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The History of the Cigar Box Guitar

According to Dr. Tony Hyman, curator of the National Cigar Museum, cigar boxes as we know them didn’t exist prior to the 1840’s. 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 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 found so far is an etching of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle. This etching, copyrighted 1876, 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. In addition to the etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were possibly published circa 1870's by Boy Scout’s founder, Daniel Carter Beard in St. Nicholas Magazine.

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 online archive of the St. Nicholas magazine does not immediately reveal that Daniel C. Beard wrote an article with this same title, however. It is more likely that the plans for the Uncle Enos Banjo were first printed in the American Boy’s Handy Book in 1883 as supplementary material in the rear of the book as suggested in its prologue. (Beard, Daniel Carter (1883). The American Boy's Handy Book. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0879234490. )

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 wash tub bass (similar to the cigar box guitar), jugs, wash boards, 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.

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 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 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. (Wikipedia)

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