The history of the cigar box guitar

High-end cigars represent something purely “Central American”; thousands of miles away is the cradle of an American musical tradition: the blues, rooted in the Mississippi Delta. Enjoyed together, music and cigars share a meaningful connection, eliciting an emotional response in the listener and the smoker. But it would take a purely American invention – the cigar box guitar – to forge the crossroads between cigars and musical tradition. Dating back to the early 19th century, the cigar box guitar and its even coarser, one-string ancestor, “diddley bow” were created out of necessity by the very poor of the southern United States. And since necessity is the mother of invention, they were extremely ingenious. Soup cans, frying pans, washboards, brooms and buckets, among other common household items, became the means by which these people expressed themselves through music. At the time of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln imposed a tax on consumer products; cigars, then packaged in chests of 100, 500, and 1000, were taxed goods, and each box required a revenue stamp. Soon, manufacturers started packing cigars in boxes of 25, also known as “8-9-8” – eight cigars on the bottom, nine in the middle, and another eight on the top. Made mostly from cedar, these little boxes – usually discarded – offered musicians a better “base” on which to build their guitars. In addition, these primitive instruments produced excellent sound and wood resonance when the box was fitted with a wooden staff and a few wire strings. Cigar box guitars and violins were played throughout the first half of the 20th century and remained popular until WWII, with DIY blueprints published in magazines like Popular Mechanics. Yet by the 1960s, affordable, mass-produced guitars had made the cigar box guitar an archaic novelty, and it finally died out. Or did he do it? Artists like Lightnin ‘Hopkins, Albert King, Blind Willie Johnson, Little Freddie King and dozens of other “bluesmen,” many of whom grew up in the Deep South, honed their guitar art on their own boxed instruments. cigars. In addition to their music, credit also goes to these musicians for introducing the cigar box guitar to audiences around the world. By the end of the 20th century, a renewed interest in the cigar box guitar had emerged, which today has grown into an international community of musicians and artisans passionate about building and playing these endowed instruments. of their own unique sound qualities.


Shane Speal playing with his band, Shane Speal and the Snakes, on a three-string cigar box guitar

Shane Speal hails from York, Pa., And is one of the key figures in the cigar box guitar revival. Fascinated by the “poor man’s guitar,” Shane, a carpenter and musician, has been making cigar box guitars in the small pyre behind his house for over 25 years. And he literally wrote the book on how to build them in Making Poor Man’s Guitars (Fox Chapel Publishing). Shane’s first guitar was a three-string built from a box of Swisher Sweets; but as he began to make more guitars, he developed an interest in smoking premium hand-made cigars. “There are certain boxes that we use because they make great guitars, and I started to wonder about the cigars that came with them,” Shane explains. “There is something magical about building a cigar box guitar, actually smoking one of the cigars that come in the box you are building with. I don’t know what it is, it just brings all this passion together. So which cigar boxes make the best guitars? “I love Padrón boxes for their huge size, but I’ll work with just about anything,” Shane explains. Among a handful of guitars he has built are boxes of Arturo Fuente Chateau Fuente, La Aroma de Cuba Immensos, Punch Gran Puro, Hoyo de Monterrey Sultans and Partagás Black Label Magnifico. But his favorite place to work is Macanudo Café Portofino. “I built one in 1996 and still play with it, but I’m starting to have a hole like Willie Nelson’s guitar, ‘Trigger’,” Shane adds with a laugh. As for what Shane smokes when working on a new guitar, the Macanudo Café is his favorite cigar, while for just chilling out he prefers the Tabak Especial from Drew Estate. Although the cigar box guitar originated in the United States, thanks to the internet and social media, the craft has become an international phenomenon. “Every day I get emails and messages from people all over the world who have discovered the cigar box guitar,” Shane explains. “It’s not just an American affair. The cigar box guitar crosses all borders and all demographics. Right now, we are experiencing a renaissance in DIY instrument making for two reasons: first, there are no rules on how to build it; just follow your muse. Second, there are no rules on how to play. This is the most important reason behind the growth of the cigar box guitar movement. Every time you give someone permission to play the music in their heart, you are creating magic.

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