Robert Johnson and other US blues guitarists were part of a long musical tradition of local musicians playing often hand-built instruments. In reading a few articles awhile back about music in the late 1800s in the US, I wondered exactly how you might build a guitar today instead of buy a factory made guitar at a chain store. People who live in a hand-crafted world like much of the 1800s did not have many options for materials, especially in poor rural areas.
At the same time, I was thinking of buying a banjo (seriously) and wondered how much they cost. A lot. Banjo prices also got me thinking there had to be another way to create these instruments, a way people did before the world turned fancy and plastic and pre-packaged. People starved yet still had fun with music.
These Off Beat articles are about technology, science, and sometimes computer science, but they're mostly unscripted adventures in online research. They also teach how to define and answer real world questions with online research. They're also the last or next to last article I write for each issue of the magazine and, therefore, a way to blow off steam and relax.
Plus these Off Beat articles are meant to be fun: there will be detours.
The question I want to answer this month: how did people build guitars in the US in the late 1800s? Could you or I build a guitar that played with decent sound?
Okay, I’ll cheat. People used to take cigar boxes, drill a few holes in the box for a broomstick fret and sound hole, then pull wire from their screen doors to string their guitar. One guy, Blind Willie Johnson (great name), became famous for playing a one string guitar. But how we get to this answer is much more interesting. So let’s go. Remember DuckDuckGo.com is our friend and search engine.
How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo
My first search phrase was how to build a guitar. That bombed. Lots of links about building a modern guitar but nothing about how to build a guitar like you build a craft project, nothing basic with found materials. Next I tried a desperate phrase, how did people build guitars in 1800s? That generated lots of great results.
The best link led to me to the History page on the Cigar Box Guitars website. Here’s the passage that hooked me:
In addition to the etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were published by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, in 1884 as part of "˜Christmas Eve With Uncle Enos.' The plans, eventually retitled "˜How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo' as part of Beard's American Boy's Handy Book in the 1890 release as supplementary material in the rear of the book. (Beard, Daniel Carter (1882). The American Boy's Handy Book. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0879234490.). These plans omitted the story but still showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.
It’s great information AND the ISBN number and author info make it possible to chase down these resources. Clearly the site owner is into these primitive guitars. Plus there’s a throwaway line about Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America.
Next, I searched for the phrase, How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo, and found an illustration how to build a cigar box guitar. Three searches and I hit the mother lode. The guitar is a nice recycled cigar box with a pine board to cut out the fret board. The funniest part? The site is sponsored by C.B. Gitty, an online store for cigar box guitar parts. It’s like going camping in the wilderness to sleep out under the stars and buying a tent. But some of the parts look nice, maybe to finish off a more rustic guitar or banjo build.
My snobbery aside, the Canjo for $39.99 looks interesting. It’s an empty can of Genesee Cream Ale attached to a long fret board. I wonder what kind of sound it makes? My only complaint is the can looks too polished. It needs a few dents and some scrapes.
I also found another great site, Daddy Mojo (what is it with the blues and great names?), which sells hand made cigar box guitars. Check this amazing sound out:
And check out this other model:
Before I go completely nuts, this video proves you can play a tricked out cigar box guitar, look handsome even un petit dangereux, AND speak French fluently (in the interview at the end):
Box Guitar Projects for Kids
Searching for how to build a rustic craft guitar leading to an expensive online cigar box guitar store with amazing guitars was a little disappointing. My next idea was to search for kid projects, thinking they might be more primitive projects. My goal is to figure how to build a primitive guitar or banjo with an okay sound.
Searching for the phrase build guitar for kids on DuckDuckGo turned up links more what I had in mind. For one, I found a plastic container banjo, crafty plus modern! What’s not to love?
The Artists Helping Children organization also has the classic cardboard box project which is definitely my speed. You don’t spend too much time to check your sound. And it’s somewhat easy to tweak what you created or start over with another box. The project also makes the bridge for the strings, which suspends the strings over the open hole in the box, out of the same hole you create for the sound hole in the box.
After the quick directions, the Artists Helping Children site includes links to lots of other projects for kids, including a rubber band bass guitar.
From looking at all these links, it appears this is the ideal process to create a guitar or banjo:
- Find a cigar box, cardboard box, or plastic container.
- Cut a hole in the center of your box, maybe fold back part of what you cut out and use it as a brige/flap.
- Add a fretboard to hold your strings.
- Find some strings (maybe rubber bands) and stretch them from the top of your fret board down across the sound hole on your box and tie the strings down at the bottom of the box somehow.
- Figure out how to tune the string(s) on your guitar.
- Play music.
Or buy one from Doctor Mojo and wait two months for delivery. But building one is a lot more creative and fun.
Extra points: do you know the difference between a guitar and banjo? I had to look it up, too. The difference lies in how many teeth the musician playing the instrument has. A guitar player has more teeth.