The Cigar Box Guitar Maker
When a promising rock musician tired of the road and the pressure, he gave up music and got a job at a hardware store. Then one day, he had a revelation.
Written by NANCY LEBRUN
Photography by STEPHEN KRAMER
It seems like a crazy way to make music— a cast-off cigar box, a stick of wood, and a few strings that barely look capable of making a twang. That’s about all there is to a cigar box guitar. Yet when Paul Simon recorded his acclaimed album “So Beautiful or So What,” he played one. Jimi Hendrix made one when he was a kid. Johnny Depp once gave one to Paul McCartney. To a guy named Mike Snowden, the sound of these instruments is so compelling that making them has become the central passion in his life.
I found Snowden on a bright spring morning, rolling power tools around his garage in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb outside Atlanta. To set up his workshop, Snowden had to thread his way through kayaks, kids’ bicycles, storage boxes, and the usual household detritus. “I don’t have crazy expensive tools,” he said, with an easy smile and a shrug. “Just a table-top saw, a router, a drill press, a sander and a band-saw.” Dressed in Converse sneakers and a plaid shirt, Snowden seemed so laid back that I wondered if he is permanently relaxed. It soon became clear, however, that he is deceptively diligent about his trade, happily following a path that has demanded a few idiosyncratic choices.
Snowden grew up in Natchitoches, Louisiana, the state’s oldest town, where the main street echoes the New Orleans French Quarter—in both its Creole buildings and its vibrant music scene. Snowden took it all in. At age 13, he bought a bass guitar and began playing along to his parents’ albums, which included the standard Springsteen, Beatles, and Stevie Wonder repertoire. In high school, he started playing bass with local bands but wanted more. When he turned 18, he headed not to college but to Atlanta, where groups like The Black Crowes and Indigo Girls had gotten their start. After 4 years of playing the bar scene, he helped found a blues-rock group named Band De Soleil, becoming their bass player.
“I got me a cigar box, I cut me a round hole in the middle of it, take me a little piece of plank, nailed it onto that cigar box, and I got me some screen wire and I made me a bridge back there and raised it up high enough that it would sound inside that little box, and got me a tune out of it.” –Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi Bluesman
The day after the group formed, they left for a 6-week tour. They were soon opening for acts like Joe Cocker and Dave Matthews Band. Those were heady days. “We had a manager, attorneys, we were signed to a record deal, the whole shooting match. It was like being in the middle of a hurricane.“ For 5 years, Snowden played roughly 250 nights a year. Before the band could reach their next level, however, exhaustion and rivalries began to take a toll. At one point, while they were in Atlanta recording their second album, they slowly realized it was over. It just wasn’t fun anymore. “Near the end of the band, it was way out of control, too many people had different things going on.” Snowden felt they were at the mercy of the recording industry, and had lost control of their destiny. “I was just done,” Snowden says. “I was so tired of music and playing music.”
After limping through a few last bookings, Snowden headed home to Marietta and his wife Monique, once his high-school girlfriend. They soon had a daughter, and to make ends meet, Snowden took the job that he still has 18 years later—working the 5-to-10 a.m. shift in the garden department at Home Depot. At heart, though, he was still a musician. He just didn’t want the circus that went with it. For several years, Snowden didn’t touch a musical instrument. But when his daughter was 5, something dawned on him: “She’d never seen me play,” he says. If she was ever going to know who her father really was, he realized, she would need to hear his music.
In an effort to find a new path back to his old love, Snowden tried drums, the banjo, the mandolin. “I started buying all these instruments and nothing satisfied me,” he recalls. One day, while surfing the web, he stumbled on a video of a guy playing a guitar made out of a cigar box. “I thought I knew a lot about music,” he says. But this was something totally new—at least to him.
A cigar box guitar may be simple, but there’s a certain art to making a good one. The first one Snowden attempted worked, “and that’s what surprised me,” he says. Entirely self-taught, Snowden hammered his way through the craft’s learning curve. “The first hundred or so weren’t that great,” he says. “As you’re learning, you get real frustrated, it’s a very emotional thing. Sometimes I’d be down in my basement and I’d be like, ‘What am I doing, man?’”
