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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cigar Box Guitar

This week we're looking at a final project for my Book Arts class from late 2012. Book Arts is a highly recommended class where we learned to do such things as: make various book bindings, book covers and paper, origami, and design/build decorative boxes. Each student was required to choose a theme for the semester and all of our projects were to be based upon our theme. My theme was Music: from the Player and Listener Point-of-View. When it came time for the final project, we were strongly encouraged to be "ambitious". I chose to make a Cigar Box Guitar (CBG) because I thought it would be a good way to demonstrate and use a number of the skills we had learned in class.

I first became aware of Cigar Box Guitars from Guitarz blog a few years ago. CBGs occupy the smallest niche in American music history. Starting about 150 years ago, people with a desire to play music but lacking the funds to buy a professionally made guitar would make their own instruments. Found objects were the primary source of building materials. Scrap wood, wire, metal, and cigar boxes were assembled into playable instruments. The idea was to have a primitive but functional guitar to practice with until the day came when a "real" guitar could be bought. Many famous musicians, particularly Blues players in the Mississippi Delta region, began their careers by playing CBGs. Since the early 1990's there has been a renewed interest in the CBG. But the difference this time around is that the CBG is no longer built as a means to an end, but as an end unto itself. Today's builders use modern power tools, techniques, and materials. There is an entire sub-culture of do-it-yourself amateur musicians who are behind the CBG "Revolution".

I purchased a $50 CBG starter kit on eBay from Sam Kindly Guitars. The kit had a pre-shaped neck, fingerboard, tuning keys, bridge, and piezzo pick-up. It also came with a DVD that gave extremely valuable building tips. I'm not a guy with a lot of tools or skills when it comes to building things but my father taught me some basics when I was a wee lad. So, I was going out of my comfort zone on this one but that was all part of the fun. I sanded, stained, and glued the neck together, drilled some holes, installed the tuning keys, the nut, and assembled the bridge. So then I had a completed neck with all the necessary hardware in place. After that it was a matter of building the box (body) around the neck. I was not allowed to re-purpose a box of any kind, and I had to build my own from scratch.

Box building is not as easy as it may sound, it is indeed an art and a science. Book board (or Davies board) was used to construct the box's back, sides and top. I used double wall construction for everything because I wanted the box to be very stable and solid in order to hold up under the tension from the strings. No template was used for the box design itself, and I just spent some time examining a small cigar box to see how all the various parts fit together. Then the proportions were enlarged to a size that I thought would work the best, and hopefully create a good sound in the end. After the box was built it was time to apply the graphics. Instead of copying an existing cigar company logo or graphics, I had my own concept in mind. I created a fictitious company called "From Trash to Treasure". My pretend company does not produce cigars but instead is a custom cigar box maker that uses exclusively, re-claimed, and re-purposed bamboo and other wood products. My little "green" company has it's own logo, mission statement, and back story. The graphics were output by a sign shop onto an adhesive backed vinyl material that is a standard in most sign making today. Basically, all the graphics were in the form of decals that were then applied by hand onto the box.

Normally, when we work on any school project we go through a critique process. Every time the class meets we are required to bring in what we have, show our progress, and get constructive criticism from classmates and the professor. For this Book Arts final project, things were a little different. We only had to show up once for a critique about ten days before our due date. All I had to show the class at that time was the completed neck and a sample of the materials I expected to use, plus some sketches of the finished guitar. The only questions my classmates had for me was; "Are you sure you can do this?". "Are you in over your head?"  "Will you complete it on time?'. "Will it be playable?"  (Oh ye of little faith!)  Personally I have never been so enthused, excited, and maybe a little obsessed with an art school project before. I had never spent so much time researching, planning, and engineering. This CBG project was very personal to me for some reason. I had really caught the CBG fever!

Your probably asking how this guitar qualifies as a "book"? Well, from the very start of it all I had in mind to included a "book element" into the guitar itself. What I designed was an accordion folded page that pulls out of a semi-secret panel on one side of the guitar. The tricky part was how to build the inner structure to anchor the page in place, but also allow it to feed out and retract properly when needed. This internal structure had to be solid and I could not have anything rattling around loose as I intended this to be a fully functioning acoustic-electric instrument. Printed on that page is the mission statement of my cigar box making company, and a short overview of CBG history in America. I know it sounds like a bit of a stretch but my professor said that it was enough of a "book element" to meet the project criteria. Believe me, the long history of book art design is filled with all kinds of wild, wacky, clever, amusing, and beautiful creations that really push the definition of what is a book. Its pretty interesting stuff and some of these books are truly works of art unto themselves. I encourage you to Google the subject and check it out.

When my CBG was completed, it turned out exactly as I had planned and anticipated. For once I had a final project with no major set-backs.  This was a very pleasurable adventure for me. My guitar is a 3- string fretless and is set up to be played with a glass slide. Those are pretty typical features found on many CBGs. But the cool thing about CBGs is that they are built by individuals and that there is a huge variety of different looks, sounds and configurations.

On the last day of class everyone brought in their various book designs for the final critique. These critiques are always great fun to participate in, because everyone is showing off their absolute best work, and we get to hear all about how they made it happen. My professor had designated me go last. I explained the entire concept and then played the main riffs from Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie".  After a round of applause, I then surprised my audience by whipping out a tiny battery powered guitar amp I had previously stowed away under the table. I quickly plugged in the guitar and played the same riffs again, but this time with some volume, loads of distortion, and reverb! My performance went pretty well considering that I'm a bass player and only had a few hours to practice playing slide guitar, which I knew nothing about at that time.

Last week I was invited to display my guitar in the University of Houston School of Art Annual Student Exhibition at the Blaffer Art Museum. The show will run for two weeks. My guitar will help represent the Book Arts and Printing Department. There may be an opportunity for me to play live at the museum for another audience.

I also heard last week that for the very first time there is Design Principles class which is having it's students build CBGs for their final projects. Hmmmm...I wonder where they got that idea from? It has been said that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". I agree, and we'll leave it at that.

I'm working on an album of more CBG photos for my Facebook page. If you're at all intrigued by CBGs then I recommend Songs Inside the Box a fun and inspirational documentary from a PBS station in Alabama.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic! I've wanted to build a CBG for many years now, but never quite gotten around to it (other than collecting a few parts). I have a few cigar boxes but I always thought they looked too small, so I like your approach of building the box itself!