History of CB guitar
Cigars were packed in boxes, crates, and barrels as early as 1800, but the small sized boxes that we are familiar with today did not exist prior to around 1840. Until then, cigars were shipped in larger crates containing 100 or more per case. After 1840, cigar manufacturers started using smaller, more portable boxes with 20-50 cigars per box.
Trace evidence of cigar box instruments exist from 1840 to the 1860s. The earliest illustrated proof of a cigar box instrument known is an etching copyrighted in 1876 of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle. The etching was created by illustrator and artist Edwin Forbes who, under the banner of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, worked for the Union Army. The etching was included in Forbes work Life Stories of the Great Army. In the etching, the cigar box fiddle clearly shows the brand ‘Figaro’ on the cigar box.
In addition to the etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were published by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, in 1884 as part of ‘Christmas Eve With Uncle Enos.’ The plans, eventually retitled ‘How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo’ as part of Beard’s American Boy’s Handy Book in the 1890 release as supplementary material in the rear of the book. These plans omitted the story but still showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.
It would seem that the earliest cigar box instruments would be extremely crude and primitive; however, this is not always the case. According to Bill Jehle, curator of The National Cigar Box Guitar Museum, and author of One Man’s Trash: A History of the Cigar Box Guitar, has acquired two cigar box fiddles built in 1886 and 1889 that seem very playable and well built. The 1886 fiddle was made for an 8 year old boy and is certainly playable, but the 1889 fiddle has a well carved neck and slotted violin headstock. The latter instrument was made for serious playing.
The cigar box guitars and fiddles were also important in the rise of jug bands and blues. As most of these performers were black Americans living in poverty, many could not afford a “real” instrument. Using these, along with the washtub bass (similar to the cigar box guitar), jugs, washboards, and harmonica, black musicians performed blues during socializations.
The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a resurgence of homemade musical instruments. Times were hard in the American south and for entertainment sitting on the front porch singing away their blues was a popular pastime. Musical instruments were beyond the means of everybody, but an old cigar box, a piece of broom handle and a couple wires from the screen door and a guitar was born.
Cigar box guitars at Maker Faire 2011
A modern revival of these instruments (also known as the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution) has been gathering momentum with an increase in cigar box guitar builders and performers. A loose-knit tour of underground musicians tour the East Coast (US) each summer under the banner “Masters of the Cigar Box Guitar Tour.” These musicians include Doctor Oakroot, Johnny Lowebow, Tomi-O and many others. Also, there is a growing number of primitive luthiers adding cigar box guitars to their items for sale. Of the more noteworthy cigar box guitar makers is Shane Speal, the so-called “King of the Cigar Box Guitar.”
Modern revival is sometimes due to interest in jugband and the DIY culture, as a cigar box is relatively inexpensive when considering other factors, such as strings and construction time. Many modern cigar box guitar can thus be seen as a type of practice in lutherie, and implement numerous personal touches, such as the addition of pick up and resonator cones into it.
The modern revival of cigar box guitars is documented in the 2008 film, “Songs Inside The Box” which was shot primarily at an annual Huntsville, Alabama event called the Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza.
The Cigar Box Guitar Museum, a free-to-the-public display dedicated to cigar box guitars is located in Speal’s Tavern, a small blues club in New Alexandria, PA. It is curated by cigar box guitarist, Shane Speal and contains over 60 antique and modern cigar box guitars.