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Cigar Box Guitar Headquarters - CBG HQ

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SlackJack Guitars: Hometown Sound From AppyLove

Photograph courtesy of Positive Approach Events

Photograph courtesy of Positive Approach Events
If you talk to Travis Woodall about cigar-box guitars, you’ll assume he’s been building them for ten years, hunched over a woodbench, trained by a wizened old mentor with a long white beard and an International Harvester cap. If you listen to him play one, you’ll guess that he learned the blues in Mississippi Delta dives and pool halls.

The truth is, he’s just begun. He’s been building cigar box guitars, his own SlackJack brand, just around the corner in Jonesborough, Tennessee, since last fall, each one better than the last. But the quality of the instruments Woodall has produced and the insight he’s gained into their history in his short tenure in the craft is staggering. And his plans for handmade sound in the region are coming together quickly. I ask him how this all got started.

“There was a guy on Daytime TriCities, Canjoe John, who builds these little things called Canjoes,” Woodall explains, as he explains everything, with trademark humor and humility. “[They’re made of] a string, a stick and a can. He’s playing it— and I mean playing the heck out of it. I said, ‘that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve gotta buy one for my brother because I know it’ll make his wife insane.’ So I called the guy. It got me interested.”

His curiosity, combined with his natural aptitude for wood and for building instruments, has led to a rapidly growing business for Woodall. SlackJack Guitars are in increasing demand around the area and from his online shop. And as he perfects his craft and construction, he has found a community of other builders and players that’s got him excited.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the SlackJack brand, though, is Woodall’s contagious enthusiasm for the music that the instruments produce. The company’s website focuses on education more than it does on instrument sales, packed with history lessons, video tutorials, and colorful descriptions of the guitars’ sound and construction.

His plans for the guitars range far beyond finding them homes with musicians who will love them. For one thing, the sky’s the limit on the instruments themselves. “The [guitar] that I want to build next,” he chuckles, “is going to be kind of like Jimmy Page meets Steven Seagal.” After talking with him for a few minutes, you know that, whether he’s joking or not, he’s the kind of guy who could actually pull that off.

The guitar we looked at when we visited was beautiful, and had a sound that I found arresting even after seeing its demo video the day before. The guitars are lightweight but durable, and are ready to plug in for amplification. As word spreads about their quality and craftsmanship, I'd be willing to bet more and more will be custom-made, too.

As Woodall has studied handmade instruments, he’s discovered a community of builders and players locally, regionally, and nationally. There are cigar-box conventions in Alabama, New Jersey, Kansas, and, he says with a glint in his eye, “we’re going to have one here.” First, though, they’ll start with a downtown showcase of local builders and players. In its community efforts, SlackJack partners with Positive Approach Events, owned by Woodall’s wife, Brandi Davis Woodall, who is a top-notch event planner and media director.

Here’s where I have to tell you that, after meeting the Woodalls, I learned quickly that they are the kind of people who Make Things Happen. In the week-or-so between my chat with them and the date on this post, for example, each has appeared on television, Travis has finished another guitar, and Positive Approach’s new partnership with The Eureka Inn in Jonesborough was announced. In Travis’ own words: “If I’m determined to do something, I’ll probably do it.”

The Woodalls are currently looking for spaces to host weekly music in Jonesborough. Their vision for supporting and growing the local music scene there is encompassing, inspiring, and as grassroots as any movement could ever be—in keeping with their mission: "Our goal is to bring back what makes music fun."
From Herald & Tribune, 3/2/10

Where there’s smoke...There's a hot guitar?

Travis Woodall works on one of his cigar box guitars.
(Charlie Mauk/H & T Photographer)

By Saundra G. Kelley
H&T Staff Writer

Travis Woodall makes guitars out of cigar boxes. That’s right, he creates musical instruments out of real, wooden cigar boxes — and the music he makes with them is as sweet to the ear as some cigars are to the mouth.
Woodall says he got interested in building guitars from cigar boxes because he hates to see useful things thrown away.

