Cigar Box Guitar Heroes: Music legends and their cigar box guitars
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
The Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, New Orleans LA, 1899
“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.”
"Ain’t nobody never told me nothin’ in my life, never showed me anything. And the first guitar I ever had in my life I made it myself... Out of a mandolin neck and a cigar box. That’s the truth, that’s the truth. Put six strings on it and played it. When I picked up my first one I played. Not only played it but I made it."
- Scrapper Blackwell, from his final interview, Jazz Monthly Magazine 1960.
Blind Willie Johnson: His father made him a one-string cigar box guitar at the age of five. Young Willie learned to play melodies up and down that lonely string using a slide to fret the notes. This became essential training to his unique style of playing, for later on in life, he would incorporate the single string melodies on his six-string guitar. The best example of this is his phenomenal song “Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)”
Charlie Christian: He made and played a cigar box guitar in his teen years from a manual class. Christian was an important early performer on the electric guitar, and is cited as a key figure in the development of bebop and cool jazz. He gained national exposure as a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra from August 1939 to June 1941. His single-string technique combined with amplification helped bring the guitar out of the rhythm section and into the forefront as a solo instrument
Carl Perkins: One of the greatest cigar box legends! His father made him a guitar from a cigar box, broomstick and two pieces of baling wire. Perkins was seven at the time. Perkins was the son of poor sharecroppers near Tiptonville, Tennessee. He grew up hearing Southern gospel music sung by whites in church, and by black field workers when he started working in the cotton fields at age six. During spring and autumn, the school day would be followed by several hours of work in fields.
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.” (from Pittsburgh Post Gazette) Jimi’s cigar box guitar had rubber bands wrapped around the box, serving as strings.
Roy Clark: The great country guitarist and banjo player (and Hee-Haw host) first played an instrument his father made from a cigar box and ukulele neck with four strings. Clark has been an iconic figure in country music, both as a musician and as a popularizer of the genre. He is an entertainer most of all, with an amiable personality and a telegenic presence.
Albert King: Albert made and played several 1-string cigar box guitars and diddley bows starting at the age of 6. He got his first real guitar 12 years later. King was a left-handed “upside-down/backwards” guitarist. He was left-handed, but usually played right-handed guitars flipped over upside-down so the low E string was on the bottom. In later years he played a custom-made guitar that was basically left-handed, but had the strings reversed (as he was used to playing). He also used very unorthodox tunings (i.e., tuning as low as C to allow him to make sweeping string bends). Some believe that he was using open Eminor tuning (C-B-E-G-B-E) or open F tuning (C-F-C-F-A-D). A “less is more” type blues player, he was known for his expressive “bending” of notes, a technique characteristic of blues guitarists.
Hound Dog Taylor: The Dog first played piano, then cigar box guitar and then got a real guitar in his teens. He became a full-time musician around 1957 but remained unknown outside of the Chicago area, where he played small clubs in the black neighborhoods and also at the open-air Maxwell Street Market. He was known for his electrified slide guitarplaying, his cheap Japanese guitars, and his raucous boogie beats. He was also famed among guitar players for having six fingers on his left hand
Robert Pete Williams: In 1934, 20 year old Williams taught himself how to play guitar by first building one out of a cigar box. His crude instrument had 5 copper strings. At the age of 20, Williams fashioned a crude guitar by attaching five copper strings to a cigar box, and soon after bought a cheap, mass-produced one.
Albert Collins: The Master of the Telecaster first started out on a down-home cigar box guitar. His second instrument was a guitar made by a local carpenter. Legend has it that he placed rattles from a rattlesnake inside to improve the sound. Born in Leona, Texas, Collins was a distant relative of Lightnin’ Hopkins and grew up learning about music and playing guitar. His family moved to Houston, Texas when he was seven. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he absorbed the blues sounds and styles from Texas, Mississippi and Chicago. His style would soon envelop these sounds.
Pee Wee Crayton: This R&B legend started out on cigar box guitar as a child in Austin, TX.Born in Rockdale, Texas, there are several stories on how Crayton acquired the name Pee Wee. In a Living Blues article in the 1980s, he stated that friend and singer, Roy Brown, gave him the nickname. This makes sense since Brown had a way of making nicknames for many of his friends. It has also been said that his father gave him the nickname as a tribute to a local Texas piano player
King Bennie Nawahi: The great Hawaiian virtuoso, King Benny played slack-key guitar, ukulele, steel guitar and a one-string cigar box fiddle. Nawahi learned to play in the parks of Honolulu with his brother’s band, the Hawaiian Novelty Five, playing on a passenger liner that sailed from Honolulu to San Francisco. The group began touring and Nawahi left for a solo career in the early 1920s.
Big Bill Broonzy: Young Bill Broonzy first played music on a corn stalk fiddle, eventually graduating to one made from a cigar box. He got so good at playing the instrument that the owner of the plantation he lived on invited him to play at picnics and dances.His career began in the 1920s when he played Country blues to mostly black audiences. Through the ‘30s and ‘40s he successfully navigated a transition in style to a more urban blues sound popular with white audiences.
Eddie Lang: Before he was old enough to attend school, Lang, a.k.a. ‘the Father of Jazz guitar’ was riffing on a cigar box guitar built by his father (who was a luthier by trade). At first, he took violin lessons for 11 years. In school he became friends with Joe Venuti, with whom he would work for much of his career. He was playing professionally by about 1918, playing violin, banjo, and guitar.
Louis Armstrong: Don’t quote us on this one. We’re still checking out the sources, but we’ve come across a bio on ol’ Sachmo that said his first instrument was a cigar box guitar. Renowned for his charismatic stage presence and deep, instantly recognizable voice almost as much as for his trumpet-playing, Armstrong’s influence extends well beyond jazz music, and by the end of his career in the 1960s, he was widely regarded as a profound influence on popular music in general.
Josh White: Dr. Tony Hyman gave us this story of folk icon, Josh White: "I promoted a folk concert at Colorado State back in 1961 which featured Josh White and one of the first appearances of Josh White Jr. He and his son attended a small private party in my basement. After the concert, I remember him telling me that he too played a cigar box instrument as a kid." (Editor’s Note: Dr. Hyman is the curator of the National Cigar Museum)
Fenton Robinson: This bluesman built his first guitar out of a cigar box and wire at the age of 11. He learned to play by listening to music from jukeboxes and radio shows such as the King Biscuit Flour Hour. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, Robinson left his home at the age of 18 to move to Memphis, Tennessee, where he recorded his first single “Tennessee Woman” in 1957. He settled in Chicago in 1962.
Sleepy John Estes: Learned to play on a home made cigar box guitar. In 1915, Estes’ father, a sharecropper who also played some guitar, moved the family to Brownsville, Tennessee. Not long after, Estes lost the sight of his right eye when a friend threw a rock at him during a baseball game. At the age of 19, while working as a field hand, he began to perform professionally
Scott Dunbar: Fat Possum recording artist, Dunbar first built an instrument when he was eight from a cigar box, broom stick and some stream wire. He played it like a violin.