Recorded 'live to tape' in one evening on a home made four string banjo made out of a cookie tin!
Listen to samples in blue below!
We've all heard about a famous bluesman or country singer that started his career on a simple homemade cigar box guitar. With a list of artists including Jimi Hendrix, Roy Clark and Carl Perkins, the cigar box guitar has been the precursor to many great careers and countless inspiring stories. It's a wonder that nobody has documented its magnificent history until now.
According to Dr. Tony Hyman, curator of the National Cigar Museum (http://www.cigarnexus.com/nationalcigarmuseum/), cigar boxes as we know them didn't exist prior to the 1840's. Prior to then, cigars were shipped in larger crates containing 100 more per case. But after 1840, cigar manufacturers started using smaller, more portable boxes with 20-50 cigars per box.
Cigars were extremely popular in the 19th Century, and therefore, many empty cigar boxes would be laying around the house! The 1800's were also a simpler time for Americans, when necessity was truly the mother of invention. Using a cigar box to create a guitar, fiddle or a banjo was an obvious choice for a few crafty souls.
The earliest proof of a cigar box instrument we have found is an etching of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle [click here for picture]. This was created by French artist, Edwin Forbes, who worked as an official artist for the Union Army. The cigar box fiddle appears to sport an advanced viola-length neck attached to a "Figaro" cigar box. The etching is copyrighted 1876.
In addition to the etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were published in the 1870's by Boy Scout's founder, Daniel Carter Beard in St. Nicholas Magazine. The plans, entitled "How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo" [diagrams pictured above] showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box. The plans were eventually published in Beard's immensely popular American Boy's Handy Book.
By the 20th Century, times were still lean for many Americans and cigars gained even more popularity. The "television of the day" was the trusty Sears and Roebuck Catalog that allowed families to dream of items they'd love to own. It also provided a catalyst for more homemade creations.
In her magnificent book Fiddle Fever, writer Sharon Arms Doucet describes Felix LeBlanc, a young Cajun boy who makes a cigar box fiddle after studying violin pictures in the Sears Catalog. The story, based on the life of Cajun fiddler Canray Fontenot, details the entire building process. "Canray said that he really wanted a fiddle when he was a little boy," Doucet told us, "and an uncle or somebody told him to use a cigar box. It was somewhat 'common knowledge' for them to build instruments like this," she said. Fontenot and the fictional Felix both used a tree branch as a bow, pine tar as resin and screen wire as strings (although Felix eventually replaced the screen wire with old strings from his uncle's fiddle.)
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, these little suckers are so much fun to play. Each one has it's 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 indestructable. And let's face it...they're weird looking and attract major attention.