Cigar box guitar revolution: 'It's like folk music turned inside out'
A quarter-century ago, when cigar-box guitar enthusiast Pat MacDonald was half of the Austin, Texas, alternative pop-rock duo Timbuk3, the singer, songwriter and instrumentalist’s moment in the pop spotlight came with the group’s breezy, wisecracking hit single “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”
Now relocated to Wisconsin and rendering his name now as pat mAcdonald, the musician’s recent past, present and foreseeable musical future no longer revolves around a pair of Ray Bans, but around his beloved Lowebow cigar box guitar.
For mAcdonald and many others in the growing community of cigar box guitar players, makers and listeners -- including the high-profile likes of Johnny Depp, Steve Miller, Jack White, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme -- this throwback to primal instruments akin to those once played by blues musicians in poor rural communities offers an irresistible sense of liberation.
The Lowebow that mAcdonald plays in his new duo, Purgatory Hill, with singer melaniejane, was created by Memphis musician and instrument maker John Lowe, and it allows a guitarist to play bass and lead at the same time on the double necked — two broom handles, actually -- version mAcdonald has been using in the last few years.
“In a lot of ways, it was what I was trying to do on guitar for a long time,” said mAcdonald, who’s been known to drive hundreds of miles to be part of the burgeoning number of cigar box guitar festivals sprouting up around the country. “I was trying for a similar kind of effect on the guitar. I always found different ways of bringing out the low end on the guitar, tuning it low. My fret style on the neck was pretty slidy, sliding up and down neck on bass string. I’d move from chord to chord sliding, rather than going abruptly from one chord to the next, so I was really trying to do that on the guitar for a long time. This made it so much easier in a way.”
Not only has it given him a new mode of expression for songs he plays on tour, the cigar box guitar has affected the new songs he’s been writing since a fan handed him one following a concert several years ago and told him “Here, keep it.”
“I think every instrument you pick up has an effect on the kinds of songs you write,” he said. “This one really did release a flood of new songs for me, and it still is. I’ve got a whole bunch of new songs we’re going in to record [soon] and they really did come out of this instrument.”
One sterling example off his most recent album, also titled “Purgatory Hill,” is “Reset Me Lord,” a bluesy number about the gift of a new perspective on life — or in this case, playing music. (It’s a free download for those who sign up on the band’s mailing list.)
He’s posted that and other samples on the Purgatory Hill website.
So has Shane Speal, the creator of the Cigar Box Nation website that’s a focal point of the expanding cigar box instrument community and one of several passionate proponents I spoke to. Speal has assembled four compilation albums with tracks by cigar box players from around the world that are accessible at Cigar Box Nation. Here's an MP3 of Speal playing Jimi Hendrix's "I Don't Live Today" on one of his own cigar box instruments.
“Hobo blues” musician and three-string cigar-box instrument player Pinecone Fletcher became one of the grand finalists in last year's national “King of the Blues” competition sponsored by Guitar Center.
Depp's enthusiasm no doubt contributed to composer Hans Zimmer's decision to use one in his musical score to the Depp-fronted, skewed western animated film "Rango."
Said mAcdonald: “One key aspect of it is that it’s very earthy, very down to earth, but it’s also electric. You can play a brand new flashy Martin guitar that sounds bright and beautiful, and that is acoustic. A lot of people think of that as folk music: something based on acoustic guitars and banjos and something that’s really beautiful sounding acoustically.
“A lot of the cigar-box instruments, they don’t sound like much necessarily acoustic. Most people who play them plug them in, it’s very electric. It’s like folk music turned inside out, way more electric, yet way more primitive. The instrument itself, it’s hyper-primitive. When you electrify an acoustic guitar, you usually make it sound like a louder acoustic guitar. But these things, even the folk Nazis who are opposed to electricity, have to agree that these instruments are pretty [genuinely] folky.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of pat mAcdonald and melaniejane of roots-blues duo Purgatory Hill. Credit: Peter Lee.