Cigar Box Guitars

Feb 11, 2013

A New Bern man is using cigar boxes to make instruments for playing the blues.

Since human existence, people have been making music using the materials they have lying around – like sticks, rocks, or animal hide.  One of the earliest instruments was a flutes carved from hallowed out bird bones and mammoth ivory. It was carbon dated to be 42,000 years old.  The tradition of using recycled items to create sounds still continues today.  David English, owner of Black Owl Guitars in New Bern is using old licenses plates, peanut can lids and old cigar boxes to build guitars.

“It has a real nasty sound, its almost a gritty, dirty sound.  But I think that gritty, dirty sound is very authentic for the times and traditions for the times that music comes out of, it’s very Americana.”

English has played the 6-string guitar for 14 years, learning other instruments along the way. Although he doesn’t use a paintbrush, he still considers himself an artist – from the original songs that he writes to the cigar box guitars that he hand makes.

“I write songs and I play music and I’m trying to introduce people to a type of music that existed 100 years ago. So I guess in that sense I’m kind of a historian as well.”

The very first cigar box instrument is documented in a 1860’s newspaper.  The picture shows two civil war soldiers sitting next to a tent and one of them is playing a cigar box fiddle. After the war, English says these handmade instruments started gaining in popularity.

“a lot of slaves would go to socializations, these are folks that couldn’t afford instruments.  It kind of comes out of old jug bands and things like that.  The cigar box guitar is born.  And thru the 20’s and 30’s, during the Great Depression, people couldn’t afford to buy instruments. Folks like B.B. King… his dad built him a cigar box guitar because he couldn’t afford one and everyone knows who B.B. King is.”

Jimi Hendrix, Carl Perkins, Ted Nugent, and Buddy Guy are just a few of the famous musicians that have played cigar box guitars. English says his interest in building and playing cigar box instruments started two years ago when surfing the web.

 “A guy was building this cigar box guitar but he just strung it up with nylon string didn’t make a lot of noise, it kind of intrigued me.  I said I wonder if anyone has ever tried that with real guitar strings.”

Another quick internet search and English found that his idea was already a reality.

“Tons of people building cigar box guitars, cookie tin banjos, steel lap guitars out of old wooden ironing boards, and playing with shot glasses… it opened up this whole new world and I said you know what? That’s where I want to be.  This combines two of my things I like most, music and building stuff.”

English builds each guitar by hand in his garage workshop in River Bend.  He uses mostly recycled materials- wood scraps from a local carpenter, old bottle caps, and recycled bolts.

“When I first started, I would go to the tobacco store, I don’t even know I guess you can go to a tobacco store and get a cigar box. So I went up there and they have empty cigar boxes for humidors so I just bought them for a couple bucks a piece. But as people found out I was building, and other people started wanting instruments, now I come home and there is a bag of them on my front door step.”

It’s with these cigar boxes that guitars and music is created.

Out in his garage workshop, English was building a diddly bow.

“You know, that’s the original handmade guitar. A lot of guys built those back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s they were stringing broom wire to a 2by 4 in the barn.  It’s just one string and you use a slide.”

The first step is carving a grove in the box for the neck to go through.  The neck for this diddlybow is a piece of wood from a farm in Vanceboro.

" This is what they used to hang tobacco with up in the barns and they’d strap it on here and it would hang it up in there to dry.”

English used a combination of power tools – and hand tools to construct the diddlybow.  Instead of a wooden sound board like the typical 6-string acoustic guitar, the cigar box guitars employ a resonator to help create that unique bluesy sound. The resonator on this particular diddlybow is an old paint can lid. 

On some of the instruments English makes, he installs pickups – that capture the mechanical vibration of the strings and turn them into an electrical signal that can be put through an amplifier.

Once the electronics are installed inside the cigar box, the instrument will be ready for staining.  For this process, English uses mud from the Trent River.

“I take Mason jars and scoop the black mud that everyone knows stains everything so I let it sit however long, however dark I want it to be and let it sit in mud and wipe it down. Those softer parts of the wood where the grain is especially in some of the Maples really pick up that dark look and you can see some of the grain of the wood very nice.  I think it gives it a vintage look.”

And instead of a polyurethane finish, English uses a natural protectant -beeswax collected from his friend’s beehives in Pamlico County. 

Whether it’s a cigar box guitar or a diddlybow, English says each instrument is unique in the way it sounds and especially in the way it looks.  Take the Carolina Cruiser for example…

CRUISER “ The Carolina Cruiser… We have a Don Thomas cigar box with a license plate for the resonator, hardware bolts for your nut and your bridge and I thought it was only appropriate for the volume knob is a Pepsi cap, here we are in NC. You got to have the Pepsi cap on there.”

To see a picture of David English and the Carolina Cruiser cigar box guitar, you can visit our website