Guitars made the old-fashioned way

Tom Joyce Staff Reporter

November 10, 2013

Guitars made by companies such as Gibson, Fender or Martin can be nice to own — and have price tags to match. But there’s an alternative available for the cost of a $40 kit.

About 10 local residents learned that firsthand Saturday during an event Saturday at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History billed as a cigar box guitar “build and learn to play” workshop.

They forked out up to $85 ($60 for museum members) to participate in the workshop led by Mike Lowe, a local musician, historian and storyteller.

The activity hearkened back to earlier times, when people often found money hard to come by to obtain store-bought instruments — but still craved an outlet for their musical interests. So they used whatever materials were available — and before one could say Jimi Hendrix, the cigar box guitar tradition was born.

“Buddy Guy started this way — Chet Atkins started this way,” Lowe said of two legendary guitarists during a pause in the workshop Saturday afternoon as his pupils put the finishing touches on their own instruments he had taught them to assemble.

“They made guitars just like this,” he added of the legendary blues and country music artist, respectively, although it was a bit of an ordeal for them. “They got their strings from the screen door,” Lowe said.

Necessity dictated the materials choices in those days, with cigar boxes readily available to serve as the basis for an instrument along with items such as lighter fluid containers. Today, a revival of interest in the craft for nostalgic and other reasons has led to a cottage industry.

Kits are now readily available to allow one to make cigar box guitars. “There are plenty of companies who do this,” Lowe said of the suppliers for those interested in instrument making. “It is growing.”

For workshop participant Steve Jordan of Mount Airy, Saturday’s workshop was right up his alley.

“I’ve just always been fascinated with handmade instruments,” Jordan explained while tightening some screws on his new guitar. “It’s always fascinated me, the music end of it — making something you play.”

Jordan found the workshop, held in conjunction with a luthier exhibit highlighting the region’s string music traditions which started in May, to be worthwhile. “It’s been very good instruction,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Meanwhile, Claire Draughn of Mount Airy, one of the younger workshop participants, had a benevolent reason for attending with her dad Doug.

“I wanted to make a guitar for my brother for Christmas,” she said of an older sibling who lives out of town and stands to be the recipient of a truly unique gift.

Plus, the workshop offered the chance for just “doing something different” on a Saturday, she said.

Father and son Rick and James Caudill, 6, found the occasion a good opportunity to spend quality time together. “He’s really interested in music,” Rick said of his son.

The materials used to make the guitars didn’t include actual cigar boxes. “A wooden box, of course, works the best,” Lowe said of the more-substantial type employed.

Pieces of maple formed the necks of the instruments on which the strings were mounted with the help of a bridge, and most all the other parts were items one could find in a hardware store. This included hinges and something resembling screens used in a faucet for the resonators.

A coping saw and screwdriver were among the tools needed.

Lowe, 62, who began playing at age 6, said making music on a cigar box instrument differs from a normal guitar that relies on three basic chords and includes frets, or metal strips embedded along the instrument.

Instead a slide, a small cylindrical object, is used to play the type made Saturday, with the word slide referring to the motion of that object against the strings to create high-pitch sounds.

The price of Saturday’s workshop included the kits and the instruction by Lowe, who said he was planning to teach the participants how to play their guitars later that day — “probably some old blues stuff.”

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