Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Little History

Because the cigar box guitar is a primitive homemade instrument, there is no standard for building it.  Physical dimensions, construction techniques, or string types are limited only by the creator's imagination.

Around 1840, cigar manufacturers started packaging and shipping cigars in small, portable boxes, which were similar to what we are familiar with today.  These boxes were soon to become the vehicle for performing 'blues' music.

The earliest evidence of cigar box instruments dated from 1840 to 1860s.  The illustrated proof of such an instrument is an etching of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle (copyrighted in 1876). The etching, which clearly shows the cigar brand 'Figaro' on the cigar box, was created by illustrator Edwin Forbes, who worked for the Union Army. It was published in Forbes' work 'Life Stories of the Great Army'.

In addition to the etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were published by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, in 1884 as part of 'Christmas Eve with Uncle Enos'.  These plans showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.

Most of the earliest cigar box instruments would be crude and primitive, but this is not the case for all.  Some of the fiddles built in the late 1800s were well constructed and very playable.
Cigar box guitars and fiddles were also important in the rise of jug bands and blues music.  As most of the performers were Black Americans living in southern poverty, many could not afford a 'real' instrument.  Using these, along with jugs, washboards, and harmonicas, Black musicians performed blues music during gatherings.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a resurgence of homemade musical instruments.  Times were hard in the American south and a popular pastime was to sit on the porch playing and singing the blues away.  Musical instruments were beyond the means of everybody, but with an old cigar box, a stick, a couple discarded wires, and a guitar came to life.  The sound coming from these crude instruments was raw and gritty, much like the lives of the people playing them, but it is a sound that is as much of our life today as it was back then.

Due to interest in jug bands and the 'do-it-yourself' culture, a modern revival of these instruments has been gathering momentum.  Modern-day cigar box guitar builder and performer interest has fueled the fire, as cigar boxes, strings, and other necessary hardware is relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire.  The creation of the modern cigar box guitar can be seen as a means for an amateur to become a luthier, and implementation of many personal touches, such as the addition of tuning machines, electronic pickups, metal resonator cones, to say nothing about 'design' of the instruments, is their stage for creation.

And, the desire of many musician's for a more primal sound is another factor supporting the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution.  Blues guitarists, in particular, have taken to the cigar box guitar in an attempt to play Delta Blues in its purest form.  The instruments can be fretted or fretless, and can be played with a bottleneck slide or 'picked'.  Either way, the sound is unique to this instrument, and it has an 'earthy' quality that takes the player and listener back in time.

It is said that Lightnin' Hopkins was one of the first performers to play a cigar box guitar, and he had this to say about it . . . "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, take me a little piece of plank, mailed it onto that cigar box, and I got me some screen wire, and I made me a bridge back there and raised it up high enough that it would sound inside that little box, and got me a tune out of it.  I kept my tune and I played from then on."

Reference: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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