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What Is A Cigar Box Guitar?

Simply put, a cigar box guitar is a guitar made out of a cigar box. It's what people used to use back in the old days when they couldn't afford to buy a guitar.

The cigar box guitar is a primitive guitar, chordophone whose resonator is a discarded cigar box. Because the instrument is homemade, there is no standard for dimensions, string types or construction techniques. Many early cigar box guitars consisted only of one or two strings that were attached to the ends of a broomstick that was inserted into the cigar box. Other cigar box guitars were more complex, with the builder attempting to simulate a real stringed instrument, such as a guitar, banjo, or fiddle.

According to Dr. Tony Hyman, curator of the National Cigar Museum, cigar boxes as we know them didn't exist prior to the 1840s. Until then, cigars were shipped in larger crates containing 100 or 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 lying around the house. The 1800s 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 found so far is an etching of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle. The etching was created by French artist Edwin Forbes who worked as an official artist for the Union Army. The etching was included in Forbes work LIFE STORIES OF THE GREAT ARMY, copyrighted in 1876. There, the cigar box fiddle appears to sport an advanced viola-length neck attached to a 'Figaro' cigar box.

In addition to the etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were published by Daniel Carter Beard, founder of the Boy Scouts of America, in St. Nicholas Magazine, potentially in the 1870s. The plans, entitled 'How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo' showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box. Searching through an archive of the St. Nicholas magazine does not immediately reveal that Daniel C. Beard wrote an article with this same title, however, nor that he published the plans at all in that magazine. It is more likely that the plans for the Uncle Enos Banjo were first printed in the American Boy's Handy Book in 1882 as supplementary material in the rear of the book as suggested in its prologue. (Beard, Daniel Carter (1882). The American Boy's Handy Book. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0879234490.)

It would seem that the earliest cigar box instruments would be extremely crude and primitive guitar, , 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 was born. Many people of this era made their own tools and making a musical instrument was not too much of a stretch.

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, Shane Speal, Tomi-O and many others. Also, there is a growing number of primitive guitar, luthiers adding cigar box guitars to their items for sale on their websites and eBay.

An all-cigar box guitar record label has even been formed to further promote the revolution. Insurrection Records is run by Shane Speal (also a cigar box guitarist and curator of the National Cigar Box Guitar Museum). The label releases "homemade CDs of homemade recordings of homemade instruments," and is known for their 'outsider art' handmade packaging for the discs. Currently the label only sells their wares on eBay. A compilation of cigar box guitar recordings, Masters of the Cigar Box Guitar Vol. 2 is scheduled for release in 2007

Modern revival is sometimes due to interest in jugband and the DIY culture, as cigar box is relatively inexpensive when considering other factors, such as strings and construction time. Many modern cigar box guitar can thus be seen as a type of practice in lutherie, and implement numerous own touches, such as additional of pick up and resonator cones into it.

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 from.