Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Cuban Stratavarius

Cigar Box Instrument History

from: Good Works Instruments   Will Travnikar

Me and the gang after getting off-work at the factory… I’m in the lower right hand corner. 


PLEASE NOTE: My purpose in having this page as a part of my website is not to generate sales for my instruments.
Rather, it is to serve as a means of educating folks on the fascinating history of cigar box instruments, and the (undeniable) role they played in the overall musical development of our country.  I have tried, where possible, to properly acknowledge my source(s)for this information.   If anything I have here is deemed to be copyrighted and / or protected by any other legal means, please notify me and it will be removed immediately.
 Thanks!  – Will (webmaster)
What the Heck is a Cigar Box Guitar?

The cigar box guitar is actually a primitive chordophone; and a chordophone is a musical instrument that makes sounds by way of vibrating strings stretched between two points. When a player plucks or strums these stretched strings, they will then vibrate.

These vibrations will oftentimes cause “something” else to start to vibrate – sympathetic vibration – and to produce sound without any direct excitation by the player. That “something” is said to resonate – and it is usually a hollow box of some type that forms the body of the stringed instrument. So, the idea of creating a Cigar Box Guitar was formed in a very natural way & organic way… As the early  builders of cigar box guitars realized they could craft an empty, discarded cigar box for use as the resonator.

You Use A What?

When someone is showed a Cigar Box Guitar for the first time, and told what it is, they will often times ask: “Is that a real cigar box”? 

With the exception of someone producing a wood box “from scratch” of a similar size, the answer is: Yes!  Since sometime around 1840, cigar manufacturers started using small, portable wooden boxes with 20–50 cigars per box to ship their product. And many of those were made from either cedar or mahogany – which just happen to make excellent “tone-woods” – especifally for the top or “soundboard”.  Given the propensity for cigar smoking among the populace, there existed an abundance of empty cigar boxes.  As such,  it was not too long before “poor folk” discovered that these light wooden boxes made wonderful resonators for homemade string music instruments; and homemade string instruments cost very little money to own. There is much folklore telling of such instruments existing from 1840 to the 1860s. The earliest known illustration of a cigar box instrument is an 1876 etching created by illustrator and artist Edwin Forbes that showed a union solder playing a box fiddle that bore the name of a cigar brand on the box.

Also, an 1890 issue of Boy Scout literature provided step-by-step plans for building a playable five-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.

The earliest cigar box guitars had one or two strings (modern examples typically have three or more strings). Generally, the strings were connected to the end of a broomstick or a 1 x 3 inch wood slat and to the cigar box resonator. It would be a mistake to assume that all the early cigar box instruments were crude and primitive. There is a National Cigar Box Guitar Museum that has on display two cigar box fiddles built in 1886 and 1889 that seem very playable and well built. The museum’s research revealed that the 1886 fiddle was made for an 8-year-old boy but is playable; and the 1889 fiddle has a well-carved neck and slotted violin headstock. It had been crafted for serious playing.
“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, nailed 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.”               —Lightnin’ Hopkins
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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Very Old Plans
 Some Very Old Plans
 Cigar boxes in their current form did not 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, 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.  This is a cigar box banjo done in the “Uncle Enos” style:

antique cigar box banjo long
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.

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This was taken from a postcard of the time. By no means is it shown here to be offense to the early Black Culture in any way. Rather, it pays rightful “homage” to the true and original nature of cigar box instruments and the ingenuity of using them.
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 Museum http://cigarboxguitars.com/about/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.
And, as this picture shows, they were also sometimes played in very creative ways:
As time went on, performers saw fit to “work” them into their act, as W.C. Fields does here:
The Cigar Box guitars and fiddles were also important in the rise of jug bands.   
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 socialization. 
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 of wires from the screen door and a guitar was born.
Other times, people just gathered together and used what they had to make music – including some creative cigar box instruments – like in this picture:
These two photos show World War I solders using “home-made” instruments:  Here’s a couple more old photos showing how ingenious people can be  – especially when they have to!

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Gott’a Love That “Bird House” Upright Bass!
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At Least They Found Something to Smile About
He are some great quotes… by the true “Founding Fathers” of the music I love so much. Although not original to him, many thanks to Mr. David Sutton for letting me pull some of these from his wonderful book entitled:   An Obsession with Cigar Box Guitars 
                   Quotes from [now] famous performers about how they got their start – and their [likely] first instruments.

Jimi Hendrix
“Eight-year-old James Marshall Hendrix wanted so much to play the guitar to set his poems to music that he used a broom to strum out the rhythms in his head until he crafted a cigar box into his own guitar.” Jimi’s cigar box guitar had rubber bands wrapped around the box, serving as strings.

George Benson
“The eight-time Grammy winner started his career as ‘Little Georgie Benson, the Kid From Gilmore Alley’, playing a cigar box ukulele on street corners”

Roy Clark
“The great country artist and banjo player (and Hee-Haw host) first played an instrument his father made from a cigar box and ukulele neck with four strings.”

Blues Legends Robert Johnson and his stepson Robert Lockwood Jr.
“One day when Robert Johnson was taking a break from his roaming, he sat down to make a guitar with his young pupil Robert Lockwood Jr. What they made wasn’t a diddly bow, the one-string instrument many fledgling built by stretching a piece of wire between two nails. Johnson and Lockwood were intent on building something more sophisticated. Johnson shaped the wood and then made the body from a phonograph. Lockwood, who had been happily strumming away on Johnson’s Stella, used the guitar for over a year before it began to tear apart because ‘we couldn’t get the right type of glue.'”

