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Musicians feel the pull of cigar box guitars

The community keeps growing as musicians like Hymn for Her and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons get drawn into the lure of an old-style sound.

March 13, 2011|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • Guitar builder Matthew "Matty" Baratto's custom Cigfiddle cigar-box guitars inside his North Holllywood shop.
Guitar builder Matthew "Matty" Baratto's custom Cigfiddle… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

The pages of newspapers, or history books for that matter, don't runneth over with stories of happy accidents involving chainsaws.

But that's just what put Philadelphia musicians Lucy Tight and Wayne Waxing, who tour as Hymn for Her, in possession of a musical instrument that changed the direction of their career.

The incident also brought them into a surprising community that's sprung up in the last decade around one of the most primitive tools of the trade: the cigar box guitar, a simple homemade instrument that in decades past has been the first instrument for many blues, folk and country musicians with great musical passion but little financial means.

"We were in Memphis, Tenn., on tour," Tight said during Hymn for Her's recent swing through Southern California. While one of their cohorts was helping a friend they were staying with cut up some trees that were downed during a storm, "the chainsaw bucked, hit him in the head, and he ended up in the hospital. As a parting gift, because he felt so bad about the accident, our friend gave us one of his cigar box guitars. It definitely has changed our sound a lot."

The particular instrument she's talking about is called a Lowebow, named after the friend who created it and gave it to them: Memphis-based musician and luthier John Lowe. It consists of a broomstick handle melded to a bona fide cigar box across which run three strings: one bass string for the low-end notes, and two guitar strings for rhythm accompaniment and soloing. Plugged into a high-wattage amplifier, it produces the sound of the mythical hellhound on proto-bluesman Robert Johnson's trail.

It's one example of a mushrooming number of modern-day versions of the primitive cigar box instruments of yore. Their popularity is growing, not coincidentally, during a technologically sophisticated age of mass-produced instruments that allow players to mimic the sound of virtually any vintage guitar, or amplifier, ever made.

Some cigar box instruments, like Lowe's, remain consciously low-tech, using just one, two or three strings; others, often employing four or sometimes even eight strings, apply sophisticated guitar-making skills, resulting in functional instruments that exemplify artistic mastery of the luthier's craft.

And what initially may look like a novelty item good for a laugh at a cocktail party is being taken increasingly seriously by professionals.

Marc Ribot, a respected session guitarist who has worked extensively with producer T Bone Burnett and singer-songwriter Tom Waits, has played one that belongs to Waits on some of the iconoclastic singer-songwriter's recordings.

"Old-style instruments evoke the recordings which were made using these types of instruments and the world those recordings represent," Ribot said. "They're a way for musicians to play, not only with notes but with history."

"At first glance you might not take it seriously," said ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, "until you pick one up and start strumming it." Gibbons quickly became an enthusiast after hearing a band member messing with one in the back of their tour bus after a concert. "It's patently amazing what you can do with just two notes. For the most part, people are quite pleasantly surprised to hear what you can get out of one of these."

Rock guitar hero Steve Miller, in a separate interview, agreed: "When I saw Billy's, I thought, 'What a really simple thing to play!' … Now I have two of them. They're extremely expressive, funky little instruments." With a laugh, he added, "It's probably what Bo Diddley had when he was little."

The Diddley connection

The name of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Bo Diddley is a hallowed one in the cigar box instrument community. The rectangular-bodied electric guitar with which he pounded out the song and proto-rock beat that carries his name in the 1950s was directly modeled on the crude cigar box instruments he and others first learned to play. It was not limited to blues players such as Blind Willie Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins but was a tool that rock, country and jazz greats such as Jimi Hendrix, Carl Perkins and Charlie Christian played when they were young.

In fact, the Mississippi musician born Otha Bates Ellas McDaniel took his nom de stage from the Diddley Bow, a single-string instrument created by wrapping a piece of bailing wire around two nails hammered onto the side of a house, a barn or plank of wood.

For many musicians, a cigar box guitar embodies purity of musical expression.

"Musicians like myself, we want that grit," said Shane Speal, who created the Cigar Box Nation website that now claims about 3,000 members. "We want an instrument that kicks our … — that's what happening. There's no central musician that's leading the charge."

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"It's like this pack of discontented musicians that have joined together and used Internet to connect," Speal said. "The only thing I've done is to create a forum where they can do that and to be a cheerleader about it."

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