Something From Nothing: Cigar Box Instruments

If building homemade—particular cigar box—instruments served as a way of obtaining musical instruments even when one did not have the means to purchase them, the craft has become a hobby these days. What was once a necessity is now a pastime.

Take Dan Adams of Rayne, La. A lifelong country and bluegrass player on guitar and banjo, in the early 2000s Adams took it upon himself to begin making instruments the really old fashioned way—with trash-heap parts and leftover items forming the bulk of his materials. Adams crafted that first instrument, an upright bass, using a discarded 2×4 and an old washtub. In search of strings, he ventured for a spool of weed eater string to a local hardware store, where he undoubtedly became the first customer to ask an employee “Which one of these strings would work the best for the G-string on an upright bass?”

A few years after making the washtub bass, Adams began making cigar box fiddles and guitars.

“I’ve done a couple of cigar box guitars and then some cigar box fiddles . . . kind of a range of stringed instruments,” he said. “When you really get into it, they’re all kind of the same design, essentially—resonating chamber, a neck, strings.”

Despite the relatively simple design of the instruments, the endeavor has been a learning process.

“I’ve had several that have kind of imploded on me as I was building them, and I went ‘well that’s not how you do that,'” Adams recalls. “It is a lot of trial and error.”

The materials place limitations on the instruments as well.

“It’s never going to be as good, in terms of sound quality, as a fine violin,” Adams notes. “There’s a reason a violin is shaped the way it is and not a square box.” But those constraints are part of the challenge, and making a cigar box instrument sound good is its own payoff. “It’s definitely more impressive than anybody expects it to be,” Adams says.

The materials necessary to build cigar box instruments are less available than one might think. A hundred years ago, getting one’s hands on scrap lumber, old baling wire or other strings, and of course, cigar boxes, might have been as simple as going to the trash heap at the back end of one’s property. Nowadays, with modern sanitation and disposal methods, finding these so-called found materials can take a lot of determined looking.

That was the case when Adams first started making cigar box instruments. With fewer cigar-smokers today than in the past, the boxes were particularly difficult to locate.

“The first couple boxes were kind of hard to find,” he remembers. “But after I’d made a couple, people came out of the woodwork saying ‘Oh, I have a couple of these stashed away,’ and I actually have a backlog now, more than I have time to get to.”

The internet has vastly changed the way homemade instruments are created and how the craft is passed along from one person to another. Adams notes that today there exist “communities of people online that give tips and resources and encouragement” for builders who are just starting out or craftsmen trying to hone their skills. For those interested in actual, as opposed to virtual, communities, he adds, “there are some big festivals where people get together and play their guitars.”

It’s fun, to be sure, to repurpose discarded materials into something that makes music and to be a part of a community of such makers, but there’s more to it than that. “Connecting back with the history . . . to when there was a time it was more out of necessity” provides just as much pleasure to Adams and other builders of such instruments. “There’s something really satisfying about playing 150 year old folk songs on these handmade instruments.”

Adams recommends the website (“Home of the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution”) and William Jehle’s One Man’s Trash: A History of the Cigar Box Guitar as excellent resources for those interested in learning more about cigar box instruments and how to make them.
%d bloggers like this: