It all began when our oldest son, Merwin, sent his dad a kit for his birthday. His dad is used to assembling kits, especially electronic ones. Years ago, he had constructed several Heathkits’ electronic testing equipment. He is always ready for a new challenge and it didn’t matter that this recent kit required wood working skills, something he was also good at. In a matter of what seemed like a few hours, he had put together a Cigar Box Guitar. That’s right, the kit had included a real, honest to goodness, cigar box, a long stick, and strings, etc. In no time at all he was playing a tune on it. But he began to envision ways he could improve on the design, using a cigar box, of course. That’s when we began to visit cigar stores.
Here we were, two non-smokers entering stores that wreaked with cigar smoke. These are places where you not only buy cigars but it is where men, not old men, lounge in front of large screen TV’s, smoking cigars that cost $10.00 each. (I always thought only old men smoked cigars.) I have no idea how long it takes to smoke the average cigar, but no matter the time, with each puff I imagined a $10.00 bill going up in smoke. We left the store with our treasure, several empty cigar boxes, each with its own personality, just waiting to be transformed into a unique musical instrument.
Most boxes hold 20 cigars, that makes the contents worth $200, so the boxes are well constructed, usually of Spanish cedar. These are not like the cigar boxes I remember my
dad using for storage purposes, as they were made of hard cardboard. As early as 1800, cigars were packed in boxes, crates and barrels, containing a large number of cigars. It wasn’t until around 1840 that cigar manufacturers began using smaller boxes. And although you may not have ever heard about Cigar Box Guitars, there is evidence of these instruments existing since way back then. An etching exists from 1876 of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle, the brand “Figaro” shows on the box. In 1884 plans for a playable 5 string fretless banjo were published by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, made from a cigar box.
Cigar box guitars and fiddles became important during the rise of jug bands. Most of these performers were black Americans living in poverty, who couldn’t afford “real” instruments.
These bands used the wash tub bass, jugs, washboards and harmonicas. This was the beginning of the sound of music called “the blues.” During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, musical instruments were beyond the means of everybody, but an old cigar box, a piece of a broom handle and a couple of wires from the screen door and a guitar was born.
Although he had never seen one, Burl had been aware of Cigar Box Guitars. After constructing one from his own plans, he now had a good looking, good sounding, easy to play one. He found other musicians interested and they were rather amazed at how easy
it is to play. There has been a revival of these instruments, some are calling it the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution. You may recognize the names of some of the musicians playing them: Doctor Oakroot, Johnny Lowebow, Tomi-O, Shane Speal and Paul McCartney.
It was near Christmas time that all this was taking place at our house and when Burl asked me what I wanted for Christmas I said I wanted him to build me a Cigar Box Guitar. He nearly fell over, but started work on it immediately. Now, we each have one and there’s lots of empty cigar boxes left in our garage. How many Cigar Box Guitars does a
person need? Actually the boxes are pretty and make great trinket boxes and a topic of interest when left on your coffee table. Twenty years ago, in 1995, my husband made me a dulcimer, I’ve just recently learned to play it. I don’t have 20 years left to learn the Cigar Box Guitar so I’d better get started.
Check out the internet and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about Cigar Box Guitars. Remember what I said about a revolution beimg underway. By the way, I know, and you know, where there’s some surplus cigar boxes and this place is exempt of cigar smoke.
Look for our photos below.