The Art of Turning Cigar Boxes into Guitars

The Art of Turning Cigar Boxes into Guitars

Anthony Walker, Cigar Box Guitarist (Image by Abigail Green, The Daily Gamecock)

Cigar boxes are not only great for storing your Cuban cigars collection but did you know; they make fantastic string instruments? You heard that right. All over the world, there is a small cult following growing, and their most favourite thing to do in their spare time is to create and play with cigar box guitars! Cigar Box cigars are similar to the traditional guitar but built with inexpensive materials, making them incredibly affordable. This whole art of creating cigar box guitars isn't entirely new. Actually, the craft itself has endured for centuries, dating back to the mid-1800s. Recently, the art of creating cigar box cigars has experienced a modern revival, with countless musicians trying their hand at not only playing the instrument but making it themselves. Read to find out more.

"AN INSTRUMENT MADE FROM INEXPENSIVE MATERIALS"

The name itself is pretty self-explanatory. But for the sake of clarifying, a cigar box guitar is simply a string instrument that uses a cigar box as a resonator. In comparison to a regular guitar, the sound it makes is completely unique. If we were to describe it, a cigar box guitar creates a sort of rustic and primitive quality of sound – similar to that of a banjo. So, how is it made? A cigar box cigar is made with very inexpensive materials that could be easily found inside a home. Some traditional materials include broomsticks, wire and, of course, a cigar box. In terms of selecting cigar boxes, it doesn't really matter which one you choose. We have seen vintage cardboard cigar boxes, as well as lavish cedar boxes by Partagas Cigars or Montecristo Cigars being made into these instruments. In the end, the decisions really come down to the individual creator. One musician's CBG may sound completely different from another musician's CBG. There are no rules on how to tune it, string it or play it; it all comes down the individual's own creativity and ingenuity. 

No matter how much a novelty a CBG may seem. It certainly holds an important position in guitar-playing heritage. Jimi Hendrix, Carl Perkins, Albert King – are some of the few musical legends that started their career with the cigar box guitar. It was said that seven-year-old Carl Perkins was gifted a guitar crafted from a cigar box, broomstick and two pieces of balling wire. Just like many other legendary guitarists, he came from a poor background from the South. He grew up hearing Southern gospel music sung by whites in church, and by black field workers when he started working in the cotton fields at age six. 

Vintage photograph of a man and his cigar box instrument.

"INGRAINED IN AMERICAN HISTORY"

CIGAR BOX ORIGINS - In the past cigars were, in fact, not packaged in boxes. Instead, they were delivered in tightly-packed bundles or large crates. The origin of cigar boxes, no matter how much we love them, actually stems from the oppressive regulation of the tobacco industry in the late 1800s. During the Civil War, President Lincoln of the United States needed to generate revenue to fund the war effort. Many luxuries were taxed, this included medicine, soap, photographs and, of course, tobacco. In order to ensure that every stick of cigar was taxed, the Government needed to regulate and file everything. The new law required all cigars to be packed and shipped in wooden boxes containing 25,50, 100, or 250 cigars. The cigar boxes also required the box a special area for the IRS to stamp them, proving that taxes had been paid. Today, it's certainly no different. Whether it's a box of Cohiba Behike 54's or Partagas Serie D No. 4's, it requires all issued stickers in order for them to get sold.

EARLIEST EVIDENCE – The earliest evidence of cigar box instruments was an etching of two civil war soldiers at a campsite with one man playing a cigar box fiddle. In the etching, you can see the name of the established cigar brand 'Figaro'. In addition to the etching, the co-founder of Boy Scouts of America – Daniel Carter Beard – created plans for a cigar box banjo. The plans were incorporated into the 'American Boy's Handy Book', which instructed young boys to create their very own cigar box instrument step-by-step.

THE EMERGENCE OF THE BLUES – It could be said that the cigar box guitar was also a precursor for the invention of the blues genre. During the 1930s, America suffered through the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialised world. After the stock market crashed, it caused steep declines in employment, investments and economic growth. As a result of this, many people turned to music for comfort, and musicians started to incorporate economic hardship in their lyrics and songs. The era saw a resurgence of homemade musical instruments, including the cigar box guitar. In particular, the CBG was a vehicle for black musicians who couldn't afford "real" instruments. They sang their sorrows away, in hopes of a better situation. Musical instruments are expensive, but with an old cigar box, broom handle and a couple of wires, a new type of instrument were born. 

"MODERN REVIVAL"

In recent years, there has been a cult movement of musicians taking an interest in cigar box guitars. This modern revival could be credited to the rise of DIY culture, with small companies providing do-it-yourself kits.  In fairness, constructing your very own CBG is relatively inexpensive and fairly easy to create. Each creator can add their very own touch to their CBG, whether it's adding their own customised tuners, coils, strap buttons and such. The end product is highly personal to the individual musician, making the CBG a highly-appealing hobby to take on. In terms of composing music, there is certainly a demand for more traditional, folk-sounding instruments. Particularly, blues musicians who want to achieve authentic 'Delta blues' tunes.

So, aficionados, if you ever have an empty cigar box. Don't even think about throwing it away, why not make a guitar with it instead? For more interesting articles about all-things Cuban cigars, read our Cigar Blog: