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From cigars to guitars: Craftsmen fashion instruments from boxes

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Cigar box guitars are nothing new to Todd Roth, an area blues musician.

“They’ve been around as long as a kid could get a box and put a string on it,” he said. As a child, he made one with one of his grandfather’s cigar boxes and some yarn, he recalled.

But a year ago, he saw another artist using one during a roots blues performance, and it was like nothing he had seen before. The handmade instrument, with its rough style and primitive sound, was being used with an amplifier.

“The raw sound that came out— it was gnarly, almost nasty,” Roth said. “You look at it and think it shouldn’t sound that way.”

He had to have one.

He started collecting parts and months later, Gilbert and Co. Cigar Box Guitars was born.

“Gilbert” is Roth’s friend Roy Gilbert, who has experience making traditional guitars and banjos. He made the first Gilbert and Co. cigar box guitar just to see if it was possible after Roth told him his plans.

“I said you can’t do it,” Gilbert recalled. The tension of the strings would put more pressure on the box than it could withstand, he argued.

The proof he was wrong is lined up along his living room. He and Roth have made more than 30 guitars since last fall.

It took some time, and trial and error to make a guitar that was playable, but once they got it right, they started making them one behind the other and haven’t stopped since.

They have also used items such as silverware chests and cookie tins for the bodies of their instruments, and Gilbert has started making amplifiers from unusual items, as well. They have also expanded their inventory to include basses and double-neck guitars.

“If it hadn’t been for Pabst Blue Ribbon, I don’t think we would have ever gotten this project off the ground,” Roth said. “We’d had a few” on the night Gilbert decided to build the first guitar.

There are no rules when it comes to turning cigar boxes into functional art — which is how Gilbert and Roth describe their creations.

“You do what you have to do,” said Gilbert, who recently scaled back his hours working at Bi-Lo in Litchfield to devote more time to Gilbert and Co.

The building process starts with adding bracing inside the boxes to make them able to support the alterations that will be made.

Though Gilbert made the first guitar, he and Roth share the work, completing some as solo projects and teaming up on others. They work out of a shop at Gilbert’s house, where several instruments in various stages of completion sit on shelves and tables, and parts that will be used in future projects are scattered everywhere.

The men almost exclusively use recycled parts, starting with the cigar boxes, which they get from cigar stores, antique shops and yard sales.

Cigar boxes are also commonly used to make purses, so Gilbert and Roth said they have to be fast to snap up the materials they need before the competition does.

The boxes are generally wooden with metal latches and company emblems engraved or painted on the top. Some are simple and elegant, while others are showy and intricately detailed.

One of Gilbert’s prizes is a box made of pressboard that advertises that it once held 4-cent cigars. He isn’t sure what year it’s from, but knows it has to be pretty old based on the cost of the cigars.

“You can spend upward of $10 to $12 apiece on a cigar now,” he said. “You’ve got to be a real aficionado to sit down to a $12 cigar. That’s why some of the boxes are so elaborate.”

The wooden necks Gilbert and Roth fashion for their instruments often come from sources such as reclaimed cabinets, pallets or parquet flooring. They sometimes hand-carve the necks, but often use a machine to cut the pieces.

As for the bits they use for decoration, there’s no guessing where inspiration will strike. Holding up a deer antler, Roth said that will be used to make bridges for some of the instruments. It’s ideal because of the hardness of the material, he said.

For one of his earlier projects, a one-string instrument known as a diddley bow, Roth said he stole a piece from Gilbert’s sink for decoration. He didn’t tell Gilbert until after it was done.

Every instrument Gilbert and Roth make is different,

they said, and because they view them as art, each is signed and numbered.

There are no plans when a new instrument is started.

“We wing it with every one,” Roth said. “I look at the box like a sculptor would a piece of marble. The shape it takes is based on the material I’m working with.”

Roth often uses Gilbert and Co. instruments when he performs and that has gotten the business some attention, as well as some orders.

They recently did a river boat-themed guitar dubbed “the Gambler” as a custom order, keeping it low-key and putting a lot of thought into the project. They used playing cards for some of the accents.

“Of course, we had to hide the fourth ace,” Gilbert said.

They slipped it inside the cigar box, out of sight.

Their first sale was to someone who saw Roth playing one of the instruments during a gig in October and “had to have one” for their brother, a bass player in a rock band.

They sold about a half dozen more around Christmas and plan to start selling them at festivals next. Prices range from $65 to $400 depending on how much work went into the instrument.

The instruments are also on display at Mama Rue’s Blues Garden, a Pawleys Island restaurant, and can be seen on the company’s Facebook page.

Like Roth, musicians who hear the instruments usually can’t wait to get their hands on one.

“They just sound totally different,” Roth said, picking up a diddley bow. “It’s not a terribly loud instrument, but it’s entertaining. It’s almost dulcimer-like.”

It’s a nice contrast to the grittier sound of the more sophisticated amplified guitars, like the one that first captured Roth’s attention.

“It has a mountainy, Appalachian sound, but once you plug it in, it takes on a whole new persona,” Roth said. “It’s very roots rock.”

“They say it cries,” Gilbert said of the type of instrument he and Roth make.

But playing a cigar box guitar takes some getting used to for those accustomed to traditional instruments.

“Sometimes even guitar players will get this and say ‘what do I do with it? How do I tune it? How do I play it?’ ” Roth said.

Getting it right takes practice. But the real key to playing a cigar box guitar, according to Roth, is much like that for building one: allow the materials you’re working with to guide you.

“You play the box the way it wants to be played,” Roth said. “You don’t try to force it.”

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