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more... Gear HistoryCigar BoxAugust 2009

Cigar Box Nation: The Modern Cult of the Cigar Box Guitar

A nagging question has been bothering me for some time now: have we, the guitar-buying public, lost sight of the joy of making music on a rudimentary, inexpensive stringed instrument? I’m not referring to your first Silvertone or Danelectro either. I’m talking about a guitar that almost anyone can make for a few bucks, with simple, everyday materials easily found in your neighborhood hardware store and smoke shop. 

Most of us who read this magazine like to ogle, purchase and play high-end guitars, of both the boutique and mass-produced variety, treating them as precious objets d’art, often missing the satisfaction and discovery of creating music on a simple, inexpensive instrument. While high-end guitars have their place, there’s a lot to be said for getting deep into something with a raw edge, just as the Delta blues pioneers did. There’s one thing Muddy Waters, Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Jimi Hendrix, and many others had in common: they started playing on homemade cigar box guitars, fashioned with materials that were readily available in their humble circumstances.
Shane Speal, photo: Rob Gibson, taken with Civil War-era camera and equipment

Think of it this way—can you really imagine playing raw, feral Delta blues on a $3000 custom-shop guitar and a handwired boutique amp? There’s something painfully wrong with that picture.

Hear the guitars
Free downloads of tracks from Shane Speal's self-titled album:
Tunnel Rat
Guitar: 3-string electric CBG by Cigar Box Slim
I Don't Live Today
Guitar: 3-string resonator CBG by Pat Cook
Contrary to popular thought, cigar box guitars did not die out with the onset of “better quality” instruments and CAD/CAM technology. Indeed, the CBG, as I will hereafter refer to it, is alive and quite well, thank you, among a small but extremely dedicated group of near-fanatical followers—a “cult” if you will, though I use that word in the most positive sense—many of whom consider themselves musical outsiders who revel in their non-conformity, eschew mass-produced instruments, and sometimes the trappings of modern society itself. The music made on CBGs can vary wildly, from acoustic and electric slide guitar blues, to folk songs, murder ballads, avant-garde noise, Middle Eastern drone, drunken sing-alongs and junkie laments, to jazz/rock instrumental fusion, and even metalloid hard rock. Pretty much anything you can play on a “store bought” guitar can be played on a CBG. 

A Little History Lesson
According to Bill Jehle, the foremost collector of antique cigar box guitars, and curator of the Cigar Box Guitar Museum, cigar box instruments date back as far as 1840, as mentioned in the biography of a Mr. Charles A. White. Sketch artist Edwin Forbes published one of his works in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1864, depicting two Civil War soldiers entertaining themselves with a cigar box violin. The founder of the Boy Scouts, Daniel Carter Beard, published plans for a cigar box banjo in his 1890 edition of The American Boy’s Handy Book. Cigar box ukuleles were also popular back in the early days.

Bill comments, “Cigar box guitars made their appearance about the same time as the invention of the radio. Broadcast music featuring the guitar was critical. Folks could finally hear the guitar as a lead instrument, and that made the guitar cool. It follows that people wanted to play the guitar, and not being able to afford one naturally lead to building one out of whatever was handy.” It’s notable that cigar box guitars were not just a phenomenon of African-Americans. Rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins, the son of a dirt-poor tenant farmer, started on a CBG, and he wasn’t alone by any means.


Modern electric cigar box guitars, courtesy of Bill Jehle. From left to right, they are: made by Ed Vogel; Bill Jehle’s Quintero Esquire Tele (short scale; note the converted hex bolt volume knob); made by “Hitone,” founder of guitartree.net (with homemade whammy bar fashioned from cabinet hardware); prototype “Red Dog” by John McNair; made by Jim “Frets” Ferris featuring a hand-wound CigTone pickup by Phil Eggers.
Bill possesses the world’s largest collection of vintage CBGs and related instruments.

“When I first started researching cigar box guitar history,” he says, “I had a few I bought on eBay. Shane Speal [more on him later] and I were both working on the history in parallel, so we would frequently exchange information. He emailed me one day to say he was selling the Cigar Box Museum, and I jumped at the offer. There were around 65 different cigar box instruments and all sorts of ephemera. I’ve added more to the collection since then, and it’s up to around one hundred cigar box instruments now. Finding additions to the collection is getting more difficult since more folks know about them now. Any vintage cigar box instrument on eBay is really hard to win, but I’ve also had people willing to sell me instruments for the sake of building up the museum collection. Some people just send me these things because they know it’s going to a good home.”

