One of the quirkiest range of guitars at the Bristol Guitar Show was the range of Cigar Box guitars produced by Chickenbone John. Guitar Jar catches up with John to quiz him about his range of unusual instruments and the players who use them.
…the scene is all about the attitude that you can make an instrument or buy something made by an individual, that is imbued with their own views and character, that’s going to inspire you to play some music that’s personal and fresh…
Hi John, before we get into the details of your range of guitars, can you let Guitar Jar readers know if you play guitar and if so, who or what inspired you to start learning the instrument?
Oh, yes, I play guitar (and uke, mandolin & lapsteel), but I’m not sure if I can pin it right down what got me started. As a teenager hearing Dave Burland, a folk singer from my hometown of Barnsley, was a revelation. He still has a lovely fluid, ringing style of playing and that got me listening to people like Martin Carthy, Stefan Grossman, Django Reinhardt… players with a somewhat unconventional edge to their music.Of course the incomparable Ry Cooder was what turned me onto slide guitar. Also, being of “a certain age” and knocking around with people like UB40, The Beat and Dexys (sorry to name drop!), I ended up playing in a punk band called “The Surprises” and getting our record played on the John Peel show. These days I keep my hand in, playing with my band Chickenbone Blues, but I’m always up for musical collaborations with all sorts of players and in all sorts of styles: folk, country, jazz, cajun.
So, why Cigar Box guitars? What attracted you to go into business selling these as opposed to traditional acoustic/electric guitars?
I’d always heard the stories of people like BB King and Lightnin’ Hopkins were supposed to have made their own guitars from a broom handle, a box and some wire. I though it was a nice piece of musical folk history, but a guy called Shane Speal in the USA started unpicking the whole story and developing ideas on the internet…and it caught my attention. I’ve always gone for that rough and ready, left field home-brewed feel in music, so it was right up my street.I’d made quite a few electric guitars, learned how to do pretty much any sort of repair on an electric or acoustic guitar, made ukes and mandolins, but the challenge of making a playable instrument out of scrap and found materials was a real fun challenge. These cigar box guitars were originally born out of poverty and necessity, and in today’s economic and commercially pressured climate, I think a goodly number people are turning against the established high cost, mass market look-alike instruments and doing it for themselves – that means everything from making their own guitar or seeking out an instrument that speaks to them on a much more basic and grassroots level, and making their own personal sort of music.
It has to be said; your Cigar Box guitars really caught my eye at the Bristol guitar show. How did the show go for you?
A great deal of interest, though a little slow on actual sales, but it certainly didn’t do me any harm being there, plus it’s a great opportunity to network with other makers and players. Some shows work better than others and even if I don’t get many sales on the day, there are usually follow-up emails or phone calls with people placing orders. Sometimes my instruments are just too different to normal guitars and people can’t get their head round it; they get a bit shy and awkward about actually trying one, especially when there’s a crowd of people round the stand. On the other hand, so many people are knocked out by the sound you can get out of what is effectively a stick and a box and want some of that action for themselves! You’re guaranteed to get loads of attention when you turn up at your local open mic with one of these guitars!
I’m intrigued by the pickups used in your Cigar Box guitars. What brand of pickups do you prefer to use in your guitars and do you ever get any requests to use high-end, hand wound pickups?
I use a variety of pickups, from simple passive piezos (and that’s a pretty closely guarded secret what I use) to regular magnetic strat or precision type pickups. It’s all pretty budget stuff but my attitude is if is works and it sounds good, do you really need to know what gauge wire has been used and how many winds have been put on the coil? I tend to switch off and resign myself to not making a sale if I get potential customer who starts quizzing me about what sort of magnets are in the pickup. If it sounds good and plays well, that’s my criteria.Guitars should be about making music, not some sort of trainspotting OCD sufferer’s obsession with exactly what timbers have been used, what the switch contacts are plated with and so on. All that really doesn’t matter – I’m making guitars from salvaged timber and stuff I’ve found, and if it sounds good, I’ve done my job right. As it says above my stand… “Making music fun again” and “If you have to ask why? …it’s probably not for you” – that sums up my attitude.
