Folk artists have been making instruments from found objects for years, but the cigar box guitar has undergone something of a renaissance lately. In Connecticut, three partners in Putnam are opening a store to sell their homemade instruments, and another cigar box guitar artisan also started up a retail outlet in Newington, which keeps him too busy to build new creations.
Newfound interest in homemade instruments is likely a reaction to hyper-technology and computerized music, said William J. Jehle, author of One Man's Trash: A History of the Cigar Box Guitar.
Documented cigar box guitars date to the 1840s, and the only rules governing the materials, construction, the number of strings or how they're supposed to be tuned is that "there are no rules," said Jehle. "Anything goes."
A top local maker, Mark Southwick, has created around 100 cigar box guitars outfitted with electric guitar necks, pickups, a bridge and tone controls that are easy to play and tune. He calls the line Smokin' Strings.
Southwick cut back on his production after he opened Just Guitars in Newington last year. He became a father for the first time at age 50 and now has three sons.
"It was time to settle down and provide for them in case I get sick, and when Daddy's Junky Music [a New England chain of stores with an outpost in New Britain] closed [in 2011], I figured that was my opportunity," said Southwick. "I owned 534 guitars so everyone who knows me said I should open up a music store, and I wanted to get out of West Hartford and raise my kids in Newington."
The former owner of a sports memorabilia store, he is versed in retail. He has an easygoing demeanor and there's no hard sell here. He plans to hire a helper, at which point Southwick can go back to building new cigar box guitars.
A blues fan, Southwick looks the part with long hair, braided beard and leather cowboy hat. He used to smoke cigars and cigarettes. Several years ago, he bid on a cigar box guitar on eBay, but lost, so he decided to build one himself. It took about 20 prototypes before he built one he could take pride in. His most expensive model sells for $350.
"The first one I built took 25 minutes to tune," he said, puffing away on an electronic cigarette. "I had all these guitar necks around and figured through trial and error that I had to reinforce the box with quarter-inch maple. If I were playing this in the other room, you'd have no idea this was a cigar box guitar."
He also likes to leave the box in its original condition. "Some people paint it or try to disguise it, but I think the boxes are beautiful," he said. "Now that they've caught on, I am getting a lot of requests to build them. I sold to a lot of cigar companies in Florida. They hang them in their offices or in their lobbies because they're great icebreakers."
The folks at String Tinkers make even higher-end cigar box guitars than Southwick, charging $850 for their most expensive model. These, too, include six strings, electronics and impeccable workmanship. Planning to open their store in July, the partners also make four-string ukuleles, three-string dulcitars and so-called "canjos," or banjos made from cookie tins.
Located in Putnam, a center for antiques that they call the Quiet Corner of Connecticut, String Tinkers consists of George Brin, who makes the instruments, Anthony Foronda, who sells and markets them and Don Spaeth, who provides the capital. Brin makes the necks himself with wood recovered from old floorboards and even old houses. Whenever possible, he uses antique parts for the bridges — the part of the instrument that raises the strings from the body, transfering the vibrations into the soundboard — including an old door handle.
"We want them to be creative and prized by collectors, but we also want people to play them," said Foronda.
The group plans to use wood salvaged from the house of Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, who played cigar box guitars and died in 1945, to create 10 special cigar box guitars.
Like Southwick, String Tinkers builds around the cigar box's aesthetic and creates holistic guitars with matching hues and unique headstock designs. The group has made guitars for Doyle Bramhall II, who tours with Eric Clapton and Bramhall's girlfriend, Renee Zellweger, along with country star Ricky Skaggs and Fiona Apple.
In addition to the handmade creations, the new store will also sell the works of local luthiers and pre-played vintage instruments, including several from Uganda. Brin will work behind a window visible from the street.
"Each of our instruments is different," said Foronda. "Come July, we will have a really interesting space to sell them, and even though it's hard work opening up a store and bringing this to the next level, we're having a lot of fun."