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!
…It’s ambitious, but there’s a great community spirit happening in this offshoot of alternative music making…
- 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.
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