The Art of Music: Cigar Box Guitars

Original story West Hawaii Today:

If you’ve never heard of a cigar box guitar, you’re not alone.

This popular depression-era instrument utilizes an empty cigar box to create musical sounds and was originally connected to the end of a broomstick or wooden slat. It wasn’t uncommon to find these homemade instruments in the Deep South, where families would sit on the front porch and pluck out some blues tunes. This primitive ancestor of the modern-day guitar is making a comeback and will be on display at Kona Oceanfront Gallery in Kailua-Kona.

Local artist Michael Zack, who was recently awarded best new artist at the gallery’s “Best of the West” show, will be on hand to discuss the unique instruments and how they garner their unique sounds.

“I got interested in vintage instruments a couple of years ago and ended up purchasing a cigar box guitar from a gentleman in Virginia,” said Zack. “The cigar box guitar has been around since the 1860s. When cigars were no longer packed into crates, and started being packed into smaller boxes, people started taking the cigar boxes, broom handles, and bailing wire to make cigar box guitars.”

Cigar box guitars became less popular when instruments became more affordable, then regained popularity during the Great Depression when people could no longer afford traditional instruments. They became so popular even musical greats like Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix played cigar box guitars.

Zack creates his instruments primarily from recycled products from around the islands. He finds the wood through various sources, such as torn down barns and cabinet shops.

 “The guitars can be very simple or they can be very intricate and complicated,” he said. “I have been making them primarily as art and I look for interesting wood combinations, along with interesting boxes to go along with them. I’ll often use mango or koa woods, and I have also used ohia, rosewood, and a variety of different woods that are highly polished and finely done.”

Zack’s instruments are all playable and opened tuned. Some have amplification and can be plugged into an amplifier.

“I am fascinated with these instruments — maybe obsessed is a better word,” said Zack. “There is an inventiveness and creativity in some of the makers, and I hope I can include myself as part of that group. I want people to know there’s an alternative to traditional guitars and they’re very easy to play, easy to learn and a lot of fun. I want to share that infectious enthusiasm.”