Shane Speal at Deep Blues Fest – Cleveland. Photo by Mary Anne Mclaurin
CIGAR BOX GUITARS
The Cigar Box Guitar Renaissance: A Conversation with Shane Speal
By Ted Drozdowski
Cigar box guitars, like diddley bows, are a throwback to an era when aspiring and impoverished blues players had to make due. And what they often made was due to the availability of bailing wire, cigar boxes, pie plates, broom sticks, wash tubs and other materials that could be fashioned not only into guitars, but basses, banjos and more.
Today there’s a homemade instrument revival underway, and the cigar box guitar is its most popular manifestation. They’ve been spotted in the hands of artists as diverse as Robert Randolph, Nashville’s own Keb’ Mo’ and Mississippi hill country stylists the Ten Foot Polecats. Tennessee has two important homemade instrument makers building cigar box instruments for themselves and others: Nashville’s own Little Johnny Kantread (findable on Facebook) and Memphis’ Johnny Lowbow (www.myspace.com/johnnylowebow). But the man who’s known as “the King of the Cigar Box Guitar” is Pennsylvania native Shane Speal, an estimable bluesman whose music evokes both deep roots and compelling modernity. (www.shanespeal.com) Speal has turned his father Dan’s blues bar Speal’s Tavern into the first cigar box guitar museum, located outside Pittsburgh, in New Alexandria. He also recently contributed to homemade instrument maker Mike Orr’s new book Handmade Music Factory: The Ultimate Guide to Making Foot-Stomping’-Good Instruments, which details the methods for making guitars, hubcap banjos and even basic amplifiers in the old-school scratch built manner.
I recently spoke with Speal about the cigar box guitar revival and his connection to making music on these self-fashioned blues machines.
Q: What lured you into the realm of playing and making cigar box guitars, and to become the acknowledged forerunner of the revival?
A: When I discovered the blues in the ’80s, the entire world stopped and the only way I can describe the change is it was the musical equivalent to when I became a Born Again Christian at a revival type sermon a couple years earlier. There was a definite line in the sand; a “B.C.” and an “A.D.” Before the blues and after the blues… Within a year I was borrowing CDs, swapping cassettes and pulling old Smithsonian records out of the college library and engrossing myself in the deepest stuff I could find. At first, it was Muddy Waters and Hound Dog Taylor. Then I kept going back and back further to fi nd the grittier, deeper roots. Each player became a new hero to me, no matter how common or obscure. Once I hit the Delta guys, my mind was blown. To hear the out-of-tune guitar of Cryin’ Sam Collins, the razor blade voice of Blind Willie Johnson and the Southern magnificence of Mississippi John Hurt was all like new epiphanies to me. I needed to get to that deepest blues sound. I was playing a $7 Stella I found at a thrift store at the time. My slide was an old socket. But try as I might, I just couldn’t grasp the sound or the style. It eluded me.
Around the same time, a buddy let me borrow his dad’s Guitar Player magazines from the ’70s. I found an interview with Carl Perkins in which he described his very first guitar: a two-string cigar box guitar played with a broken bottleneck. I built my first cigar box guitar three weeks later. That was July 3, 1993. As soon as I finished it, I tuned it up to an open G and belted out Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag,” a song I struggled with on regular guitar. I felt like Yngwie Malmsteen as I shredded up and down the neck. Things came to me on that axe easier than anything I ever played. In addition to finding that deep sound, I also found my voice, my tone, my musical identity. I built a couple more in the next couple years, eventually coming up with a simple, but effective design that uses a 1x2x3 stick of poplar from Home Depot. I eventually published those plans for free on a Geocities website in 2003. There was literally nothing about cigar box guitars on the Internet back then. The website was the seeds of the modern cigar box guitar movement. That design seems to have become the foundation for countless instruments built by people all around the world.
Q: What should a player getting a first cigar box guitar look for — the qualities of a good instrument?
A: I think everyone’s first cigar box guitar should be one they built themselves. Yes, there are builders all over the world and some making mighty fi ne axes. However, there’s nothing…NOTHING… that compares to sitting in your living room with a crude instrument you cut, fitted and strung up yourself. Fine acoustic guitars be damned: the goal of building a cigar box guitar isn’t to sound good, it’s to sound deep. There are free plans all over the Internet. I also co-authored a book that was just released, Handmade Music Factory, that has plans as well. The resources are there. You just gotta have the desire to go deep.
Q: I think you’re a terrific player. What other cigar box players would you recommend for anybody who wants to get an earful?
A: I’m a guy who’s trying to eke out a professional music career by being a “cigar box player.” To talk about it in those terms seems to put the idea in a category of gimmick acts. For me, it’s not a gimmick; it’s my instrument, just like a banjo is Bela Fleck’s or a Turkish saz is Sahba Motellibi’s. As for my favorite acts who play cigar box, nobody can beat a Ben Prestage concert. That guy is inhuman. I really think he’s a robot created by NASA to infiltrate the blues scene. There’s also a songwriter from near Philly (across the bridge into New Jersey), Gerry Thompson, who has written some of the meanest, diabolical murder ballads and killin’ songs I’ve ever heard. Pat MacDonald’s duo, Purgatory Hill, is also a band I can’t get enough of. I guess the real heroes of the cigar box world are similar to the old heroes of the Delta blues era. It’s common folk who show up at coffee shops and open mics with the balls to bring these crude instruments; guys who are looking to go just a bit deeper.
Ted Drozdowski’s articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar World and many other music publications. He’s the leader (and insanely incredible slide guitarist) of the Nashville blues duo, The Scissormen.