“Some time last year, I got interested in Appalachian, old time music,” says Woodall, who is originally from Virginia. “Then I stumbled across cigar box guitars on the Internet, and discovered they have a rich history, most recently from the ‘30s, that most people don’t know about, and some of that musical history was right here in Jonesborough. The music that was made here was influenced by the homemade instrument concept.”

Woodall calls the concept an “underground movement,” but says it is growing in popularity.

“That’s partly because of the economic situation we are in,” he says. “Music is something we, as a culture, have always used to get through bad times.”

Woodall, who markets his guitars under the name ‘SlackJack Guitars,’ went on to talk about other homemade instruments, all of which are easy to play for even the most musically challenged among us. The terms used to describe some of them are charming, such as the can-jo or canned strum stick, which is really just a flat stick with frets and strings inserted into a metal can, and the diddlebow which was a favorite in the mountains, made out of a flat stick with one string and sometimes a can opened at both ends to resonate sound when a slide is run over the string.

“This music has a soul a lot of people don’t even realize,” he said. “It tells a story; somebody lived and wrote that song, and the instruments they played when they sang were often made from old boxes, even cardboard boxes and two by fours and some string – whatever they had.”

Today’s modern guitar boxes still bear a strong resemblance to the earliest instruments. Using found objects to construct and embellish the guitars, there is a deep element of personal involvement with the craft. Each one is unique, and depending on the elements of construction and the size of the box, the sound will also vary widely. Woodall’s cigar box guitars are amplified for today’s tastes, but he still uses odd and interesting things on them such as the metal kitchen drain for the sound hole he used on one, and the smooth neck of a wine bottle he slides on the strings.

Woodall plays to his own creativity when he’s making his instruments, but he also builds them to custom. He gets his boxes from a number of places, one being cigar shops. Some are brightly colored and embellished in typical cigar box fashion while others are plain wood with engraved company names on them. He leaves nail holes, chips and other things that tell of the history of the box instead of polishing everything away, but the wood he uses for the neck of the guitar can be anything from poplar to red oak from a piece of flooring someone tossed out, saying, “It just adds character to the finished product.”

To hear Travis Woodall play his cigar box guitars, go to his blog at www.slackjackguitars.wordpress.com
Earthfest Article

From Johnson City Press


Making music out of cigar boxes

Published March 28, 2011
By Doug Janz - Press Tempo Writer

Travis Woodall plays a homemade cigar box guitar (Mike Murphy/Johnson City Press)

Crafting your own musical instrument is a tradition borne in hard times — because good music can help people endure those hard times.


People in the Mississippi Delta were known for building their own musical instruments, including cigar box guitars, out of available resources, and people in Appalachia often made stringed instruments from gourds.


Because they were homemade, one guitar was rarely the same as the next, and sometimes they looked pretty rough — but, hey, they made music and they didn’t cost much to build.


Jonesborough’s Travis Woodall is continuing that tradition, building his own line of custom SlackJack Guitars out of wooden cigar boxes. The self-taught musician, a talented guitarist who started out as a drummer, has found a serious hobby that’s turned into a side business.


“Every one is different. Sometimes they have a few of the same pieces, but even if I use the same box, the guitar is never the same,” he said. “There’s a novelty factor, but then you realize you can play these.


“And they’re very easy to play. A six-string guitar may be intimidating to people. It’s still intimidating to me. But if someone wanted an instrument that’s easy to play, this is a good instrument.”


Since building his first one in 2009, Woodall has honed his craft and sold about 60 SlackJacks. He’s made a variety of stringed instruments, including a ukelele, a two-string bass and a tin-can resonator. He’s made instruments with two, three, four and six strings.


There’s a SlackStick, which is fretted like a dulcimer, and a Womp Box, a stomp box made from a wooden cigar box (with electronic pickups) that can be tapped or stomped with your foot to accompany the guitar.


One of his double-neck six-string guitars now belongs to Devon Allman, leader of the band Devon Allman’s Honeytribe and the son of Gregg Allman. Devon, who’s become a good friend of Woodall’s, regularly performs with the SlackJack and recently played a show at the new Spring Street Music Hall in Johnson City.


