Shane Speal, whose Snake Oil Band headlines the first New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival on Saturday, started out playing something with a little more firepower.
“In the ’80s, I was a bass player in metal bands. I grew up on thrash,” he said. “Then, like a lot of people, I discovered the blues in college through Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.” He followed that trail to electric blues guitarists like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and deeper still to discover the rawer, more rustic sounds of players such as Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James.
“I loved that gritty, mean sound like that Blind Willie Johnson slide guitar,” he said, “and I asked myself, who came before him?”
Speal’s trip down the blues trail eventually turned up a nearly forgotten American tradition of building stringed instruments with wooden cigar boxes as resonators — a solution for musicians or aspiring ones without the means to buy ready-made. New Orleans’ Little Freddie King, for one, who grew up in McComb, Mississippi, in the 1940s, has often recalled, in interviews, building his first instrument from a cigar-box and hairs from a horse’s tail.
They were common in other musical genres as well, Speal found, including the early 20th-century Yiddish theater, where Larry Fine — later of the Three Stooges — was a renowned virtuoso of the one-string cigar-box cello, and in Wisconsin logging camps, where homesick lumberjacks built guitars to play the Norwegian folk songs that reminded them of the old country. In late 19th century New Orleans, street ensembles called spasm bands played an antecedent to jazz on homemade instruments.
Speal, who now plays and builds cigar-box guitars for a living (and also runs a small museum, whose prize piece is a 102-year-old single-string instrument, out of a tavern in his native Pennsylvania) was hooked on the sound and the stories. “I’d found my voice,” he said.
Contemporary technology was key to linking up a community of handmade-instrument enthusiasts, which began to grow with purpose in the mid-1990s. Speal, who now writes a column for Guitar World magazine called “The D.I.Y. Musician,” started a series of sites and chat rooms dedicated to the hobby, connecting with fellow fans, answering questions and trading information. His current home base is cigarboxnation.com, a combination social network and online magazine that includes YouTube lessons on building and playing the instruments, articles on tech innovations, a guide to cigar-box guitar gatherings and festivals and links to pages for prominent musicians in the scene, and footage of celebrity fans; the current top video on its homepage features Johnny Depp playing a cigar-box dobro.
One section of Speal’s site is dedicated to a downloadable collection of instructions, from a video explaining how to amplify your kazoo to a scanned-in copy of a children’s story published in 1884 by Boy Scouts of America founder Daniel Carter Beard, which includes step-by-step plans for crafting a five-string fretless banjo out of a cigar box and a broomstick. It is, Speal believes, the first printed and publicly available cigar-box guitar how-to.
Now thriving, the world of the cigar-box guitar intrigues music fans who appreciate the particular twang of a handmade guitar as well as skilled woodworkers and other craftspeople drawn to the possibilities of such a project. The scene also fits neatly into what’s called the Maker Movement, an umbrella term used to describe the burgeoning 21st century interest in the artisanal and the handmade, from design and engineering to old-fashioned crafts and hobbies.
Speal has seen cigar-box aficionados go all-out with their work: 21-string, double- and triple-necked guitars and more. “People are buying copper wire and magnets and making their own pickups,” he said.
The documentary “Strung Together,” which screens Thursday evening as part of the festival, shows elaborate instruments made from license plates, clocks, silverware and hand-wrought lattices of iron, as well as simple, one-stringed diddly-bows that harken back to the instrument’s roots in necessity.
And as elaborate as the modern cigar-box guitars, made out of fascination, not need, can get, for many makers those humble —and populist — beginnings are a key to the craft’s lure. In “Strung Together,” the founder of cigar-box craft supplier C.B. Gitty, a sponsor of the festival, put it as such: “I fell in love,” he said, “with the idea that pretty much anybody could make music out of pretty much anything.”