001 Cigar Box Guitars

These two cool cats introduced me to the Cigar Box Guitar. With a variety of boxes and number of strings, these handmade instruments are pretty awesome and have such a range of sounds.

Paul Allen has a regular stall at the Sydney RocknRoll & Alternative Markets where you can come and hear him play his rockin’ blues and check out the guitars. Oliver Irving, who met Paul at his stall actually makes these quirky instruments, and as you can see in the video is a wealth of Cigar Box knowledge, too.



Video Adventures



[Car engine starts and revs…]

[Theme music]

Safari: Hi. I’m Safari Lee and this is Sidestreeters – a podcast about people, places and adventures that are a little bit different from the mainstream.

[End Intro]

Safari: Welcome to another episode of Sidestreeters. I’m catching up with two pretty cool cats – Paul Allen and Oliver Irving, who introduced me to cigar box guitars. These instruments have a really rich history and a fabulous sound. I bumped into these guys at a local rock’n’roll market and was really impressed by Paul’s ability to play these really unique instruments and the fact that Oliver makes them. And if you’d like to get your hands on a cigar box guitar, be sure to check out the links on the Sidestreeters’ website. Sidestreeters.com.

[Theme music fades]

[Cigar box guitar music playing over sounds of market stall with people talking in the background]

Oliver: Ahh, these are cigar box guitars, and there’s a history to them. It goes back to after the American Civil War. A lot of the, umm, slave labour guys wanted to play music and they improvised. And they started off getting fence posts, a bit of chicken wire… and the history says that the plantation owner who smoked cigars was throwing out his cigar boxes. So one of the guys got a cigar box, and he put a fence post on it and a bit of chicken wire and…

[Plays short riff on guitar]

Oliver: …and that’s how cigar box guitars started. And it’s a bluesy sound. So there were guys like Muddy Waters, BB King used these cigar box guitars in their bands back in the 60s. So there’s quite a… quite a history to it.

And then I think it went off… it sort of went off the scene. It disappeared. People could now, you could buy instruments. During those, after the Civil War you could buy stuff. But you remember the old skiffle bands? With a broomstick and a bit of string? It was improvisation like that.

And then I discovered it completely by accident. And I thought “Oh they look… they look really cool.” Just stick it on the wall. It’s like a painting. A bit of art – playable art. So I did a lot of research and then I started making… I made one. And then I made another one. And another one and another one and it’s just fun. It’s really cool. They all sound different and they look great and ahhh I’m in a new toy shop.

Safari: So were you a guitar player before? Is that how you knew how to string them?

Oliver: No. No, I knew nothing about it at all. Umm… I played a guitar badly in my teens. Really badly. And then I thought starting to make these I thought I’ll learn how to play a normal guitar. So I started having some guitar lessons. And umm I still play badly but I don’t care. I’m having fun doing it.

[Guitar riffs]

Paul: Sounds pretty cool.

[Strums the guitar strings]

Paul: It’s got a nice tone to it, that one.

Safari: So, I don’t even understand how they’d be tuned.

Paul: So they’re tuned… these two are the same string. So whatever the top string is it’s sort of irrelevant but the other strings the same so you can boogie.

[Plays octaves on guitar]

Safari: So you’re doing octave kind of?

Paul: yep.

Safari: And what is the next one on the fifth?

[Guitar playing each string. Continues playing while talking]

Paul: The fifth. Yeah. This particular guitar it’s got a really, really low action so it’s not great for slide because it’s so…

[Guitar slide examples of heavy sound]

Paul: It’s more of a…

[Playing notes on guitar rather than sliding]

Paul: Yeah It’s more got a slappy bass sorta feel.

[Plays guitar]

Paul: And we’ve got really heavy strings on it. But it’s just got a lovely sound.

Oliver: Yeah, it’s a good pick up.

Paul: Whereas we’ve got Oliver’s one here, that made this one. That’s more your traditional guitar sort of sound. And it’s better for slide because it’s got a heavier sort of…

[Plays heavy guitar chord]

Paul: And I’ll use a heavier slide because you get better resonance with the heavier slide. So this is a brass slide that’s tapered inside and out for different sized fingers.

[Plays guitar in slide style while tapping tambourine with his foot]


[Theme music]

Safari: Well I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Sidestreeters as much as I’ve enjoyed bringing it to you. Be sure to stop by the Sidestreeters website – Sidestreeters.com – to discover more people, places and adventures that are a little bit different from the mainstream.

[Car revs engine. Tyres squeal. Car drives away]