Sleepy John Estes
“Born January 25, 1904, in Ripley, TN, Sleepy John Estes was one of a sharecropping family of ten.  His father Daniel was a guitariest, and this influenced his son to play. Young Estes was blinding in his right eye from a baseball accident at the age of six, limiting further athletic endeavors. His interest in music prompted him to build crude guitars from cigar boxes, which he played at local house parties as a child.”

Modern revival

             None other than the “King of the Blues” himself – Mr. B.B. (Blues Boy) King:
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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 on their websites.
Modern revival is sometimes due to interest in jug band 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 form.

Notable performers

  • Luther Dickinson, the guitarist of the North Mississippi Allstars  , uses an electric cigar box guitar called the Lowebow.  Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top performs with a cigar box guitar.
  • Richard Johnston, the subject of the PBS documentary Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour (2005), performs with a Lowebow. Johnston helped design the instrument with the builder, John Lowe.   Tom Waits plays cigar box banjo on his album, Real Gone.
  • Ed King of Lynyrd Skynrd plays a cigar box guitar made by Tomi-O.
  • Harry Manx, a Hindustani slide master, plays a Lowebow cigar box guitar.
  • Rollie Tussing, National Slide Guitar Champion, plays cigar box guitars.
  • Chris Ballew, lead singer of The Presidents of the United States of America, has recorded with a one-string cigar box bass made by Shane Speal.
  • Joe Buck, one-man-band performer and also a member of Hank Williams III’s band Assjack, plays a cigar box guitar box.
  • Robert Hamilton of the Loq-Country Messiahs plays a 3-string Tomi-O cigar box guitar.
  • PJ Harvey among many others plays a genuine Baratto Cigfiddle.
  • Paul Simon used one on a recording recently.
  • And, none other than Sir Paul McCartney recently played one while on tour:
Some other folks you might recognize like to play CBG’s also.  Some PRETTY “COOL CATS” INDEED!
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More Info: Cigar Box History
Before cigars came into the picture, box making was considered something of an art, a craft reserved for fine goods like jewelry, coins, etc.  
And what wondrous objects, these small, well-crafted boxes were. Prior to what you and I have come to know as cigar boxes existed, cigars or “segars” as they were known, were packaged up in large wooden crates and barrels in quantities that typically ranged from 250-1,000 each. As tobacco quickly ascended status to a huge cash crop in the US and abroad, it’s distribution became increasingly regulated. Strict tax and trade laws encouraged the earliest, small “nailed wood” boxes, which employed muslin fabric in lieu of metal hinges and safely housed quantities of 12-50 cigars. In 1837 Ramon Allones, a Spanish immigrant to Cuba initiated the some of the first documented use of colorful, lithographic labels as a means to distinguish one brand from another. Colorful paper edging was often utilized to cover exposed nail heads and joints.
Tampa FL became a major hub of cigar and box manufacturing. Spanish Cedar was highly prized for box making as the natural oils not only repelled insects, kept the tobacco moist, but was also an important flavor-enhancer, imparting a distinct and desirable taste. Cedar logs were floated down Hillsborough Bay where crews on wooden sailing schooners unloaded the logs at the Port of Tampa.
“They used to bring in the British Honduras cedar trees, logs. They was anywheres (sic) from forty to sixty feet long. And uh, they lapped ‘em up in the river and we played on those. Then they would stack them up on the side of the river and then cut ‘em up into six lengths, truck ‘em to the Tampa Box Factory. They made regular real cigar boxes…”
– one resident reminiscing on his childhood in Tampa during the late 1930s.
Once the cigar box boom hit, the phenomenon was unstoppable. 
Sources indicate close to 10,000,000,000 (that’s 10 Billion!) nailed wooden cigar boxes had been manufactured by 1940!! 
 No small wonder that so many of these sturdy wooden boxes found themselves re-purposed after their original use had been served. Nearly 200 years later and aside from some unique storefront varieties, there has only been one major design change in the overall box design to speak of.
Lid design evolved from sitting on top of the 4-sided boxes to being recessed into three of the sides in effort to protect the lids from being torn off. The new design worked and had been in use ever since.
Now for the extraordinary part, – the invention, where a box becomes the instrument. The surplus of well-crafted boxes were put to use in marvelous ways long after the original contents were gone. Things were not tossed away so quickly then. Seemingly trivial objects and packaging were often re-purposed into useful household items.
It was actually a cigar box fiddle that made first recorded documentation in artist Edwin Forbes’s famous 1876 etching of two Civil War Soldiers at a campfire, one Union solider playing a ‘Figaro’ cigar box-turned fiddle (as shown above).
People were fabricating these at home with any materials they had on hand. By 1890 step-by-step instructions for fabricating a 5-string fret-less, cigar box banjo appeared in the publication American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America. Later, when America was in the throes of the tremendous economic depression of the 1930’s, these cigar box instruments experienced a new revival.
The cigar box instrument works as a very pared-down chordophone, with the box functioning as the “resonator.” A chordophone is any musical instrument that makes sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points. Simple household items like broomsticks were often employed as necks, or means to connect the strings. Many of the earliest predecessors had only one or two strings while most of our modern revivals employ up to as many as 4-6 strings.
Cigar Box Instruments such as homemade guitars represented Americana resourcefulness at it’s finest: Sharecroppin’, Tramp-Tunes, Hobo-Howling, Dust-Bowl Blues.
  The Great Depression of the 1930’s had ushered in a resurgence of homemade and DIY musical instruments. Throughout the years, popularity with the instruments waxed and waned but the love for CBGs never died out. Recent years have ushered in resurgence in popularity and a dedicated and growing group of players and enthusiasts.

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