The History of the Cigar Box Guitar
Cigars were packed in boxes, crates, and barrels as early as 1800, but the small sized boxes that we are familiar with today did not exist prior to around 1840 (Hyman, Tony (1972). Handbook of Cigar Boxes. New York: Arnot Art Museum.). Until then, cigars were shipped in larger crates containing 100 or more per case. After 1840, cigar manufacturers started using smaller, more portable boxes with 20-50 cigars per box.
Trace evidence of cigar box instruments exist from 1840 to the 1860s. The earliest illustrated proof of a cigar box instrument known is an etching of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle copyrighted in 1876. The etching was created by illustrator and artist Edwin Forbes who, under the banner of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, worked for the Union Army. The etching was included in Forbes work Life Stories of the Great Army. In the etching, the cigar box fiddle clearly shows the brand ‘Figaro’ on the cigar box.
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.’ The plans, eventually retitled ‘How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo’ as part of Beard’s American Boy’s Handy Book in the 1890 release as supplementary material in the rear of the book. (Beard, Daniel Carter (1882). The American Boy’s Handy Book. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0879234490.). These plans omitted the story but still showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.
It would seem that the earliest cigar box instruments would be extremely crude and primitive; however, this is not always the case. The National Cigar Box Guitar Museum has acquired two cigar box fiddles built in 1886 and 1889 that seem very playable and well built. The 1886 fiddle was made for an 8 year old boy and is certainly playable, but the 1889 fiddle has a well carved neck and slotted violin headstock. The latter instrument was made for serious playing.
The cigar box guitars and fiddles were also important in the rise of jug bands and blues. As most of these performers were black Americans living in poverty, many could not afford a “real” instrument. Using these, along with the washtub bass (similar to the cigar box guitar), jugs, washboards, and harmonica, black musicians performed blues during socializations.
The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a resurgence of homemade musical instruments. Times were hard in the American south and for entertainment sitting on the front porch singing away their blues was a popular pastime. Musical instruments were beyond the means of everybody, but an old cigar box, a piece of broom handle and a couple wires from the screen door and a guitar were born.
A modern revival of these instruments (also known as the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution) has been gathering momentum with an increase in cigar box guitar builders and performers. A loose-knit tour of underground musicians tour the East Coast (US) each summer under the banner “Masters of the Cigar Box Guitar Tour.” These musicians include Doctor Oakroot, Johnny Lowebow, Tomi-O and many others. Also, there is a growing number of primitive luthiers adding cigar box guitars to their items for sale.
Modern revival is sometimes due to interest in jugband and the DIY culture, as a cigar box is relatively inexpensive when considering other factors, such as strings and construction time. Many modern cigar box guitars can thus be seen as a type of practice in lutherie, and implement numerous personal touches, such as the addition of pick up and resonator cones into it. Luthier Ted Crocker is instrumental in assisting cigar box guitar builders and players through his network Handmade Music Clubhouse.
Another factor in the current revival can be attributed to many musicians’ desire for a more primal sound. Blues guitarists, in particular, have picked up the cigar box guitar in an attempt to play Delta Blues in its purest form.
The modern revival of cigar box guitars is documented in the 2008 film, “Songs Inside The Box“ which was shot primarily at an annual Huntsville, Alabama event called the Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza.
Shane W. Speal (King of the Cigar Box Guitar)
Sigh. The quote above was how the article started in the cover story about my cigar box guitars (March 1999 issue of EMI magazine). Sure, I was thrilled to death to see my instrument grace the front of this sacred publication, but that opening line of the article irked me…”None of the major musical instrument encyclopedias have an entry for cigar box guitar or banjo.”
I just didn’t understand why nobody has noticed this beautifully simple instrument. Well, I still don’t! We’ve all heard the stories and legends about sharecropper’s sons building their own cigar box guitars. Guitar snobs frequently refer to the lowly cigar box guitar as a measuring stick for bad sounding acoustics. And a few of us have actually wrapped a couple rubber bands around dad’s empty box of Swisher Sweets and added a cardboard tube “neck” just to make it fancy.
The cigar box guitar has such an awesome pedigree. Blind Willie Johnson made a one-string when he was five and learned how to play melodies up and down that lonely string. Later, he would record the monumental Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground) on standard guitar. The song is a instrumental classic that has droning chords laying the background for a haunting melody played up and down on the high E string…a technique he learned on his original one-string.
Not only does the cigar box guitar have a great history, but these little suckers are so much fun to play. I’ve made a bunch in my life (over 200 so far) and each one has its own unique sound. Mine are played with a slide and have a great whining blues sound…one that just cannot be emulated from another guitar. They’re small, portable and almost indestructible. And let’s face it…they’re weird looking and attract major attention.
So maybe none of the major music encyclopedias have an entry for the cigar box guitars. So what? With a constantly increasing word-of-mouth campaign, this instrument is finally having her well deserved day in the sun.
“None of the major musical instrument encyclopedias have an entry for cigar box guitar or banjo. Yet most people have at least some familiarity with this facet of American folk history.” – Bart Hopkin, Experimental Musical Instruments