PRNDI Award for Best Radio Arts Feature-- Alabama Public Radio "Cigar Box Guitars"

Jan 31, 2019

Summer is basically here, and that means it’s music festival season. In Alabama, Hangout Music Festival on the Gulf Coast took place earlier this month, and Sloss Fest in Birmingham is coming up in July. APR’s Alex AuBuchon reports on one festival this weekend that might not be on your radar. It shines a spotlight on an unusual and historic instrument.

If you head to Lowe Mill in Huntsville this weekend, you’ll get to hear a wide variety of sounds. From the blues, to country, to rock, to something that… defies description. But the one thing all this music has in common is the instrument it's played on.

“So when the cigar box came around and was invented in about 1840, people just started using that in addition to everything else."

That’s William Jehle. When it comes to cigar box guitars, he literally wrote the book.

“So the cigar box guitar, or violin, or banjo – whatever instrument was popular at the time, really just kind of grew out of that.”

Cigar box guitars are primitive, usually homemade instruments with a few strings connected to a broomstick or wooden slab and a cigar box to amplify the sound.

Jehle is a historian from Hartselle, Alabama. His specialty is homemade instruments like cigar box guitars, which have seen a massive resurgence in popularity recently.

Modern versions look more like scaled-down rectangular guitars, with three or four strings and usually electronics for amplification.

Why have cigar box guitars become so popular?

“I can teach anybody, just about anybody...”

Pat Nickel is a co-owner of the Cigar Box Guitar Store inside Lowe Mill.

“Anybody that can count to four and knows their ABCs up to G, I can teach them how to play in a minute.”

“I actually came into this store three years ago, bought a kit, built it, fell in love with it, started taking lessons, and now I’m actually running the store. I’m the store manager.”

That’s Scott Griepentrog. He thinks another reason behind the interest in these instruments is a growing interest in maker and DIY culture.

“It’s people who have decided they’re fed up with having to buy everything and then re-buy it because it breaks down. They want to know how to build it. They want to know how to fix it. They want to actually have some ownership in that process.”

That’s sort of what got David Helmick interested in cigar box guitars.

“My wife bought me one about eleven years ago off the internet, and I’ve been around guitars since I was about 7 or 8 years old, and I just looked at it and thought ‘I can make something better than that’.”

Now Helmick is renowned as a builder. He’s based in Woodstock, Georgia, but he says his guitars are all over.

“I’ve sold to everybody from doctors and lawyers to Indian chiefs… Troy Sanders from Mastodon has one of mine. I don’t know if he plays it or not, but he has one of mine. Supposedly Kenny Loggins has one of mine, and Keith Urban has one of mine too.”

Rob Wrobel of Destin, Florida got hooked because of how simple these instruments are to play.

“Well, I used to play guitar a lot when I was younger, and then I broke my neck and became partially paralyzed, and I pretty much lost all the feeling in my hand, so it was really hard for me to play and I quit for, like, 15 years. And then one day I ran into a guy with a cigar box guitar and it only had three strings, and I could play it with one finger.”

Then Wrobel started building, and he never looked back.

“I live and breathe this now. This is my life. I get up in the morning, I build guitars 12 hours a day, and the rest of my time, I spend out reclaiming wood. I never buy any wood from a store. Every piece of wood I use has to be at least 40 years old.”

His guitars are truly works of art. I was there as he handed over a custom order for Nashville-based musician Travis Bowlin.

“And I used teak that came from an old sailing ship, the teak here is probably about 80 years old, the maple is about 60 to 80 years old, I mean, I’ve got Brazilian rosewood, teak, mahogany, walnut… there’s so many different woods on here.”

So whether you’re interested in the art, or learning to play; making one of these instruments yourself or just taking in the array of musical possibilities, you won’t want to miss out. Microwave Dave and Hymn 4 Her will play a free concert Friday night at 6, then the 14th annual Cigar Box Guitar Festival is Saturday from 10 am to 9 pm. It all takes place at Lowe Mill in Huntsville.