There is little that compares to watching the talented Jimi Hendrix play his guitar, manipulating the strings as though they had sprung from his own fingers. It is a sight that prompts people to wonder how someone could possibly gain that kind of mastery. Some say it all started with a broomstick and a little cigar box that he fashioned into his very first guitar.
On Saturday, the fourth annual Cigar Box Guitar Fest Northwest will take place on the Saturday Market Main Stage on the East Park Block at Eighth Avenue and Oak Street. The event will run most of the day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and features local cigar box guitar makers and musicians jamming on their own homemade guitars.
A cigar box guitar is exactly what it sounds like — a guitar made from an old cigar box. They’re simple to make, as they only require the three basic components of a string instrument: the body (cigar box), the neck and strings.
While it may be growing in popularity now, this instrument has a history that actually stretches back to the 1840s. It is said that during the Civil War, slaves and soldiers would make them as they couldn’t afford to buy their own guitars. The earliest documented proof of the instrument is of an etching of two Civil War soldiers with what seems to be a cigar box fiddle dated to 1876.
“A lot of the really early blues guys that were really big down in the South, what they would do is take a broomstick and a cigar box, and they would take all the wire off out the broom and they would use those as the guitar strings,” Mark Alaniz said. Alaniz has been the event coordinator of Cigar Box Guitar Fest Northwest since he first came up with the idea four years ago.
Alaniz said he owns about 30 different cigar box guitars, all of which are hung up on his wall at home. Being a musician himself, he’s always been drawn to the “grassroots-y feel” that comes from these do-it-yourself instruments. It gives the feeling of the music being more homegrown, because they can truly be made out of just about anything as long as the essentials are there.
He even has one made completely out of driftwood.
This event is meant to bring this unique instrumentation out of its historical shadows and into the modern music lover’s eye.
“(There are) different players, different kinds of music this year,” Alaniz said. “We have a lot more builders around this year to answer questions and a guy who will be selling cigar box guitars who’s specialized in really old cigar boxes.”
One of those players who will be featured at the event is Jerry Zybach. Zybach was born and raised in Eugene and has been a professional musician for 25 years now. He’s best known for his electric slide work on the guitar, and some time he ago picked up a cigar box guitar to add something new to his blues music.
“I love that style of music — that minimalist blues style,” Zybach said. “They have a rougher sound to ’em. They’re kinda the punk rock of the blues.”
Beyond this, each musician is bound to have their own sound not only by way of their style, but because no one cigar box guitar is the same as another, rendering a set of completely unique performances.
“All of us play differently,” Zybach said. “I know one guy who does all Led Zeppelin songs. It’s just a bunch of people figuring out how to make music out of three strings and a cigar box.”
The event also will feature the instruments themselves, having local cigar box guitar craftsman Patrick Hughes at the event. Hughes will be representing Disgraceland Custom Box Guitars by bringing 25 to 30 guitars for purchase. After being inspired by seeing a cigar box ukulele 15 years ago, Hughes decided to take on the task of making one himself.
“I’m pretty good with my hands, and I figured I could make one of these,” he said. “And so I tried, and it sucked! My first one was really bad, but it made noise, so I was happy with it.”
It wasn’t until around his 10th guitar where he felt he had really gotten the hang of how to make them great. But to him and many others in this community of musicians, there is no real right or wrong way to build them.
“I think that’s what I like most about building cigar box guitars — there really are no rules,” Hughes said. “You can build them however you want. Sometimes I don’t even know how I want to build it until I’m halfway through. That’s my style of engineering.”
This gets to the heart of why Alaniz works to put on this festival every year relying solely on local donations and the money in his own pocket.
“I do it because I love these stupid little boxes,” Alaniz said. “The fact that I can get people excited about something we build in our freaking garage, that’s great!”
Jordyn Brown is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
Performer schedule: Del Puckett at 10 a.m., Ben Rice Band at noon, Jerry Zybach at 1 p.m., Travis Boudreau at 2:15 p.m. and Cigar Box Joe & Downtown Vinnie at 3:30 p.m.
Where: Saturday Market Main Stage, East Park Block at Eighth Avenue and Oak Street