The King of the Cigar Box Guitar
Shane Speal, a native of York, PA, is the self-appointed King of the Cigar Box Guitar. While he’s certainly not the only practitioner of the instrument, he is universally recognized as the prime mover of the CBG cult, a man who has made it his life’s crusade to spread the word and promote the popularity of CBGs.

“I’m a habitual musical hack,” he told me [Writer’s note: he’s being modest]. “I started on piano and guitar at an early age, played drums in school and played bass in metal bands in the late ‘80s. I discovered blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix in college and it was all downhill from there. I soon discovered Muddy, the Wolf and Hound Dog Taylor, and slowly worked backwards to the Delta stuff in a quest to find something deeper. Once I hit Blind Willie Johnson, my mind exploded. It was gritty, raw, and meaner than any heavy metal I ever heard. By the time I entered that Delta blues phase, I was playing a beat-to-hell Stella guitar with bad action and a bottleneck slide. Then, in 1993, I came across an interview with Carl Perkins where he described the simple two-string cigar box guitar he learned on, and I just had to build one.” “I got fancy and gave it three strings, and used a spark plug socket as a slide. Just a few weeks prior, I had been killing myself trying to play Sylvester Weaver’s ‘Guitar Rag’ on my acoustic. When I finished the three-stringer, that song just flowed out. It had the sound of grit, dirt and sweat of the Delta.”

“A CBG is quirky and appears ‘broken’ from the start. They just don’t look like they should play any music. I love to see jaws hit the floor when I shove a socket on my finger and wail away.” According to Bill Jehle, “Shane sounds like Motörhead in a jug band!” When questioned why he named himself the “King of the Cigar Box Guitar,” Shane replies, “It’s a celebration of absurdity. Who would ever want to call himself the king of such a shitty instrument?”

“I have many normal guitars in my studio, but I only use them as backing instruments while recording. The rest of the CD is CBGs and my evil ‘Mailbox Dobro,’ which is made from an actual black metal mailbox. I am a cigar box guitarist. I’m just not interested in status quo instruments anymore.”


Shane Speal with his Mailbox Dobro.
Shane started the Cigar Box Guitar Forum on Yahoo/Groups in 2003 with the provision that members share everything they had on the subject: information, photos, playing tips and instruments. “There was a certain electricity with the handful of musicians who joined up back then,” he says, “an electricity that’s increased over the years. They joined in with info sharing and turned the forum into a family. With a positive and fun atmosphere like that, lurkers were drawn in like magnets. Was I responsible? Yeah, I was like an evangelist. I wanted people to experience a musical movement that wasn’t based on ego or rebellion, but on friendship and a fascination for new music. It worked. Go figure!”

But why has this cult formed around these primitive instruments? Shane remarks, “There are no rules as far as building or playing CBGs. If you can dream it, then do it. There is an army of CBG’ers encouraging new recruits to build their own. While the rest of the world is rehashing Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd tablature, we’re blazing new trails. We’re writing history as we go along.” Shane now runs a website called CigarBoxNation.com that boasts over six hundred active members at this writing. The old Yahoo/Group forum has over three thousand members. Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts are now building CBGs for badges. Tom Waits and P.J. Harvey have used CBGs on their albums. Billy Gibbons even plays them.

As to the future of the CBG, Shane proposes, “The future is friends… more friends. None of us expect to make ‘the big time’ from this. The ‘big time’ doesn’t exist anymore due to the destruction of the record business and the horrible conglomeration of the radio industry. Music has been thrust back into a more regionalized stage, where performers are their own booking agents and record companies. This is an amazing thing. With a home computer, we now control our own printing press, recording studio and networking system. I have my own record label, insurrectionrecords.com, and I sell my homemade instruments on shanespeal.bigcartel.com. The cigar box guys are using computers, and quite effectively. We have our own indie labels, magazines, festivals, social network, and a dedicated family that will do anything to help each other out. This is the future of CBGs and the whole music industry.”