ago

    What a huge sound for such a small instrument. Absolutely beautiful. Between the different boxes and other pieces I love that each one produces a unique sound to go with it's unique story. Fantastic.

  • halliefranco

    Hallie Franco from HallieJohanna said 3 years ago

    How creative!! I love the story that goes along with this one of a kind item

  • annalisap

    annalisap said 3 years ago

    with quiet clarity ms.brown has illuminated another unusual feast of artistic expression. like a comfortable companion -- cigar box instruments, their makers, individual artistry, cultural significance and amazing sounds offer a riot, a romp, and a rousing tour through an eccentric crowd of strong minded craftspeople, and strong willed music. this was a witty read and an amusing investigation into a jewel box of mesmerizing music, characters, and artful design.

  • jackhuerta

    Jack Huerta from JackHuertaPhoto said 3 years ago

    So cool! I'm now wanting one of these soulful instruments!

  • onestringwillie

    One String Willie from onestringwillie said 3 years ago

    Hi Karen- The diddley bow is actually an instrument by itself, not something used to play a "banjar." Traditional diddley bows are made by taking an old straw broom and removing the wire that holds the broom-straws onto the broom handle. The wire is stretched between two nails driven into a piece of wood, or the side of a house or a porch post. The wire is tensioned up by slipping a couple of jars or rocks or blocks of wood under the wire and sliding them towards the nails at each end. The instrument is played by plucking the wire or striking it with a stick. The pitch is changed with a glass or metal slide. I have played diddley bows as my main instrument for the last seven years, and they are fun! They are also easy to build--anyone can put one together in about 10 minutes using either wire from an old broom or the new broom wire I sell in my etsy shop, and following the building steps on my website www.onestringwillie.com Best regards, Willie

  • millerkent

    Kent Miller said 3 years ago

    Well Karen, you've given us yet another blog post that we never could have expected, that's -- OK, I'm just gonna say it (somebody's got to, right?) -- outside the box. Kudos to you, the makers, and especially Super Chikan!

  • elizenazelie

    Elize Nazelie from ElizeNazelie said 3 years ago

    Cigar boxes are a popular choice for ukulele bodies (because they make such a smaller instrument)... If anyone is looking to check out more cool instruments on etsy search for cigar box ukuleles, there are tons of cool ones on here!

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