From The Islander - Anna Maria Island, FL. November 6, 2019
Are cigar box guitars a new musical trend?
Blues legend Lightnin‘ Hopkins famously described making his first guitar out of a cigar box and a broomstick. He cut a hole in the box, nailed a sawed-off broom handle to it, then used strands from a field shack‘s screen door for strings. That’s how things were done in the South in the early 1900s, particularly during the Great Depression, when money was scarce and shiny steel guitars were scarcer.
Even more surprising: Cigar box guitars are making a comeback as musicians rediscover the magic of their scratchy, lonesome sound. “It’s raw. Very raw.” said Steve Arvey, describing the tone he coaxes from his cigar box instrument.
Arvey, 61, is a top-notch player from Bradenton. He performs frequently on Anna Maria Island and elsewhere throughout the region. He just returned from a cultural exchange trip to Colombia, South America, where he held a series of workshops for youngsters, showing them how to make cigar box guitars. While there, he performed at the 2019 Colombia Blues and Folk Festival in Cali, Colombia.
Arvey first came upon the instrument in 1994. “I heard one of them and I thought, wow, what a sound,” he said “A couple of years later. I tried to make my own. I didn’t know what I was doing. But along the way, I developed my own tuning. So I have kind of a really weird sound.”
The instrument most often is used to play blues or bluegrass. It typically has three strings. Arvey wields it like a Delta bluesman playing slide On one occasion he employed a cafe’s butter knife in place of a finger slide. That‘s how the old-time Mississippi bluesman did it, using pocket knives, old Coca-Cola bottles, whatever was available. They would tune their strings to the sound of railcars screeching down the tracks.
Arvey, a veteran musician, also plays a standard electric guitar and has fronted rock and blues bands from Chicago to Tampa Bay and beyond. He began to incorporate the cigar box guitar into his act around 2006-07. “That’s when it started to become a big part of my show,” he said “Now, it’s a phenomenon,”
Arvey said he rarely has time anymore to make his own cigar box guitars. because he’s always performing. He is scheduled to go on tour in Germany. Holland, Italy and Belgium in December.
Instead, he often plays instruments built by Jerry Partridge of Parrish, whose handcrafted Lucky Penny Cigar Box Guitars resonate with a rustic Southern charm. A wall display of Lucky Penny guitars attracts curious customers at Harry‘s Grill in Anna Maria.
Arvey also is a board member of the fledgling American Cigar Box Guitar Association, based in Clearwater and formed about three years ago to promote the instrument.
He smiles to think about it. In today’s world of synthesized dance music and hardcore hip-hop, it’s ironic that the rudimentary noise of a handmade guitar can still capture people’s imaginations. But, it does.
“The trend has been growing,” said Arvey. “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The main reason is the sound. It’s the sound of the blues.”