Some people just don’t get the joke when I tell them it’s made from private stock selected old-growth chair legs. The only exceptions to this are the pickups made by a good friend of mine in Sheffield, JuJu, who produces the most exquisitely crafted and fantastic sounding pickups. These really are something extraordinary, and I’ve got one in stock at the moment which is going to go into something really special. He does pickups in all sorts of configurations, from one string diddley bow, 3 and 4 string cigar box and regular 6 string pickups. We are also teaming up on a very exclusive specialist pickup which is under development at the moment for resonator guitars…so watch this space!
Can you name any “mainstream” guitarists who have used your products over recent years?
Well, hardly mainstream, because that’s not the market I shoot for, but British bluesman Ian Seigal has had bottleneck slides off me, and also bought an old USA Stella acoustic from me. I love these old Chicago made ‘catalog’ guitars for blues and pretty well know them inside out – I can bring back to life even the most desperate basket case! Eric Bibb has been after a very special old 1930s Harmony guitar that I repaired and sold, but my customer just wont let it go at any price!These old guitars another odd-ball type of thing I go for – they are little, funky looking chunky-necked boxes that are great for old-timey music and blues, and I really don’t give a hoot if most people, ‘don’t get it’. A lot of my stuff goes out to amateur hobby players and semi-pro musicians, so getting a big-name to use my gear would be nice of course, but it’s not what I’m about.
Can you tell our readers more about the Mojobox Footstomp?
It’s a very simple percussion instrument, a box fitted with a passive piezo pickup, which you just plug into the PA or an amp and stomp on to get a nice fat bass drum type groove going. I usually fit a USA car licence plate to the top as that give a solid durable strike plate, and it also dampens the sound and minimises feedback. It’s pretty similar to Seasick Steve’s “Mississippi Drum Machine” – it’s one of my best sellers. It’s great for solo players or small combos without a drummer and drummers can use one as a compact alternative to a full bass drum & kick pedal.
I purchased one of your green bottle slides at the Bristol Guitar Show and I love it. Can you manufacturer slides from most glass bottles or do you prefer to stick with wine bottle necks?
Yes, generally wine bottles are the right size and weight where the store bought Pyrex slides seem ‘soft’ to me and just aren’t heavy enough to give that sustain and feel that I like. Some other bottles are OK; the blue sherry bottles are cool but I can’t stomach drinking the stuff, after all, I have to prepare all the raw materials personally, so as long as the wine costs less than the list price of the slide, in theory I’m in profit. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it! I wouldn’t advocate that as a business model mind you: just aiming to spend less on booze than you are selling your stuff for can have its downsides.
Can you tell our readers more about your annual Cigar Box Festival? How did it go this year and what can our readers expect to see at the festival?
The festival came about from a bunch of people hanging around on www.cigarboxnation.com. We’d seen what was happening in the USA and someone suggested the idea of a UK get-together. I put forward a venue, the Crossroads Blues Club in Birmingham and found myself in charge of things. It’s a small place and I reckoned that if only a dozen people turned up we could have a natter and a few beers, and it would be OK. As it happened, over two dozen signed up for the daytime workshops and we packed the place with around 70 in the evening. So it was small scale, but everyone had a good time and immediately wanted to know when the next one was.It was obvious by the growth of the UK people on the website that we would need somewhere bigger for the 2nd festival, so we ended up at an amazing new art centre in West Bromwich called The Public. It was all a risk; bigger venue, bigger costs, artists flying in from France and Switzerland, hotels to book – but it was a great success. We had a precociously talented young man called Bluesbeaten Redshaw fly in from Switzerland and from the French Basque Country we had Tinqui8. He’s a nice guy, such a creative player, fusing punk, blues ambient and eastern sounds. From the UK we had Hollowbelly headlining with his own brand of punk northern blues.
There were some great performances too at the informal open mic sessions and I’m sure next year some of those players will be up to being a bit braver and getting on the main stage. We had workshops on how to build and play cigar box guitars and films on the home-made music scene from the USA and UK (and the whole event was filmed too). Next year we are going for steady growth based on our successful formula, with more activities, hopefully another film premiere, more performance opportunities, adding a Friday night to the all-day & evening Saturday event, and I’d like to get a high profile USA performer to headline. It’s ambitious, but there’s a great community spirit happening in this offshoot of alternative music making…and it’s going to be another cracker of an event.
Are your guitars made to order or do you only sell what you’ve currently in stock?
