The cigar box guitar was created from a mix of slavery, musical expression, poverty and whatever materials were to hand. African slaves shipped to the United States to work the plantations, came with nothing but their musical traditions. It is difficult to image how hard life was for slaves in the US. They lived in poverty as chattels, owned by masters who were often brutal and cruel. Musical activity was repressed by the white slave owners as they feared its power - so with no ready access to instruments, inventive ways were found to make them from whatever was available.
In the mid-1800s, cigars were shipped in boxes containing 20-50 cigars. The boxes were usually made from cedar which has a particular resonating quality ideal for acoustic sounds.
A broom could be taken apart, the wire holding the brush removed and stretched along the broom handle that was fixed into a discarded cigar box. With no frets and a very high "action" it was best played with a slide made from the top of a glass bottle or piece of pipe and the birthing cry of the blues was heard. Another adaption was into a fiddle type instrument that could be bowed. This version was often called the Diddley Bow. A larger bass could be constructed using a tea chest as the soundbox.
The cigar box guitar was expanded, more strings added and from these basic instruments came what we now see as the foundation of blues and its renegade child called rock 'n roll.
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In the depression years, when poverty and hardship put manufactured instruments beyond the means of many people, the need to make music and sing created a new reason to create these simple handmade instruments.
Now there is a cigar box revolution happening in the US and the "make your own instrument" movement has taken off. The ninth annual Cigar Box Guitar Festival was held in 2013 in Huntsville, Alabama.
The cigar box guitar I am pictured with is one made by a Sydney man, Jon Watkins. Each of his instruments is a one-off character with its own individual personality and tone. He does not use actual cigar boxes in their construction but builds and embellishes the sound boxes so each one has a distinctive finish. In keeping with the traditional ethos, he uses all recycled materials, except for the tuners and strings.
Jon is a drummer and jazz musician. He started making the box guitars when, as a frustrated guitarist, he discovered the joys of playing using open tunings, less strings and with a metal slide (cut from an old cymbal stand) on his finger. Initially guided by designs in a book, now he is constantly experimenting to get the best construction and sound combination.
His cigar box guitars are stunning to look and wonderful to play. Solidly constructed, they tune easily and stay in tune. His tip for me as a beginner, was to not to hold it close like a normal guitar as this muffles the sound but away a bit from the body so it can really ring out in all its glory. One of Jon's cigar box guitars has now joined my family of instruments and once I have got to grips with the playing technique, it will be appearing on a stage near you in the not too distant future.
Terry Sarten is a musician, writer and satirist currently residing in Sydney. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org