Long before he picked up Lucille, B.B. King was coaxing bluesy sound from a one-string cigar box with a broomstick neck that his father made for him.
Some of the most famous blues musicians, the legends who created the genre, started out playing on homemade instruments. King. Muddy Waters. John Lee Hooker. Bo Diddley. Cigar box guitars are an important part of the history of music — from blues to rock ’n’ roll — and they’re experiencing a resurgence in popularity now.
“I still get people who ask me if I came up with it,” said Greg Musgrove, a Greensboro musician and cigar box guitar-maker who has organized the inaugural North Carolina Cigar Box Guitar Festival. “And then I get to talk with them about the history.”
Cigar box guitars date to the Civil War. They were “a poor man’s guitar,” as Musgrove describes them, built from things that didn’t cost much, like broomsticks and cigar boxes. Some had only one string.
“When people don’t have any money and they want to play music, they’re going to figure it out,” he said.
For the festival, which is scheduled to take place June 8 at the Grove Winery & Vineyards in Gibsonville, Musgrove has lined up a full slate of local, regional and national cigar box guitar musicians, who will be performing from noon to 10 p.m. The festival and most of the musical performances are free, but there is a $15 admission charge for the evening concert (from 6-10 p.m.) featuring headliners Michael “Blind-Dog” Gatewood, Cash O’Riley and Ben Prestage.
In addition to the musical performances, Musgrove has booked two dozen arts and crafts vendors for the festival, including nine luthiers who will be selling handmade cigar box guitars, ukuleles, banjos and other instruments. The festival will also include food trucks, North Carolina craft beer, Grove Winery wine and a bounce house for kids.
“I think this is going to be a cool event,” said Max Lloyd, who owns the winery. “The musicians, their styles are very different. It’s a really good way to see ... a whole bunch of music over a short period of time.”
If you’ve never heard a cigar box guitar played, you may think it’s more a novelty than an instrument for serious musicians. They certainly are eye-catching, made from real cigar boxes decorated with colorful graphics and stickers.
If you like the looks of them, wait until you hear what musicians can do with those boxes and the one, two, three or four strings attached.
“When you limit yourself to just four notes, you get more expressive,” said Chris Green of Lake Lure, who is one of the performers and vendors for the festival. “Less is more sometimes.”
Musician Skye Paige agrees.
“I think the thing that just attracted me to it was the simplicity of the instrument,” she said.
Paige, who also plays traditional guitar, banjo, lap steel guitar, ukulele and other stringed instruments, was onstage at another festival when someone asked when she was going to play her cigar box guitar. She had already performed several songs using it.
“It shows you how much people pay attention,” she said. “They don’t realize that it’s going to sound as good as it does. It’s been really great (for) growing as an artist having these instruments. These makers just get really creative with what they do with these spare parts just laying around.”
The makers’ creativity, in turn, inspires the musicians.
Green, who has been playing guitar for about 25 years, started making instruments three years ago. In addition to cigar box guitars, he handcrafts cookie tin banjos and traditional mandolins and banjos.
His set at the Cigar Box Guitar Festival will showcase a variety of these traditional instruments, as he covers songs from Jimi Hendrix, the Eurythmics and other artists that you might not expect to hear played on these instruments.
“I very much love vintage meets modern,” Green said. “But it’s still a good traditional feel.”
Dar Stellabotta, a one-woman indie rock band from southern Maryland, was first attracted to cigar box guitars because of the way they look.
She built her first one in 2107 from an Oliva cigar box with fancy gold clasps. Since then, she has made and sold 50 others, but has kept the original for herself.
“All I want to do is build cigar box guitars, build them better and better, and experiment with different pedals and effects,” she said. “It’s endless, the ideas you can think of with these instruments.”
Stellabotta uses a slide, a distortion pedal and a kick drum when performing. She credits cigar box guitars with helping her find her sound and setting her on the path of a serious musical career.
“It changed my whole life,” said Stellabotta, who released her first vinyl album, “Lo-Fi Rejection,” in March and just finished a tour in the Netherlands.
“When I built one and started playing it, it was like this deep, real deep sound,” she said. “I like real heavy rock, but with the slide included it is almost like Southern rock, but it’s like grungy. I come from a punk rock background, and I like Southern rock. It kind of fused two of my favorite genres of music.”
You can’t get that distinctive cigar box sound from another instrument.
“They have more of a bluesy sound than a regular guitar has. It produces its own sound that you can’t really get out of a store bought guitar,” said Jacob Dillander of Dillander Design in Augusta, Ga.
“They sound amazing to just be a box with just a neck attached to them.”