Grilling and BBQ go hand-in-hand with music, particularly blues and bluegrass. Cigar box guitars (CBGs) are something truly American, with an interesting past, historically speaking. Back in 1864 the federal government established a law that all domestically produced cigars needed to be put into boxes or bundles so they could be counted and assessed the appropriate tax. But cigar makers rebelled by creating oddly shaped containers that held inconsistent quantities. Thus a new law was created a year later that required every domestic cigar be placed into boxes of 25, 50, 100, 250 and 500. In fact, cigars became the first U.S. product required to have consistent packaging and labeling.
Around that time was a bit of a conflict occurring in this country: the Civil War. Men were away from their families, losing friends after each battle, so they turned to music. Money was tight, men were in pastures, woods and fields with no real access to stores. So they built their own instruments out of whatever they could get their hands on. Thus the cigar box instruments (fiddles and guitars) became something easy to build and use. Primitive in construction, they served a purpose. The earliest known image of a cigar box instrument is seen in an 1865 etching by Edwin Forbes of a Union Army soldier holding a Figora cigar box fiddle at an encampment with the notation “At the Siege of Charleston.”
Fast forward about 150 years and cigar box guitars have had a resurgence in popularity. Partly from a DIY mentality in this country, partly pure economics and definitely because of the way they sound. Mainstream media was all over Paul McCartney when he played one at the 121212 show with Nirvana (Dec. 12, 2012) and then subsequently played the Tonight Show and went on tour with it.
A guy named John Fanning was inspired after a 2006 trip to Memphis in May for the music festival where he saw and heard Richard Johnston playing in the blues tent. It was a raw, gritty and emotional sound coming out of this electrified 2-string CBG, otherwise known as a Diddley Bow. As a man with a background in construction and woodworking, John returned home and knew he had to make one. Years later he has improved upon that first rudimentary guitar and a business was born: Bull Run Cigar Box Guitars. He named it after the Civil War battle fields (Battle of Bull Run, in Manassas, Virginia) that are in close proximity to his home and as a nod to those early instruments built during the war. In fact, he often embeds a Civil War musket ball or bullet into the head stock of the instruments.
The main goal for each one of John’s builds is that they are meant to be played; they are solid instruments. He hand builds every neck (often layering a few types of hardwoods) and reinforces boxes to withstand string tension, also utilizing a neck-through design for stability. He uses professional pickups, tuners and truss rods. He has made an electric guitar out of a pre-World War II bedpan—which has an amazing sound whether plugged in or not—as well as an upright bass from a vintage Haig & Haig Scotch box. He also builds custom cases to fit his CBGs, using dovetail joinery and upholstering the inside with vintage-inspired fabrics.
CBGs have stood the test of time, and if you get a chance to see and hear someone play one, do it.
Full disclosure: John Fanning is my husband. But a lot of people have been so intrigued by what he’s been building that I thought I’d write a piece on his guitars. I respect and admire the quality of work he does and the time he puts into each build. And they sound cool.
Bull Run Cigar Box Guitars