Category: Diddley Bows and Primitives
I've recently been reading a little about the history of Cigar Box Guitars. I understood that they originate from the United States and some of earliest examples can been seen in images derived from the Civil war, but that was about all I knew.
Apparently, before the 1840s cigars were actually distributed in larger containers. In the 1840s smaller boxes began to be used, holding maybe 20 to 50 cigars. Tobacco consumption was popular in all areas of the United States so its no surprise that cigar boxes were available everywhere.
Africans, transported to America as slaves and destined to work hard in the southern cotton plantation fields, brought with them their own cultural heritage. This included a love for rhythmic music and dancing as well as a strong spiritual aspect to their lives. They also brought with them familiarity with the Gourd Banjar which is a stringed instrument that uses a gourd as the resonant cavity with a neck. This was the instrument that evolved into the Banjo.
Poor share-croppers and slaves couldn't afford store bought instruments so they would make their own from whatever was available to them. A well known, simple folk instrument was the one string diddly bow. Thought to have developed from a one stringed instrument that was used by people in Ghana, West Africa. In its most basic form a diddly bow could be fashioned by attaching a piece of baling wire to a support beam or the corner of a shack. By making the wire tight, tapping it with a stick and fretting it with a piece of bone, bottle or a pocket knife its quite easy to create a rhythmic tune.
It's this ingenuity, historic background in African instruments and the desire to make music that has underpinned the development of the cigar box guitar. Slaves and poor share-croppers couldn't afford store bought instruments so they made their own from the discarded cigar boxes that were everywhere. By attaching a broom handle or a plank of wood and adding a few strings, often made from baling wire, they created playable instruments that they would use in their celebrations, spiritual meetings and gatherings.
So the history of the cigar box guitar goes way back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Its fuelled by the ingenuity of deprived people who wanted to make music for celebration, dancing, entertainment and worship. The sound of the blues, rock'n'roll and all of our modern day 'pop' music owes everything to the ingenuity and creativity of poor, hard-working, exploited people from this period.
We have a large section of Elm that we use as a table in a shady nook in our back garden. One afternoon I thought I'd try to make a diddley bow by attaching a guitar string to the table. Here's a look:
Some time ago Shane Speal at Cigar Box Nation ran a little contest in which we were challenged to make a playable instrument using one or more Spam cans. I was out walking on the beach one windy weekend morning and I picked up a piece of weather worn and pebble bruised driftwood and thought to myself - 'This'll make a cool diddley bow!'. So I picked up a can of Spam on the way home.
The contents were fed to our cats, who preferred their regular cat food, and I simply attached the can to my plank. I stretched a thick guitar string over a couple of beefy screw eyes and tensioned it with an old ceramic bottleneck and a nail. I mic'ed it up with a cheap tie-clip microphone to make this video:
Spam Bow Jambo!
Here's an old video I made that was inspired by the simple, primitive instruments that people once made by nailing a piece of wire to a porch support post or fence post:
And here's how Jack White makes a diddley bow: