When Diane Sutliff started making cigar-box guitars in late 2008, she was driven by curiosity, some innate craftiness, and the desire to improve upon someone else’s work—the same things that seem to motivate a lot of amateur luthiers. “I was in Asheville two summers ago, and there was a guy selling three-string instruments,” she says. “So I got one of his strumsticks.” A strumstick is a kind of simple stick dulcimer—it’s played like a guitar, while traditional Appalachian dulcimers are held flat across the lap. “I shouldn’t speak ill of it, but the neck’s too narrow and the body’s too thin so it started to rotate under. I thought maybe I could make a better one.”
As Sutliff got started, the Internet proved a vital resource. The Web has helped people with all sorts of esoteric interests—fans of beyond-obscure bands, practitioners of the most arcane and highly specialized sexual fetishes—build robust communities, and for some reason folks into slightly eccentric instruments like strumsticks, ukuleles, and cigar-box guitars have had remarkable success popularizing their avocation online. YouTube hosts a wealth of videos where these hobbyists play cover songs or offer tutorials on building instruments from scratch. By watching online tutorials Sutliff, now 48, soon moved from strumsticks to more aesthetically appealing cigar-box guitars.
“No one can build just one,” she says. “When you build one you have to build two, and you have to build five and you have to build fifty.” She has a day job—she teaches short-run art classes on a freelance basis for the Chicago Public Schools—but to date she’s also built about 50 instruments. Some she keeps and some she sells, through her Web site, chicagocbg.com, and at shops, galleries, and folk-music events. They’re available at Intuit and the Old Town School of Folk Music‘s Different Strummer store, and she’s set up shop at the University of Chicago Folk Festival and the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival. She’ll also build to order, if for instance you’ve got an antique cigar box looking for a second life, and a guitar usually runs between $150 and $275. Lately she’s started making electric instruments; pickups add $40 or so to the price tag.
Sutliff describes her design process as “a lot of trial and error and looking at what other people have done.” Cigar-box luthiers don’t frown on lifting ideas, an attitude that reflects both the instrument’s folksy roots—people who build their own instruments usually learned how from somebody—and its current popularity among geeks enamored of open-source systems. (Boing Boing cofounder Mark Frauenfelder has featured them several times on the blog.) “It’s a pretty open community, and people really share a lot of ideas,” Sutliff says. “You see somebody’s peg head and you go ahead and do their peg head.” In May she’ll teach a workshop for novice players at the Old Town School, and she has plans in the works for a class in building cigar-box guitars this summer.
At its most basic a cigar-box guitar is little more than a box with a neck attached—all you really need is scrap wood and a set of tuning machines. But this lack of complication has encouraged makers to get fancy, using a broad range of materials and designs. Some have even started building solid-body guitars, filling the cigar boxes with snugly fit pieces of wood and installing humbucker pickups. The instrument’s growing popularity—Johnny Depp’s been spotted carrying one—has inspired some builders to go high-end, adding features like chrome-faced resonators similar to those on National guitars. But Sutliff considers the instrument’s simplicity one of its most important qualities and prefers to stay closer to its humble origins.
The cigar-box guitar evolved in the decades before the Civil War as an instrument of necessity and had its last big resurgence during the Great Depression. “When is it a cigar-box guitar and when does it become just a novelty guitar? Because you can put all of the souped-up pickups you want in there, and a neck with an ebony fretboard,” she says. “You can just go insane and stick it on a cigar box.”
Sutliff doesn’t get much more ostentatious than using occasional vintage boxes, some of which could sell for more than $100 all on their own—she showed me one with a scrap of a ledger sheet taped to it where the dates went back to 1927. Her instruments are also simple to play. One of her preferred designs, a three-string “blues box,” is tuned (like most stick dulcimers) so that it plays a chord when no strings are fretted; its frets are placed at the intervals of a blues scale, not at semitone intervals like on an ordinary guitar. It has eight frets in the space where a guitar would have 12 (the neck on the one Sutliff loaned me is even shorter, with only six), and if it’s properly tuned you can’t play out of key. Like a diatonic harmonica, its notes are limited to one scale. “You only get do re mi fa sol la ti do,” she says. “There’s no do sharp.”
To show me how easy it is for nonmusicians to play her instruments, Sutliff encourages the waitress at the cafe where we’re talking to pick up one of the blues boxes at our table. Though the waitress claims not to know the first thing about playing guitar, within seconds she’s picking out a simple improvised melody.
Though limiting the guitar to one scale denies a musician most of the range of voicings offered by a semitone fretboard—you’re not going to be able to fret a C-sharp major seventh—it also makes the instrument extremely fun to play. For an experienced guitarist, it’s the same kind of kick that a veteran video gamer can get by replaying a game at a ridiculously easy setting—it sort of feels like you can do anything you want without really trying. Since the blues box can’t produce a bad note, it’s an ideal instrument for improvising—especially in groups. I invited Alex White over to try out some of the models Sutliff had let me borrow, and right away she kicked off a ridiculous double-blues-box jam session. She also recorded two songs, which I’ve posted to the Reader‘s Web site—one on the blog (in my latest Sharp Darts podcast), the other with this column.
Currently Sutliff is working on a fretboard based on the pentatonic scale, which occurs not just in rock and blues but also in indigenous musics all over the world, from Scotland to Ethiopia. It’s probably most familiar to Americans, though, as the scale that gives east Asian music its distinctive flavor, and fittingly her pentatonic fretboard is intended for a cigar box decorated with a crane motif. Amateur musicians might quail at words like pentatonic, which bring to mind stuffy lectures about music theory, but if Sutliff’s past efforts are any indication, this instrument too will be the kind anybody can pick up and simply play. v