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Hill country artist and musician Frank Sant'Agata (above) plays on the cigar box guitar (detail below) he designed and built. Photo by Phil Houseal

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Details:
Contact Frank Sant'Agata at 830-896-0251 or at www.timelessmiracles.com. Hear a clip of Sant'Agata playing his cigar box guitar. More information at www.cigarboxguitars.com.

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Cigar Box Guitar

by Phil Houseal
Nov 12, 2008

 

Why would anyone build a guitar out of a cigar box? I asked Frank Sant'Agata that question.

He laughed. "Why would anyone climb Mount Everest?"

And yet there it is. He was sitting and strumming his guitar, carefully crafted out of a wooden cigar box he bought online. According to this hill country artist/musician/furniture refinisher/cabinet maker/author, cigar box guitars are not that unusual. Many associate them with slaves and sharecroppers, who fashioned crude single-string versions out of cigar boxes and broomstick handles. Around the time of the Civil War, cigar box guitars joined the pantheon of homemade instruments such as the washtub bass, jugs, and washboards that allowed even the poorest of the poor to play the blues.

One current aficionado who has built more than 200 cigar box guitars describes them as "small, portable and almost indestructible."

Sant'Agata took the concept several steps further.

"I saw cigar box guitars on the Internet, and said I have got to make one of those. I can't do anything halfway, so I started really getting into it."

He researched the people who built them, and researched how they built them. He didn't like the way anyone made them, nor how they sounded: flat and without good intonation.

So he sat down at his drawing board and came up with his own design.

He starts by ordering a good wooden cigar box online. He removes the top completely, and places blocks at each end. He adds reinforcement down the sides, and inserts x-braces on the top and back so it won't cave in. Bolt on a neck - with four strings instead of one - and you have built a better a cigar box guitar.

He adds his label "Singing Tree," named after a poem he wrote:

I lived in the forest in silence
Until I met the woodsman's ax
I thought my life had ended
Instead it just began
As I met the craftsman's saw

Now I rejoice
Silent no more
Now I can sing

Sant'Agata has already drawn up his next cigar box guitar, but hasn't gotten around to working on it since he can't put his first one down. It has become his guitar of choice.

With the small sound box, the guitar has a thinner sound that is not suited to accompanying a singer. He considers it more of a lead guitar, best used for playing blues. Most players tune them to an open chord then use a slide.

Sant'Agata strums his guitar using picks he designed and shaped himself (no surprise, that).

The talented and thoughtful craftsman wonders if he is crazy for building guitars out of cigar boxes.

"These are supposed to sound funky because it was a funky instrument," Sant'Agata mused. "I took it to next level, maybe that makes it not a cigar box guitar. Why not make a body too, and just make it shaped like a guitar box? Why make it square at all? It just goes on and on and on...."

He pauses and sighs, "A madman, that's what I am."