Dar Stellabotta plays what she calls “a hobo instrument.”
It’s something she crafted herself — an Oliva Connecticut Reserve cigar box, with holes drilled into it and a neck attached.
“It’s a stick in a box,” she says. “And that’s what drew me to cigar box guitars.”
This one has three strings, an eyebolt as a bridge, and fret lines that appear to be drawn on. She keeps it in a bag made from an old pair of blue jeans.
“Sometimes you’re intimidated to play a guitar that’s worth thousands of dollars,” she says. “You don’t want to play it too much because you don’t want to mess it up. But with this, you’re not afraid to play it, to beat it up, to chuck it at the baggage claim.”
Stellabotta, who hails from Maryland, was among the artists who performed at the inaugural North Carolina Cigar Box Guitar Festival June 8 at Grove Winery in Gibsonville. Blues artist Ben Prestage from Memphis headlined.
The event was organized by Greensboro guitar maker Greg Musgrove, who elaborates on the significance of the unique instrument.
“Cigar box guitars have been around a long time,” he says. “But sometime in the ’90s, people were looking for another avenue to play. A lot of blues musicians, of course, started picking it up. Others were doing indie music. I’ve even seen people do jazz on cigar box guitars.”
The instrument dates to around the 1840s, according to CigarBoxGuitars.com, a resource for guitar crafters, when manufacturers began selling cigars in small wooden boxes.
“A lot of people, especially after the Civil War, didn’t have much money,” Musgrove says. “So they would take any kind of box they could find, put a broom handle through it, take a piece of wire off a screen, and sit and play. Mountain banjos were built the same way.”
A versatile instrument
Many cigar box guitars aren’t even made from actual cigar boxes. At the festival, vendors and musicians showed off instruments made from lunch pails, first aid boxes, and washboards. Musgrove himself has made a guitar from a plastic “Star Wars” Millennium Falcon model.
On stage, Greensboro bluesman Michael “Blind-Dog” Gatewood played several guitars, including one made from a 283 Chevy valve cover.
Augusta, Ga. guitar maker Jacob Dillander was selling a guitar that had a dog bowl as a resonator. He had another with a piece of floorboard as the neck, and a cut domino as a nut.
“There’s a saying that there’s no rules for a cigar box guitar,” he says. “There are certain guidelines, but you can use a lot of creativity.”
Anthony Walker, who had a booth nearby, started building cigar box guitars in 2015 after he had back surgery and views the craft as “therapy.” Resonant materials, he says, are key to making a good instrument.
“What you need is a solid wood box,” Walker says. “Cardboard and pressboard don’t give you quite the sound you need. But each box has its own little voice. They’re like your children. You know them, and each one is just a little bit different. It comes from the density of the wood, even depending on what side of the tree the wood came from.”
Singer-songwriter Skye Paige, who has long played slide guitar, has been playing the cigar box guitar for about two years. She says the instrument, which typically has only three strings as opposed to the standard six, does require a bit of retraining. But she likes that it brings music “back to its primal roots.”
“It goes back to the days of kids hanging out, finding whatever they can to make instruments out of,” she says. “That’s what’s really cool about it. I’ve seen people take gas cans, Chinese checker boards, shovels, and turn them into guitars. It’s about picking something up and trying to make a sound with it to entertain people.”