Thursday, June 20, 2019

The John Ruskin "Primitive" Cigar Box Guitar by Deep South CBG

This cigar box guitar is a custom order for Jerry in Wisconsin. While Jerry was visiting Gulf Shores, AL this spring, he and I struck up a conversation about cigar box guitars at one the locals' favorite watering holes. He became very interested in the history of these handmade instruments and asked me if Deep South CGB could build him one that was done as closely to the way they would have been built during the Great Depression as possible, while still being a good playing instrument.

Jerry wanted an acoustic CBG, of course, with frets. Beyond that, he said it was up to me. What better way to capture the spirit of the Great Depression era, I thought, than to build the instrument using a cigar box that was manufactured during the 1930s? I sourced one and sent Jerry some pics. He approved - and soon this 1933 John Ruskin cigar box was in my hands.

The National Recovery Act was passed by Congress in 1933.
What really makes this box special, beyond surviving 86 years entirely intact, is the "NRA" stamp on its leading edge, representing the National Recovery Act of 1933 which was passed by Congress that year to help pull the nation from the grips of the Great Depression.

The year this cigar box was built, the American economy hit its very bottom. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office. Bread lines were long. Destitute men roamed the country, catching rides on train cars, in search of work.

When Roosevelt uttered his famous line "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," this cigar box was likely sitting on a drug store counter somewhere, peddling its wares for 5 cents each (the price is inside the lid).

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a relatively unknown man named Adolph Hitler rose to power as Chancellor of what would become Nazi Germany.

In keeping with the spirit of handmade instruments of that time, the only power tool I used in building this CBG was a drill. Everything else was done with hand saws, a spokeshave, files and sanding by hand. I'll say I was pretty terrified to cut the neck slot into this box. Before I began, I glued wooden support blocks into each the inside corners to stabilize the box. For the bridge and nut, I sourced some vintage skeleton keys of the era and made hardwood saddles by hand to hold them in position. The strings are held by a rusty hinge that has been adapted as a tailpiece and mounted through the box into the butt of the neck.

I deliberately left things a little bit rough (such as the edges of the sound holes) because a person making this in 1933 would have been far more interested in the music it made than in having a finely finished appearance. I did add some rusty wire screens to the sound holes, for a better appearance, however. Because the paper graphics were brittle and loose in places, I used a clear matte sealer to secure loose edges and to provide a protective coat.

The neck, hand shaped, sanded and oiled, is oak with a Rosewood fret board, scaled to 25 inches. The guitar is strung with medium gauge Blues Blaster strings and tuned to Open G (GDG). When Jerry is ready, I'll hopefully have video to share.

For your own custom cigar box guitar, contact Deep South CBG via email or through Facebook messenger. Each custom cigar box guitar I build is a one-of -a-kind, made by hand, just for you. Together, we can build you a playable piece of art that will be an heirloom for generations!

Deep South CBG, located in Gulf Shores, AL, creates custom pieces of playable art that can be displayed on your wall and taken down and played anytime. Most of what we build are created firmly in the tradition and lore of the cigar box guitars of the deep south and Great Depression era. We use reclaimed and found materials to create our works.

Click HERE to email Deep South CBG
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