History of the Cigar Box Guitar
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
by Shane Speal
"On Saturdays, barbers sat their customers in the shade on the porch of the Store, and troubadours on their ceaseless crawlings through the South leaned on its benches and sang their sad songs of The Brazos while they played juice harps and cigar-box guitars."
Excerpted from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
If a musician has a song in his heart, he will find anything to produce the sound. Whether it is conch shell trumpeters or an African griot musician playing a kora harp fashioned from a calabash gourd, musicians have been known to use anything to birth a song.
The history of cigar box guitars start with the boxes. When the US government imposed an excise tax on tobacco in 1862, manufacturers were forced to package cigars in small boxes that would contain 20 - 100 cigars inside. These boxes would be sealed with an official tax stamp, guaranteeing that the cigar company paid the proper tax.
In 1800's America, musical instruments were expensive to the average person, but creative folks taught themselves to build their own. Because of the popularity of cigars, these small wooden boxes were plentiful in many households and creative folks started using them for instruments. Folks realized they were the perfect size to craft fiddles, banjos, guitars and mandolins.
"Home Sweet Home" by Edwin Forbes, 1876
One of the earliest known illustrations of a cigar box instrument was drawn by Edwin Forbes, the official etching artist for the US Union Army. The 1876 artwork features two American Civil War soldiers at a campfire, one of whom is playing a cigar box fiddle.
As word-of-mouth grew for cigar box instruments, syndicated newspaper plans for a cigar box banjo started to appear, first in 1884 by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America; and a similar set in 1886 by John Richards for Harper's Young People. By 1890, Beard's cigar box banjo plans were reprinted in the immensely popular American Boys Handibook. (See our full archives of historic cigar box instrument plans.)
The Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, 1899
Between word-of-mouth and exposure through print, cigar box instruments started to be crafted and played throughout America in the late 1800's. They have been documented in the birth of Jazz music with the Razzy Daddy Spasm Band of New Orleans, the use in Yiddish Vaudeville including virtuoso Larry Fine of the Three Stooges, and in the lumberjack camps of Wisconsin (read article here). There was even an account of a young boy and his goat, playing an impromptu cigar box guitar concert on the streets of Galveston, TX.
“Before I went to school, I started fooling around on a guitar. My daddy made me one with a cigar box, a broomstick, and two strands of baling wire, and I’d sit and beat on that thing.”
As the world progressed into the Twentieth Century, more how-to-build plans were printed in newspapers and magazines, including designs for fiddles, mandolins and other instruments. WWI soldiers even crafted cigar box guitars, ukuleles and fiddles in the trenches to pass the time.
Antique Cigar Box Guitars from Shane Speal's Cigar Box Guitar Museum
Blues music started to spring up in the 1920's and some of the earliest stars had first learned to play on cigar box guitars. The most famous of these is Gospel legend, Blind Willie Johnson, who first learned how to play on a one-string cigar box guitar built by his father. Johnson used a pocketknife as a slide and was able to pick out melodies on the solitary string. When he reached his teenage years, he acquired a conventional acoustic guitar and developed a slide guitar technique that was based on his cigar box guitar. In his playing, he would slide the main melody on the high E string while allowing the other five strings to drone. This is particularly evident in his masterpiece, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.
See our ever-expanding list of Music Heroes that played cigar box instruments.
The earliest recording thought to have a cigar box guitar is the 78 record "Beans" and "Tippin' Out" by James "Beans Hambone" Albert & El Morrow, released in 1931. In these two recordings, a slack-stringed, possibly fretless instrument can be heard as musical accompaniment to two pre-blues minstrel show songs. The musicians cut the song for Victor Records in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As factories started creating cheaper, mass-produced acoustic guitars, cigar box instruments slowly became more of novelty to the average American and less of a necessity. Exceptions are cigar box violins, mandolins and other 'specialty' instruments that the average musician might have need; or in the more remote places such as Appalachian Mountains and Wisconsin lumberjack camps.
Wisconsin folk music revival: In 1800's, men would be employed to work in Wisconsin lumberjack camps for months at a time, living together in close quarters. Many were Norwegian immigrants who brought European folk music traditions with them. During evenings and weekends, they would whittle cigar box fiddles, guitars and other homemade instruments for amusement.
In the 1930's, musicians and historians in Wisconsin started to collect the folk songs and the folk instruments of the old lumberjack camps. These efforts were led by Otto Rindlisbacher, Ray Caulkins and the Wisconsin Lumberjack Band. Rindlisbacher owned the Friendly Buckhorn Tavern in Rice Lake, WI which had an entire museum display of old lumberjack cigar box guitars and handmade instruments on one of the walls.
