The Cigar Box Guitar

Music and cigars aren’t something I usually equate with each other. In fact, cigars are almost the last type of smoke I think of when I turn the dial of the radio. If I hear Ryan Adams, I imagine him on stage surrounded by a grayish cloud, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. If I hear Bing Crosby, I imagine that his White Christmas also involves a black pipe. And, if I hear Willie Nelson, I think of a type of smoke sure to make him hungry for some Kenny Rogers Roasters. Cigars, however, don’t typically cross my mind when I think of music.

It turns out this is a misconception on my part: cigars, or rather their boxes, contain some of the true roots of music.

Cigar box guitars are homemade guitars where used cigar boxes serve as the resonator, echoing the vibrations that cause sound. Used by many poverty stricken musicians, these instruments forever have a place in the history of song. In fact, cigar box guitars go all the way back to the 19th century.

Before 1840, according to the curator of the National Cigar Museum, Dr. Tony Hyman, cigars were not shipped in boxes but large crates, crates that would hold over 100 cigars at a time. These crates were found to be too big in size for efficient shipping and were eventually reduced into smaller crates that would hold much fewer sticks. And so, the cigar box was born.

About the time cigar boxes emerged, cigar smoking did as well: people from all walks of life indulged, leaving their cigar boxes empty in the process. Picked up by innovators and creators, these empty cigar boxes were quickly turned into guitars, banjos, and fiddles. Unbeknownst at the time, these instruments would soon give those who were too poor to afford a guitar a chance to experiment musically.

The earliest known cigar box instrument is believed to have been concocted during the Civil war. This is based on the discovery of a drawing by Edwin Forbes, a French artist working for the Union Army. This drawing features two soldiers sitting around a campfire, one watching the other play a cigar box fiddle.

Eras marked by poverty saw cigar box instruments, particularly cigar box guitars, begin to flourish. Both the blues movement and the emergence of jug bands are believed to have been facilitated, at least in part, by cigar box guitars and the Great Depression, leaving so many people broke and out  of work, became a catalyst for these homemade instruments.

During these times, many people couldn’t afford guitars so they simply made their own. Using cigar boxes, screen wire and broom handles, as well as anything else they could find, countless children made playable instruments. Since these instruments were made by so many different people, they had many different varieties. Some cigar box guitars had one string, some had three or four. Some had frets up the neck, some did not. Some of the creators built their guitar and simply moved on, some grew up to be the trail blazers of rock and roll.

Among the notable musicians believed to have played cigar box guitars at some point are Carl Perkins, Jimi Hendrix, George Benson, Ted Nugent, BB King, and Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

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