Cigar Box Guitars are created from exactly what their name says and the earliest record of its existence is from the mid-1800s. Earlier variations of the instrument were in the form of violins, fiddles and banjos with only one or two strings; however, the more modern versions of today have at least three strings and as many as six.
To understand the role of the Cigar Box Guitar in our society as a whole, one must look at the climates in which it has thrived. When the first traces of this unique instrument began to show somewhere between 1840 and 1860; the country was in great debate and turmoil. Struggles with land settlements, a population still forging westward and a civil war brewing beneath its surface brought the need for homemade ways to entertain oneself. One of the earliest records of the Cigar Box Guitar came from an 1876 etching of two Civil War soldiers joined in song at an Army campsite; one playing a Cigar Box Fiddle.
A second resurgence occurred doing the depression era when poverty stricken, predominantly southern blacks had little to no cash to feed families; let alone buy instruments. Many would fashion the guitars and fiddles that played along with washboards, harmonicas, wash tub basses and jugs as jug and blues bands became the staples of music.
Cigar Box Guitars once again faded from prominence and had become more of a novelty than a necessity for musicians. Recently however, the instrument has begun resurfacing and in somewhat of a big way. The "Cigar Box Guitar Revolution" as it is known, has some prominent players such as ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ed King and Tom Waits being counted among those who use or have featured the "CBG" in their works.
Manufacturers, like "CBG" festivals and events, have sprung up all over the U.S. and are doing rather well with sales. One such manufacturer is local Jersey shore area and Brick Township, NJ musician John Bernyk; who together with his daughter Cassie and drummer Mark Vittoria, have formed the Cigar Box Stompers, a mainly original blues rock band. John and his band mates will be headlining The Jersey Shore Cigar Box Fest on March 30 at The Saint, located at 601 Main St. in Asbury Park, NJ. Featured on the bill will be multiple other Cigar Box Guitar bands, a Diddley Bow Demo and a CBG Open Mic. /Super Jam as well.
Bernyk, a guitarist, became interested with Cigar Box Guitars a little more than half a decade ago; sort of on a whim. "I got involved with them about six years ago," he stated. "I saw one, then I actually bought one on E-Bay; I loved it! Then after playing it and looking at it, I thought to myself, hey I can make these myself. I made one and have now made over 450 since."
The now primary owner and manufacturer of The Lazy B Cigar Box Guitar Company chuckled a bit when asked about the making of a "CBG." "Well," he said with a hearty laugh, "you first need a steady supply of cigar boxes. I get mine from friends, family and I've struck up a relationship with several area cigar stores; the wooden ones are the best of course but some of the good sturdy cardboard ones work well too. Once you pick out a good box, the decision is made as to whether it should be a three or a four string guitar. Then I use a piece of flat 1" x 2" wood, which I custom notch depending on the shape of the box, add a tail piece and add tuners, then cut a hole for the sound and that's just about it; it's done."
Relaying that a "simple design" is a three or four string fretless, much like the original 1840's model, Bernyk says that some which he's built for himself and others have gotten pretty detailed. "Some people want elaborate frets. The basic models have a straight element and straight wired pickups but some I've done have had tone and volume controls just like a regular electric guitar; it can get kind of crazy if they let it (laughs)."
Even though in existence for nearly 175 years; there is still a novelty about the instrument, which is not totally unexpected given its unusual appearance and style. Bernyk says that the reception he and most any "CBG" player gets is more one of curiosity than musical. "Yeah, you know what? That is a great question," he explained seeming somewhat puzzled as to explain it himself. "Most people's first reaction is, "Holy crap! What is that?" which is usually followed by, "Does it really play?" The problem is that they also think it's like a piece of art that you can hang on your wall; then the second wave of interest come along and that's a general interest to learn more about it. After they hear it, most are amazed by the sound and either want to buy one or make their own; either way, either one is just fine by us! If we can draw interest to the instrument and encourage people to take it up; we are very much ok with that."
A recent appearance at The Saint was just a prelude to the Fest on the 30th, which Bernyk promises is going to be a foot stomping, hand clapping yet educational experience. "Yeah it is going to be great! This is the place to be in our area if this instrument or jug type bands interest you. We've got Onestring Willie who will be playing his Diddley Bow, which is made from a piece of wood, broom wire. We have Killing Aunt Grace, April Mae & the June Bugs, then we are headlining. We've also got a Diddley Bow Demo and then a big open jam at the end. We are going to have vendors as well as Raritan Bay Guitar Repair on hand to accommodate those who may need any repairs. The doors open at 5 p.m. and the first portion begins at 5:15 p.m."
So there it is, a local musician taking part in resurgence of this time tested instrument. Someone once said that "All things run in cycles;" perhaps this cycle, combined with ever increasing technology will allow this hand crafted "novelty" to become more mainstream than ever before? Who knows? If John Bernyk and his fellow manufacturers have any say in the matter; I'd count on it happening.
To discover more about Lazy B Cigar Box Guitars, please go to http://lazybcigarguitars.com/home .