The main challenge had to do with the guitar’s proportions—what instrument makers call ‘scale.’ If the neck is too long or the frets are in the wrong place, the sound is compromised. And they can be uncomfortable to play. Trial and error were his teachers. “I got better at each little part. I’ve made all the mistakes so I know how to make them just right.” A cigar box guitar can be three-string, four-string, or even one-string. Snowden loves that. As someone who never had much use for rules, the CBGs, as they’re called, were a good fit.
Watch “Check out the depth and range of sound that Snowden gets of this cigar box guitar model, which has only 3 strings”
Since he started making CBGs in 2007, Snowden has sold more than 2,400 of them—by way of his website, his YouTube channel, and word-of-mouth. His customers hail from places as far-flung as Japan, Germany, and Australia. Country singer-songwriter Kristian Bush, of Sugarland fame, has recommended them as Christmas gifts. Snowden’s prices range from $500 to $625, depending on the intricacy of the design and the number of strings. It’s not fame and fortune, but it’s freedom. “I figured out how to do this and I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission,” he says. Snowden is like the ultimate one-man-band—making and selling guitars, and performing around town with a pedal operated drum kit that he rigged himself.
Most guitars these days are mass-produced using computer software, making them identical models of precision and reliability. By contrast, Snowden relishes the opportunity to create one-of-a-kind instruments that, despite their simplicity, are surprisingly versatile. “You can play with a pick, your fingers, a slide or an effects pedal, but even when you just plug one into an amp, you get a really cool sound. Each box is going to have a different tone—that’s what’s really fun about making them. You don’t know what it’s going to sound like.” As variable as they are, CBGs share one trait. “They have a haunting, droning kind of tone that you can’t get with any other instrument I’ve heard.”
Snowden’s resourcefulness with these guitars puts him squarely in the tradition of American folk music. CBGs are pure Americana, reflecting a corner of the culture where money was scarce but ingenuity was plentiful. The instrument started showing up promptly after the boxes themselves did, around 1840. The first were probably fiddles, says CBG historian William Jehle, who wrote “One Man’s Trash: A History of the Cigar Box Guitar.” “Fiddles were more common than guitars in those days,” Jehle says, because higher-pitched instruments had a better chance of being heard in the days before electric amplification.
When Snowden’s guitars caught the attention of the actor Jeff Daniels, who plays in a band, Daniels had him bring some to his hotel. “I thought he might bring one or two guitars. He brought thirty,” Daniels recalls. “Showed up at my door with one of those hotel luggage carts stacked to the top. I could have bought them all. I cut myself off at three.”
During vaudeville and the early years of radio, cigar box guitars became popular as novelty instruments. As those trends faded, the guitars were often relegated to use as children’s toys. But in the American South, the cotton pickers and tenant farmers often looked to music to lighten their lives. The cigar box guitar was affordable and accessible. They could be made with the box, a broom handle and any wire that was handy. Lightnin’ Hopkins, one of the greatest of the Mississippi Delta Bluesmen, had one. In an interview for the documentary “Where Lightnin’ Strikes,” he said, “I got me a cigar box, I cut me a round hole in the middle of it, take me a little piece of plank, nailed it onto that cigar box, and I got me some screen wire and I made me a bridge back there and raised it up high enough that it would sound inside that little box, and got me a tune out of it.”
Like many artisans today, Snowden is adept at social media. Yet some customers still discover him the old-fashioned way. In 2013, when the actor Jeff Daniels was in Atlanta working on “Dumb and Dumber To,” he saw one of Snowden’s CBGs displayed in a local recording studio. Intrigued, Daniels checked out Snowden’s website, then got in touch.
“Mike came down to my hotel from Marietta,” Daniels explained by email. “I thought he might bring one or two guitars. He brought thirty. Showed up at my door with one of those hotel luggage carts stacked to the top. He laid them all out around the room.” Then Snowden played one. “All that sound’s coming out of that?” he recalls thinking. Daniels was sold. “I could have bought them all. I cut myself off at three.” Daniels soon wrote a song called “Close But No Cigar,” which he says, “kills.” (Watch the video of Daniels telling this story, and then playing the song with three of Snowden’s guitars, in our sidebar.)