Woodall also sells kits for people who want to construct their own guitar, at $89 each. He said he’s now got more guitar work than he can do, but, as long as he’s got time to make them, he loves the work.


“When you can build something, and then get to make music on it, it’s rewarding, it’s a unique feeling,” he said.

Woodall and his wife, Brandi, own Positive Approach, an event planning business, and they run Venue, the new downtown Johnson City event space on the second floor of the King Centre that’s home to dinners, parties, weddings, concerts, music jam sessions, arts events and various other activities.


Those are the Woodalls’ main business priorities. Unlike the people of the Delta or his Appalachian forebears, Travis didn’t turn to guitar making because of hard times. Instead, he was fascinated by handmade instruments and admired the ingenuity of those who made them.


He went to the Washington County-Jonesborough Library and found a book that featured handmade instruments from this region, which piqued his interest. He got a good plan off the Internet for building a 1920 cigar box guitar, visited a local home improvement store for the materials and went to work over the weekend making his first one.


“And it was really cruddy, it was horrible,” Woodall said. “So I made notes on all the flaws and how I could improve it. I’m very competitive. And the next one was a little bit better. I didn’t have the right tools so I was doing things like cutting the fret slots with a hack saw.


“But I started really getting into it and by about the fourth or fifth one I was getting the intonation right and I was able to make one I was really proud of.”


Woodall uses only wooden cigar boxes, not cardboard, and most are made of Spanish cedar: “It’s very aromatic for the cigars but it’s also wood that’s able to produce a great tone,” he said, adding that his favorite brand is Arturo Fuente.

And the sound is distinctive.


“They have a primitive sound, it’s simplified,” Woodall said. “The neat thing is you can tune them any way you want. The sound is bluesy and it makes a great slide instrument. It has a dirty, muddy sound to it. I don’t know what it is but these things have mojo.”


Every guitar is custom made, either by specifications from the customer or through Woodall’s imagination. He said he trusts his creative instincts and, in a way, lets the guitar itself tell him what to do during the building process.


Woodall shapes the wooden guitar neck and makes his own pickups. He’s used various materials, including bolts, hinges, a sink drain, chicken bones and even candleholder inserts. He likes to rub in olive oil for the wood finish and does a lot of sanding. Among his tools: a router, a table saw, a band saw, a bevel file and soldering iron.


Everything is done by hand and a guitar can take up to 85 hours to build, although the simpler ones are closer to 20.


“But now I’m at the point where I want to challenge myself and use different techniques, and that takes longer,” he said. “I’ll pretty much try anything and then evaluate to see what works. And if it didn’t work, then why not?


“The fretwork was the hardest thing for me to get down. It requires tools that are hard to find and it took a lot of practice.”


The guitars sell for about $100 a string. He started out selling some on e-Bay — “And I’d be happy to get a hundred bucks,” he said — but as his instruments improved and demand increased, he priced them up a little.


“I’ve invested all the money I’ve made on these back into better equipment so I can make better guitars,” he added.


Woodall said he’s always had basic woodworking skills. He worked sales and marketing for a flooring company in Richmond, Va., and met Brandi at Bristol Motor Speedway while each was there on a business visit. They lived in Richmond before moving to East Tennessee in 2006, where she has roots.


Brandi also serves as a Blue Plum Festival volunteer and she came up with the idea of giving away a SlackJack Guitar as a promotion during the festival last year. That helped draw some attention to what Travis was doing, and he also made some fans and customers when he took his instruments to a blues festival near Winchester, Va. Now SlackJack has a Web presence and a budding reputation.


His connection to Devon Allman is through a friend in Knoxville who knew Allman, bought a couple of SlackJacks and gave one to Allman as a gift. Woodall and Allman met at a Knoxville show and they hit it off as friends, sharing a lot of interests, and Devon asked Travis to build him the double-neck model he uses to perform a song he wrote for his girlfriend, “Yadira’s Lullaby.” There’s a Youtube video for it.


It typifies why Travis enjoys this hobby.


“Building these guitars has been fun,” he said, “because I’ve met a lot of people and made a lot of good friends.”


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