In the beginning …
Once upon a time, I worked as a project management consultant for Fortune 100 International, Canadian and US companies. I was researching electric guitar kits in 2012 and discovered the world of Cigar Box Guitars (CBGs). It seemed worthwhile to get experience building a guitar from scratch before tackling a serious kit. But I got hooked on CBGs and here I am, still building, selling a few, and watching the faces of novices light up as they learn to play their CBG.
Here’s how I got hooked. The sound of my first build, “Jenny”, was amazing, even without amplification. It had great volume and sustain. More CBGs followed, a few didley bows (one string cigar box guitars) and then the cigar box ukulele. Yes, I have drifted from project management, but the professional discipline has not been lost – I work to build precision CBGs, so they sound great, as efficiently and as cost effective as possible, and have fun doing it.
Are CBGs something new? Or have they been around for a while?
There are a lot of stories to tell here.
The CBG evolved from stringed instruments (gourd fiddles, lutes) native to western Africa – Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria – which Africans recreated when they arrived in North America starting in the 1700s. The “akonting” existed in Africa in several forms – as a 1 string, 3 string and 5 string instrument. A one (1) string CBG is called a Didley bow, which was and remains a fixture in today’s music culture as an unfitted instrument, well adapted to playing one string blues in a “slide” fashion.
Where can you see the CBG in action?
- Youtube – there are many videos posted of musicians playing CBGs.
- Facebook – the “Friends of C. B. Gitty” group displays instruments being played and being built.
- Festivals – there are many annual CBG festivals held in the United States and the UK.
- Historically – there are many photos of soldier bands from the US Civil War and German soldiers in World War One holding CBGs.
- Movies – if you look real close toward the end of the cartoon “Jango”, one of the ground hogs flying through the air is holding a CBG.
- Movies – in the 1953 movie “A Face In The Crowd”, as Andy Williams is clutching a fistful of coins from a wheelbarrow, he speaks of a “ceegar box guitar”.
During the Depression in the 1930s, there was a resurgence in the building of CBGs as money was tight and production guitars became a luxury for many.
Today, there is a major renaissance as musicians, hobbyists and woodworkers discover the satisfaction and addiction of building and playing CBGs. The interest in CBGs and home made instruments exploded in 2020 due to the Covid virus, as did musical instrument sales and online lessons. Many people suddenly had a lot of times on their hands, either through lockdown or normal recreation venues being unavailable and were looking for something to do with all that time.
Only Cigar Boxes?
Cookie tin boxes, craft boxes, even make your own boxes have been used to make CBGs.
For the really adventurous, guitars have also been made with shovels, canoe paddles, tennis rackets, and pots and pans. Most used magnetic pickups for amplification.
Shoe boxes, pizza boxes, and thick cardboard honeycomb boxes have also been used an alternative, for example in schools where the use cigar boxes was frowned upon.
The Ridley bow, a one string cigar box guitar, has also morphed into the “canjo”, a one string guitar with a pop can / beer can / coffee can / any can as the sound box.
Joe, your guitars all seem to have names – is there a method to naming them?
The thought of naming the guitars came to me when I was watching “Forrest Gump”, when the old man looks at Forrest’ shrimp boat and tells him, “Bad luck to have a boat without a name”. And the first CBG I built was christened Jennie.
Some of the names suggest the occupation of the customer (guess what the owner of Sweet Sue does? (Answer: lawyer). And some are chosen to reflect what the guitar includes or is made of (Lizzie – a tin cookie box, Maggie – a magnetic pickup).