The Wisconsin musicians were even recorded by Alan Lomax, Sidney Robertson and Helene Stratman-Thomas between 1937 and 1946. These recordings can be found in the book and CD set, Folksongs of Another America by James P. Leary. (Read more about Wisconsin Lumberjacks and cigar box guitars.)
An antique one-string cigar box fiddle rests on a 1940's magazine article that features cigar box fiddle plans. From the Shane Speal Collection.
Mid-Century slowdown: After the 1940's, cigar box guitars could be found popping up in curious folk revivalists and as part of Boy Scouts and other kids projects. Even as a novelty, the instrument didn't garner much interest. Walt Disney used one in the Country Bears display at their theme parks and Showtime Pizza also had a mechanical bear playing one. An article on how to build a 2-string cigar box guitar based on Carl Perkins' story was published in Guitar Player Magazine. Eventually, cigar box guitars were mentioned in passing, but ignored by most historians.
The birth of the modern revival:
Shane Speal's first cigar box guitar, built July 4, 1993.
I built my first cigar box guitar on July 4, 1993. At the time, I was a college student in Indiana, PA who became obsessed with blues music. I had been researching older and older recordings, eventually digging deeply into Delta Blues of the 1920's and 1930's. I loved the creakiness and primitive nature of the music and I started asking myself, "what kind of African American music came before the blues?"
A friend of mine lent me his father's collection of 1970's Guitar Player magazines because there were many interviews with bluesmen in the pages. That's where I stumbled across the 2-string cigar box guitar article mentioned above. Within a week, I had built my first cigar box guitar from a Swisher Sweets box, a piece of wood from my father's barn and some old tuners. (Read the full story of this cigar box guitar in the book, Making Poor Man's Guitars.)
That 3-string cigar box guitar changed my life because it had the tone of the deepest blues I was seeking. It was imperfect, creaky and authentic. Because it only had three strings, I was able to play it better than any six string guitar I ever owned. I had found my instrument.
After leaving college, I continued to build cigar box guitars, always trying to improve the design for playability, but also seeking to keep the authenticity intact. I even tried selling my instruments online in as early as 1998 during the infancy of the World Wide Web. (Nobody bought them!)
It was at that time I started searching the internet for any reference to cigar box guitars and found absolutely nothing. There was no early websites or chat groups. After playing these magnificent instruments for years, I was taken aback that nobody else was championing them.
In 2002, I created a one page website that showed how to make a cigar box guitar on Geocities (an early, freeware web program). It was soon developed into a dozen or more pages under the title, "The Cigar Box Guitar's Rightful Place in Music History."
As I built the website, I started receiving emails from musicians and blues fans who asked questions about my cigar box guitar plans. In order to answer all the questions at once, I created a bulletin board chat room in 2003. The response was overwhelming. Membership grew exponentially each week, with so many excited members learning about cigar box guitars, their music and history.
Like myself, many musicians were seeking authenticity in music. They were searching for a way to take their music deeper and grasp old time music with a truly old time instrument.
It was during the first year of the Yahoo group that I learned of Matty Baratto, a luthier in North Hollywood, CA who had been building cigar box guitars since 1994. (Baratto would eventually see one of his cigar box guitars propel Paul McCartney into another Grammy Award-winning song, "Cut Me Some Slack") I also met John Lowe of Memphis TN who had been building his "Lowebow" cigar box guitars for a few years based off a design by Jay Kirgis, who was a student of the University of Mississippi in the late 90s'.
There were jug band fans, guitar builders and fans of all types who flocked to the Yahoo group. It was the start of a movement.
The excitement was electric in those days. Folks started creating festivals, recording songs and compiled CD's called "Masters of the Cigar Box Guitar." Each day, there was something new. People kept posting in little snippets of history they'd find and I started to compile anything and everything I could about the instrument. After years of searching for information, I finally had a firehose of history and facts being directed at me.
The Yahoo group eventually outgrew the bulletin board format and I started the social network, CigarBoxNation.com. Musicians could create their own profiles, upload photos and music, and share building secrets in a wide selection of chatrooms. Facebook eventually took this concept further and folks started dozens of different cigar box guitar pages and groups.
Today, the cigar box guitar is experiencing a Renaissance unlike any other time in its history. The artistry in building these instruments is reaching professional luthier-level construction for some, while still maintaining primitive authenticity with others. Cigar box guitar fests can be found from New Orleans to Australia and all points in between and cigar box guitars can be found in music, movies... and on people's back porches.
-Shane Speal, September, 2020.
ps. I invite you to check out my cigar box guitar band, Shane Speal's Snake Oil Band. The quest for a deeper music never ends.