Snowden makes most of the parts on his guitars himself. For the “nut,” the piece at the top of the neck that holds the strings in place, he uses a basic, hardware-store screw. (Watch the video of Snowden building and then playing a guitar in his workshop in our sidebar.) And then, of course, there is the box. Snowden is a frequent visitor at cigar stores—around town or during travels—on the hunt for perfect boxes.
Good ones aren’t easy to find. Sometimes, Snowden gets lucky and discovers a back room filled with boxes; at other shops there may be only a few lonely leftovers piled outside, with a sign offering them for a few bucks each. Many have torn labels, or have been sliced with box cutters. Out of a hundred boxes, he might find only four or five that he can use. The best are those with an eye-catching label, in good condition. Most of all, he wants something large enough to produce the sound quality he’s looking for. “The bigger the box, the better the guitar,” he says. If the wood is too thick, the tone suffers. To check the wood’s density, therefore, he always gives the boxes a good thump before making a purchase.
Most cigar boxes are made of Spanish cedar, though “cedar” is a misnomer. The wood actually comes from a tree called cedrela odorata, which is a fragrant, resin-heavy relative of mahogany that grows in Latin America. Snowden doesn’t believe the variety of wood makes much difference, but he does admit to having two favorite brands. One is Punch, which goes back to the mid-19th century; its box makes a guitar that he describes as having a “growly, gnarly sound.” Cohiba, a Dominican import, is his other choice, which he thinks makes a smoother, mellower sounding instrument.
The origins of the cigar box guitar are obscured in the mists, or perhaps smoke, of time. What is clear is why, more than a century ago, there were so many cigar boxes around. Cigar, or “segar” smoking, as it was known in America in its beginning, dates to the late 18th century, and the contempt for it began almost simultaneously. Tony Hyman, curator of an online cigar museum, dug up this scold from The New York Weekly Magazine of Wednesday, August 24, 1796: “There is nothing, perhaps, more pernicious, or more destructive to the health of man, than the present practice of segar-smoking. It is of all others the most disagreeable, as well as the most obnoxious thing in use.”
In the early part of the 19th century, cigars were usually shipped in cases of a thousand, wrapped in anything from pigs’ bladders to palm leaves. America was expanding rapidly and cigar smoking was booming right along with it. Hyman estimates that people, mostly men, were smoking about 300 million cigars a year by the middle of the century. During the Civil War, when President Lincoln went in search of tax revenue to fund the war effort, cigars offered an opportune windfall. In 1863, the federal government issued regulations standardizing the types of boxes that could be used. With one stroke, the IRS was given an easy way to track their sales.
By 1865, it was illegal to ship cigars that weren’t boxed. At the time, color lithography was just coming into its own, taking advertising to a new level. The nexus of the cigar’s popularity and design innovations quickly found its way across the U.S. Before long, thousands of mom-and-pop cigar manufacturers, similar to today’s microbreweries, were competing for the customer’s attention with ornate box labels and logos. Hyman goes so far as to credit the cigar box with the development of point-of-sale advertising. When the brightly colored boxes started appearing in droves, people began to reuse them in ways limited only by the imagination. They became button containers, memento holders, lunch boxes, clocks, lamps—and musical instruments.
Snowden takes a certain pleasure in continuing the tradition of cigar box upcycling. But he’s doing more than that. Not only is he giving the boxes themselves a second life, he also is reclaiming additional wood supplies by using castoffs from a local carpenter to make the guitars’ necks. The net result creates a brand new thing, which is likely to have a much richer and longer life than the original ever would have had.
Watch “Mike Snowden plays his own composition on his favorite guitar, a well worn Punch CBG that he says ‘screams'”
Snowden’s early shift at Home Depot gives him the rest of the day to do as he pleases, and it almost always involves cigar boxes. He’s become a draw at local festivals and bars. And lately, he’s been doing workshops for kids, handing out child-sized cigarillo boxes and showing them how to build their own instruments. He seems completely at peace with his choices, with no plans for a CBG breakout hit or any more tours. No rules, no stress, just good music.
Not that he’s without dreams. “My next step is to start making my own boxes. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a whole guitar made of walnut? I’ll always keep on making cigar-box guitars, but I might do a sideline of guitars that are one hundred percent made by me.”