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Cigar Box Guitars


In my library/office at home in Kedron, I have assembled artefacts of my life.  .  It is a comfort to sit here surrounded by paintings, photographs, objects and books that are reminders of who I am and from where I have come.

There are some things that people seldom discard.  Things like a globe, an old map, an antique object with just the right patina or a Geographic magazine.

Among those objects are cigar boxes.  I save them.  Moreover, I do not know anyone who can throw one away as they are objects de Arte as well as items of universal utility.

Perhaps the need to keep them goes back to our prehistory when a container of any kind was an object to be treasured.  That they are beautifully made closes the deal for this writer.

In my obsessively ordered shop, hangs an antique clock salvaged by my wife’s father when he worked on the Island of Shemia near the border with Russia on the Aleutian chain of Alaskan Islands.  It came from a B29 Super fortress that had been left there to decay.  The old clock is housed in a cigar box from the Paladar.  Every seven days, I dutifully wind it up with its brass key.  There is a satisfaction in that that a double A battery operated clock cannot offer.  Without the cigar box to display it, the clock would probably be in a box under the bench.

On my bench is a stunning “Sir Winston” cigar box, with gilt lettering that I got from Filip.   I have carefully violated the smooth shiny surface of the box with two F notes for sound holes in the cigar box guitar (CBG) that it will become.   I work on it when the need arises to focus on the small details in a life that is filled with what seem to be larger responsibilities.

As a life long lover of American blues music, I am astonished that I totally missed the historical significance of the cigar box in the development of that genre.  I had to discover it in Australia while walking down Fish Lane a couple of years ago.

The occasion was one of the Cars and Cigars events at the Paladar.  Half way down the alley/street I heard a sound that I have not heard live since my pre-hurricane Katrina visit to New Orleans, Louisiana.  It was the sound of a Delta Blues slide guitar riff.  My pulse and my pace quickened and I arrived to see and hear Nigel McTrustry on the small balcony of the Paladar playing a fretless three-string electric slide blues guitar made out of a cigar box.

The music captured me.   That evening, I researched the history of the CBG.  It’s history, in short, is this:  After the American Civil War, no one in the south had much money…least of all freed slaves.  A proper guitar was out of the question.  Former slaves took cigar boxes, affixed a board to the box, strung wire or string and created early blues music on the instruments.

They also made violins in the same manner.  In fact, the bows they made with a bent stick and a string were called Diddley Bows.

The great Bo Diddley who is credited with making the first electric guitar used a signature rectangular CBG his entire career.  Moreover, most of the early blues greats like Bee Bee King got their starts on CBGs.  It wasn’t until they started recording records and making some money that they got proper guitars.  But, it was the cigar box that was the foundation of the music.

As an amateur luthier (guitar maker) I decided that I had to build some CBGs.  Featured in this piece are three.  I determined that my guitars would each have a unique feature and also keep the tradition of using “found objects” for a part of the guitar.

The first was my “Devil’s Tail” guitar.  I designed the tuning board so as to be able to tune the guitar with my left hand without having to move it to the other side.  And, I laminated the guitar neck with two types of wood.  Laminating them in that way holds the two different grains in tension and thereby resists warping.  The box was a Padron, which is a favoured box by CBG makers.  The found objects were the nut and the bridge, which I made out of dominoes.

The second is my signature piece.  It is a tribute to what I believe is nature’s most beautiful creature.  It is called the “Ulysses” after the Australian Ulysses blue butterfly.  The soundboard and the sound holes are in the shape of a butterfly…and the base attachment for the strings uses a butterfly hinge.  The bridge is made with a brass skeleton key.  I was honoured to have Nigel McTrustry play it at one of his gigs in the west end.

The third is the guitar that I call “Repatriation” in honour of a 150-year-old headdress that my 92-year-old father repatriated to the Indian family from which it came.  My father, who grew up adjacent to a large reservation was given the headdress generations ago by the patriarch of the family believing he would preserve it, which he did.  Before my father died in December, he gave it back to family.  He said it was never his.

I elongated the image of a headdress to give it the feeling of forward motion, made sound holes in the shape of arrowheads and fashioned the tuning board in the shape of the feathered end of an arrow.  In the tuning board, I inserted an old Indian Head American nickel.

Each of the guitars are wired for sound using a piezo buzzer wired to an amp jack as a pick up to give the guitar the an authentic tinny sound.

I cannot bear to sell them.  So, I give them away.


Mark Salo

aka The Paladar Scribe

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