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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

Box beginnings

One irony of the cigar box guitar phenomenon is that the first instruments were a byproduct of technological advancements during the industrial revolution.

For centuries, tobacco had been transported from seller to buyer as raw leaves in large bundles. When manufacturing techniques improved in the 19th century, facilitating the production of pre-rolled cigars, they started being shipped in more consumer friendly wood boxes. Once the cigars had been smoked, the boxes were disposed of — or repurposed for other uses, including homemade musical instruments for those who didn't even have a few dollars with which to purchase a used one.

Modern luthiers with a zest for folk art have been attracted to the challenge cigar box culture presents in making legitimate instruments from homespun materials.

"In general what we perceive is a kind of renaissance in guitar making," said Tatiana Sizonenko, curator of the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, an arm of the National Assn. of Music Merchants trade organization for musical equipment manufacturers and dealers. "I think it's in reaction to the technological development in a way.

"In guitar making, the way for many producers to cut the cost of instruments is to ship orders to China, do the machinery there, then ship back parts that they assemble here," Sizonenko said. "People look back and say, 'With all the tools we have, we can make more beautiful handmade instruments.' This movement is growing. We're seeing more and more makers every day. And there's more sharing of information on how to make guitars. It's no longer tied to a specific family secret; people share recipes, like they do in cooking."

He added that the Internet has facilitated the growth of many new musical communities: "There are ukulele groups, steel guitar groups, vintage guitar groups, slack key guitar groups, accordion groups. In Southern California there are very active communities of people who, because of social media … now have the possibility of making homegrown musical festivals."

SoCal craftwork

The Southland has its own repository of cigar box guitar makers, including North Hollywood's Matty Baratto and Highland Park's Mark Melchior.

When he isn't building or repairing conventional guitars for customers such as KISS, Marilyn Manson, Sugar Ray, Zakk Wylde and the Goo Goo Dolls, Baratto makes a cigar box model he calls the CigFiddle, which he'll be showing off Saturday at the Lowebow Cigar Box Guitar Festival in Orlando, Fla.

CigFiddles sell for $400 to $500 for basic models and up to $1,500 for combinations that come with one of Baratto's equally down-to-earth wine box amplifiers.

Johnny Depp owns one — he reportedly gave one to his rock 'n' roll pal and "Pirates of the Caribbean" fashion role model Keith Richards — as does British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, who used one on her 2007 album, "White Chalk." Other high-profile CigFiddle owners include Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather musician-singer Jack White and Queens of the Stone Age heavy metal musician Josh Homme.

"Some guitar-maker friends ask why I'm wasting my time doing these," Baratto said. "They're working with revolutionary technologies and making instruments from space-age materials like titanium. I feel like I'm going backward: I'm using things I can find at the hardware store. For my resonator model, I use a paint can lid. And I use sink covers for drains on the sound holes. I'm all about making them on the cheap."

Melchior has recently built his 50th cigar box guitar out of his residence in Highland Park, and sells the instruments mostly by word of mouth. Several are on display at La Luz de Jesus in Los Feliz as part of the gallery's annual Everything But the Kitschen Sync group exhibition that opened Friday and runs through March 27.

"I've left a footprint in a lot of areas, but this seemed like fertile ground, something with which I could get neck deep into American folk art," said Melchior, who is also a singer and songwriter. "It's taken me a lot farther than anything else I've done. This is very pure [craftsmanship] in an old world way," which is how Melchior was trained in Wisconsin, working as an apprentice to Italian-born accordion builder Alfonso Baldoni.

"Guitar technology is moving into things like self-tuning bridges. But if you can't tune your own guitar…." he said, letting the thought finish itself. "I've got to grab the reins and do my thing. I feel like a frontiersman, and this is a lot more exciting."

Beyond the possibility of that direct connection, for many of the most devoted practitioners, it's about the supremacy of expressivity over technology.

"At first I was a little intimidated by it because it requires a lot of lead playing, which I wasn't used to. But once I started messing around with it, I find it more liberating," said musician Tight, who with Waxing are recording their latest album, "Lucy & Wayne and the Amairican Stream" in their Airstream trailer while touring the country.

"When everything gets so technological, with everything that's there to break down, you want to get back to the raw essence of what music is all about," she said. "It's definitely a passionate instrument. When you play an instrument that's handmade like this, you feel the passion."

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