History of the cigar box guitar

The cigar box guitar has been around for centuries, but few people know of its humble and often poverty stricken origin.

Smoking cigars was extremely popular throughout the 19th century and was a common sight at card games and in Saloon’s. Mississippi paddleboats and horse drawn carts distributed them throughout the South where they were sold to the rich and poor alike.

The small cigar boxes that we are accustomed to today didn’t exist until the early 1840’s. Prior to that cigars were transported in large boxes, crates and barrels, but due to the continued exploration of the West, cigar manufacturers began  making smaller and more portable cigar boxes that could hold 25-50 cigars; these could be taken by travellers and soldiers on horseback or stored easily on horse drawn carts.

The earliest illustration of a cigar box instrument dates back to 1876; this etching depicts two Civil War soldiers sitting around a camp fire, one of them playing a cigar box fiddle, but the concept of cigar box instruments dates back to the 1840’s when African slaves would make and play instruments as part of their social and religious gatherings.

African slaves that were transported to America had no possessions, but brought with them a rich heritage of music and dancing as well as their religious beliefs. At the time the majority of African music was played on a Gourd Banjar (a stringed instrument that used a gourd as a sound box and had a neck attached to it); this later evolved into the American Banjo and has been popular ever since.

Because slaves weren’t allowed any possessions and couldn’t bring their own Banjar’s, they would make them out of whatever they could find and the cigar box was perfect. They would collect broken or discarded broom handles and planks of wood to make the neck and use wire or twine for the strings. These cigar box instruments were played at social and religious gatherings and were an integral part of the African cakewalk celebration. This event was common throughout the southern plantations and consisted of a cake being place in the centre of the floor; people would dance around the cake to the music and the best dance would win the cake.

As the practice of making your own instruments spread throughout the south, it was not only African’s who yearned for musical influence, impoverished white citizens and soldiers returning from war also wanted to enjoy music and the cigar box guitar revolution began.

The tradition of the cigar box guitar has continued even since and now with the use of the internet, people can really show what can be done with some discarded parts and a bit of imagination.