I got me a cigar box, I cut me a round hole in the middle of it, take me a little piece of plank, nailed it onto that cigar box, and I got me some screen wire and I made me a bridge back there and raised it up high enough that it would sound inside that little box, and got me a tune out of it. I kept my tune and I played from then on.
- Lightnin' Hopkins
When you think about it, a guitar is really just a box, a wooden stick and some strings. As with all resonating stringed instruments throughout history, the box, stick and strings are stuck together in order to produce musical sounds.
How they’ve been assembled, and the quantity and quality of the materials used, varies the result. Most old–world cultures produced some variation on this very basic theme.
In this age of million–dollar vintage violins and double–necked, pearl–inlayed mandolins, there’s something comforting about the crude simplicity of the cigar box guitar. Originating, give or take, in the 1840s, it’s a purely American instrument with roots that go all the way back to Africa’s one–stringed diddley bow or banjo–like akonting, both of which came to this country on slave ships.
Early bluesmen made their own cigar box guitars, essentially out of necessity: there was no money. With three cat–gut (or steel) strings tuned to a simple, open chord, the primitive instrument was used to ignite and propel the simple, plaintive Delta blues. Especially when played with a bottleneck slide.
In 2010 Tony Pizzo, director of Savannah’s Ships of the Sea Museum, held an akonting–making workshop and accompanying concert performance.
This weekend, he’s got a cigar box guitar–making event. The workshop sold out weeks ago, but Saturday’s concert – featuring three of Savannah’s top blues guitarists performing on the uncomplicated instruments – is free and open to everyone.
It’s all part, Pizzo explains, of the museum’s mission, which is to explain and explore Savannah’s great maritime history and its effects on local and American culture.
“Savannah is a multi–cultural city,” he says. “It’s a seaport town, and it’s always been open to influences from outside. And one way to get an insight into cultures is through their music.”
For many years, Pizzo worked for the Vermont Council on the Arts, where he had great success with “available material instrument making” workshops.
“Having seen the effect that making an instrument has on a person who hasn’t previously made one – the moment that something they’ve made begins to speak – it’s a very gratifying experience for both the maker and the person who facilitates it,” he explains.
The cigar box guitar, Pizzo adds, is “associated with America. It’s a street–level entry into the guitar.”
The Aug. 6 performance, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the museum garden, will feature Eric Culberson, “Georgia” Kyle Shiver and Roy Swindell, in the round, each playing tasty blues on their cigar box guitars. All three of the Savannah musicians were given the same kit–made instrument used in the Ships of the Sea workshop. Simple amplifying pickups were installed, too.
Pizzo: “I thought, ‘This’ll be really good.’ People can see musicians playing the instrument that they’re gonna make.
“If people know anything about cigar box guitars, or if they’ve heard of them, they probably think it’s a Mickey Mouse instrument, with rubber bands and Venetian blind slats. And they’re very much different from that.”
Culberson is Savannah’s premier electric blues guitarist, and he’s fascinated with his cigar box guitar.
“What’s cool about it is that it’s just so different,” he says. “It’s only got three strings, but I think the coolest thing is that it’s all handmade with just things laying around the house.”
The instrument has to be specially tuned, he adds. “The first and the last string are the same note, an octave apart, and the middle string is a harmony string. So that way your bass string is what key you’re in, and you work the top two to make melodies and harmonies with the key string.”
It’s essential that it be played with a bottleneck. “You have to,” Culberson points out, “because there’s no frets. It’s slide–only!
“The closest thing I’d ever played to anything like this would be a banjo, which I’m equally as lost at playing. But I can still come up with stuff if I doodle with it long enough.
“And I’m not a big slide player, although I love slide guitar. So now I’m learning how to play slide because of this cigar box concert.”
Pizzo says he chose the fretless cigar box guitar because of its simplicity. “Setting frets is not as difficult as I had led myself to believe while I was making more traditional stringed instruments like dulcimers and psalteries,” he explains. “But I just wanted to remove that bit of demystification from the process. Slide guitars are the obvious choice.”
As for Culberson, Shiver and Swindell, all hard–gigging Savannah players, “The thing that’s really struck me about all three of these guys was that they were just immediately enthusiastic,” Pizzo says.
“And very, very generous with their time, because it involved moving their schedules around.”
Rockin’ Rockin’ Cigar Box Guitar Concert
Where: Ships of the Sea Museum, 41 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
When: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6