History of the cigar box guitar

I thought I’d break up my stream of guitar builds with a bit of background info. The following is taken from the Daddy Mojo website:-

Historically, the origins of most cigar box guitars performers are found in poverty… CBGs were made and played by Depression-era jug band members who specialized in making instruments out of anything. Follow in the footsteps of Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hound Dog Taylor, Big Bill Broonzy and many other old-time blues legends — it has been documented that all of these legendary old-time folks rocked on a cigar box guitar at one time in their career!

We’ve all heard stories about famous bluesmen or country singers that started their careers on a simple homemade cigar box guitar. With a list of artists including Jimi Hendrix, Roy Clark and Carl Perkins, the cigar box guitar has been the precursor to many great careers and countless inspiring stories. It is a wonder that nobody has documented its magnificenthistory history until now.

Cigars were extremely popular in the nineteenth century; many empty cigar boxes would be left around households. The 1800s were also a simpler time for Americans, when necessity was truly the mother of invention. Using a cigar box to create a guitar, fiddle, or banjo was an obvious choice for crafty souls.
The earliest proof of a cigar box instrument is an etching of two Civil War soldiers at a campsite — one is playing a cigar box fiddle. The fiddle appears to sport an advanced viola-length neck attached to a “Figaro” cigar box. The etching is dated 1876.

In addition to the Civil War etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were published in the 1870s by Boy Scouts founder Daniel Carter Beard in St. Nicholas Magazine. The plans, entitled “How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo” showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box. The plans were eventually published in Beard’s immensely popular American Boy’s Handy Book.

The cigar box guitar has such an awesome pedigree. Blind Willie Johnson made a one-string when he was five – he quickly learned to play melodies up-and-down that lonely string. Later, Blind Willie would record the monumental “Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)” on a standard guitar. The song is a instrumental classic that has droning chords lying in the background while a haunting melody is played up-and-down the high-E string — a technique he learned on his original one-string cigar box guitar!


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