Most of my stuff is custom built to order. I like to build up a stock, but it seems as soon as I build a guitar and offer it for sale, it gets sold, so keeping a regular inventory is difficult. I don’t mass produce, I’ll sometimes do batches of 6 or 10 guitars, but I prefer to work on them one at a time. If you are lucky, you might catch me at a time when I’m building up stock for a guitar show and I’ll have a decent number to choose from, but I’m a small craft builder, not a factory, so I’m afraid sometimes it means a wait.I’ve got quite a back order at the moment, so delivery is now at least 3 months for custom orders. I do occasional put stuff up on eBay (that’s how I stared selling), but the fees and so forth eat into my already thin profit margin, and when I’m busy, I just don’t need to shift stuff that way. There are a few people who make and sell cigar box guitars on eBay, and good luck to them, but often the prices seem so low that I think they really aren’t valuing their time properly. With going on 300 instruments to have come out of my workshop and constantly changing and developing design ideas, I’ve got an established track record and reckon that in the UK and Europe, I’m pretty much on the case and showing the way.
What is the most unusual Cigar Box guitar you have made?
I’d have to say it wasn’t a cigar box guitar at all but a 6 string guitar made from a Honda kart racing engine! Karting is another of my hobbies, although this year I haven’t raced as I just haven’t had the time due to other commitments, but as I’d switched from running a Honda to twin Subaru engines, I had a few spares in the garage that were just lying around. I used the engine cooling shroud, petrol tank, coil and carburettor – the choke lever selected between bridge and neck pickups.
A DeLorean Time Machine has just pulled up outside the Chickenbone office. Where would you like to go on the timeline? Would you go back to rectify any mistakes, stay where you are or take a sneak peek in the future?
I think I probably wished I’d started doing this a lot earlier and learned a lot more, a lot sooner…but perhaps the time wasn’t right, other things were happening in my life and the world wasn’t ready for it. I’ve learned to take what you can from the moment you’re in and give it your best shot. I’m intrigued to know what the future will bring, but reckon the best thing to do is to crack on with things today and make the future happen.
Your house is burning down. What’s the one guitar item you would save?
It would have to be my 1950s Kay jazzbox. It’s a lovely big-bodied dark sunburst thing, the pickups aren’t very powerful, but it sounds sweet, plays well and is in amazing condition. I’m very rough on my guitars, but this is pretty much the only one I really take care of. As for the guitars I make, they can all burn… I can always make more!
If you could form a super group using famous musicians past or present, who would you have on drums and why?
Tough call… I’m not much of an authority on drummers, but Gene Krupa would be pretty cool to have onboard!
Lager or Cider?
Lager, but it HAS to be proper Czech Budvar, or for a total brain-mangling taste sensation a bottle of Grolsch Het Kanon. I can’t stand that stuff that purports to be lager with a fancy foreign name but is slopped together under licence in a factory in Wales. Properly made old-fashioned bitter or mild is much more my style… or for a real treat a Belgian VerbodenVruct or Kriek Lambic.
What’s the plan for you for the next 12 months?
Steady as she goes, more of the same…but different! (and getting on top of my customer orders backlog). I’ve got loads of ideas for instruments and hope to find more time and energy to make them. I plan on taking the whole cigar box guitar and home-made music thing out to a wider audience at guitar shows and festivals.The UK Cigar Box Guitar Festival has doubled in size after just 2 editions, so for next year its set to grow again and I’d like to see a wider appeal in terms of the styles of music we encompass. So far it’s been heavily blues orientated, but we’ve got punk, thrash, jazz, ambient, folk, Celtic, Americana and world music threads beginning to develop and grow. The scene is all about the attitude that you can make an instrument, or buy something made by an individual, that is imbued with their own views and character and that’s going to inspire you to play some music that’s personal and fresh. A shiny new guitar is all well and good, but to quote the late Willy Rushton “A thing of beauty is a joy for a fortnight”….what I’m trying to do is encourage people to grow, develop and enjoy their music as a life-long thing, whether it’s through learning to play a cigar box guitar or writing their own songs.
This whole movement is anti-conventional and pro-individual – making music fun again, that’s my manifesto to the people…from the Godfather of the UK Cigar Box Guitar scene. Long may it continue to grow and prosper.
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