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May 2014
more... Gear HistoryCigar BoxAugust 2009

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

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

Movers & Shakers & Cigar Box Heroes
Shane Speal, while the acknowledged leader of the CBG movement, is by no means its only practitioner.


Photo courtesy of John McNair.
David Williams is a research scientist by day and cigar box guitarist by night. Regarded as one of the leading CBG players, this mild-mannered resident of the Philadelphia area transforms himself into his alter ego, One String Willie, with a simple change of clothes, and performs on a homemade, one-string diddley bow. Williams/Willie has a new CD, You Gotta Hit the String Right (To Make The Music Swing), available on his website: onestringwillie.com.

On the CBG phenomena, Williams comments, “Making and playing homemade instruments has allowed me to find my own musical voice, and to express myself without feeling the need to imitate an established musician. I don’t view the cigar box/homemade music community as a cult, but rather as a far-flung group of people from all walks of life who are passionate and supportive about helping others to make something that is uniquely their own...” Williams also records under his given name, and has also released two CDs of vintage, historical diddley bow recordings by other artists.

Ted Crocker is a luthier and guitar case maker in southern New Jersey. He constructed the crude but hip solidbody guitar used in the recent film Honeydripper starring Danny Glover as the owner of a failing juke joint saved by a young guitarist who comes with a homemade guitar offering to play. You can buy a Honeydripper guitar just like the one used in the movie. The shape is close to the famous Bo Diddley rectangular instrument with a couple of alterations. Ted also makes a guitar called the Six Banger (which slightly resembles a Telecaster) with one single-coil pickup. Shane Speal owns the prototype, and I have played it. It’s one badass slide guitar, and it’s priced right, starting at five hundred bucks.

Ted also makes various cigar box guitars, plus the Terraplane footboard stomper, wooden guitar picks, and his own Stonehenge brand pickups, which are available in one to six string configurations. You can find Ted’s pickups and accessories on Ebay, or you can purchase them directly through his website: tedcrocker.com.

Ben Prestage is a one-man-band who plays CBGs and is also an extremely busy artist who tours constantly, keeping up a punishing schedule that includes a trip to Europe this summer. His five rootsy-bluesy CDs are available on his MySpace page, and he has numerous videos up on YouTube. Prestage is also considered one of the leading CBG exponents.


The Hound Dog from Red Dog Guitars. Photo courtesy of John McNair.
John “Red Dog” McNair is a CBG builder who typifies the renegade spirit of the CBG. Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, McNair wound up in Puerto Rico with his family, where he builds some of the flashiest CBGs in existence. His quirky website, reddogguitars.com, is a veritable treasure of information, and the photos of guitars he has built are stunning.

Richard Johnston is a Memphis street musician and one-man band who plays his own brand of traditional northern Mississippi hill country blues, in the style of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Johnston has been tapped as the next young musician capable of turning young people on to the blues, as Stevie Ray Vaughan did years ago. Johnston was the subject of a recent film, Richard Johnston: Hill County Troubador, directed by documentary filmmaker Max Shores.

Max Shores also recently completed another documentary on CBGs, Songs Inside the Box, which features many of the musicians mentioned in this article. “I really didn’t have much appreciation for CBGs before I heard Richard Johnston play one,” Shores remarks. “I am amazed by the wonderful music people are making with CBGs, and the level of expression many builders display. I am also deeply moved by the joy people have found through these instruments and the camaraderie that has developed as CBG makers and players have networked through the Internet…. When they play their CBGs, many of them expose eccentric characteristics that might otherwise remain hidden, because the CBG gives them license to do so. These are great people making great art and music and having the time of their lives doing so. My life has been enriched by getting to know these folks.” Learn more at: songsinsidethebox.com.

Gerry Thompson is a singer, songwriter and guitarist, and another leading light of the CBG movement. Gerry lived life on the edge in an alcoholic haze for twenty years before getting clean in 1989. He has settled down, gone to college, married, and has survived two liver transplants. Gerry stumbled onto the CBG after trying to play a poorly made mando-banjo. He attended the first CBG festival in Carrolton, KY, in 2000, and was coaxed onstage by CBG builder Kurt Schoen. Thompson, who had never performed in public before and only had three songs prepared, was a hit. His music is reminiscent of early Bob Dylan, and is lyrical, poignant and very melodic, with lyrics drawn from his life experiences.

“I quit drinking a year before I got sick,” he says. “The doctors said I had less than a year to live. I’m in a weird state of grace, I guess. The transplant changed me. I started having dreams that were mine, but I wasn’t in them. A decade after the transplant, I just started (playing)… they all started coming out as songs. It’s simple, primal. I just tell stories about my life. Freedom. That’s what the cigar box guitar gave me. That’s what it’s all about.”

Dave Gallaher, aka Microwave Dave, is a talented Alabama-based bluesman who effectively incorporates CBGs into his electric and acoustic shows, as well as an instrument called the Lowebow, invented by Memphis music store owner and guitarist Johnny Lowe, better known as “Johnny Lowebow.” The Lowebow is a doubleneck CBG with one bass string and three guitar strings. Played with a slide, the Lowebow is a deadly weapon in the right hands, allowing the player to be both guitarist and bassist at the same time.


The Dolorosa 6-string model from Daddy Mojo. Photo courtesy of Lenny Piroth-Robert.
Eric Baker of Cleveland, OH, makes several different models of Joker brand CBGs in his shop and features a podcast on his website: jokercbg.com.

And finally, Daddy Mojo, aka Lenny Piroth-Robert, of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, makes custom-made, professional-quality CBGs in his shop, along with his partner and two employees. The Dolorosa model in particular, with its screenprinted heart/cross/barbed wire artwork is an absolute stunner, as are the Vargas-inspired pinup models. Visit their website: daddy-mojo.com.

Wrapping It All Up
Admittedly, this writer comes from the traditional school of guitar thought. You go to a music store (or eBay), buy a guitar, plug into your high-quality tube amp and stompboxes and play, usually imitating your axe-wielding heroes. All that changed to a great extent after I became aware of the CBG movement and began to dig deeper in preparation for this article. I’m not saying that cigar box instruments are going to force me to put all my treasured guitars up for sale, but CBGs now have a place in my arsenal of sounds, and I have made several new friends in the process. Visit the websites. Listen to the music, talk to the players and builders. Open your mind and soul to the world of the cigar box guitar. You may never be the same.


The Daddy Mojo shop. Photo courtesy of Lenny Piroth-Robert.

(The author wishes to thank Shane Speal, Ted Crocker and Eric Baker for their input and generosity, as well as all the CBG enthusiasts, builders and players who helped contribute to this piece).

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