Cigar Box Guitar History
The history of the cigar box guitar is rooted in poverty and human ingenuity. The small cigar boxes that we are accustomed to today didn’t exist until the early 1840’s. Prior to that cigars were transported in large boxes, crates and barrels, but due to the continued exploration of the West, cigar manufacturers began making smaller and more portable cigar boxes that could hold 25-50 cigars; these could be taken by travellers and soldiers on horseback or stored easily on horse drawn carts.
The earliest illustration of a cigar box instrument dates back to 1876 depicting two Civil War soldiers sitting around a camp fire, one of them playing a cigar box fiddle, but the concept of cigar box instruments dates back to the 1840’s when African slaves would make and play instruments. They would collect broken or discarded broom handles and planks of wood to make the neck and use wire or twine for the strings. These early cigar box instruments were played at social and religious gatherings and were an integral part of the African cakewalk celebration. This event was common throughout the American south plantations and consisted of a cake being place in the centre of the floor; people would dance around the cake to the music and the best dance would win the cake.
As the practice of "making your own." instruments spread throughout the south, it was not only African’s who yearned for musical influence. Impoverished white citizens and soldiers returning from war also wanted to enjoy music and the cigar box guitar revolution began.
In more recent times Blues legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hound Dog Taylor and Blind Willie Johnston to rock legends such as Keith Richards, Billie Gibbons, Paul Mccartney and Jimi Hendrix, are just a few of the musicians who have wailed sweet notes on a cigar box guitar at some point in their career.
The tradition of Cigar box guitars has been around for over 100 years. A tradition of what can be done with some discarded parts, a few basic tools and some imagination.