This weekend marks the fifth running of the Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival at the York Emporium (343 W. Market St., York). At the center of the event is York musician Shane Speal, “The King of the Cigar Box Guitar.” We chatted with Speal in 2012 in advance of the 3rd annual festival to learn more about the history of an almost-forgotten instrument. This profile originally ran in the August 2012 issue of Fly Magazine. Speal plays the Cigar Box festival after-party at New Grounds Roasting Co. (284 W Market St, York) on Saturday at 7 p.m. The party doubles as a release party for Shane Speals Snake Oil Bands new album, Holler!.
A simple outdoor shed sits behind a two-story brick home in York.
It doesn’t have a permanent power source, and the myriad of power tools and woodworking equipment littered about come to life by extension chords running from the house. A lawnmower, snow blower and other yard tools sit in the corners.
It’s an average, every day shed by any stretch of the imagination – that is until you notice the boxes.
Stacked on workbenches are hundreds of cigar boxes, old and new, with names like Romeo y Julieta, Punch and The Standard. One box has a handwritten note on the lid – “Good 5¢ cigar, 6 for 25¢.”
From these stacks of boxes in his shed, Shane Speal is helping to bring back to life an instrument that all but disappeared from the common lexicon of music history.
Speal, known in musical circles as the “King of the Cigar Box Guitar,” spends his days crafting guitars out of the boxes and other random parts. They’re basic guitars – three strings, no frets and played with a slide – but they’re eye-catching, and in the right hands they can produce a sound as rough and pure as any true Americana music.
As a 42-year-old craftsman and blues musician, Speal says he never imagined he would be playing and building homemade guitars for a living. But it was a “series of unfortunate events” – most notably, losing his job – that led to what he calls his “biggest blessing.”
“Whenever you have something made with your own sweat and blood and your hands, it’s magical,” Speal says.
He has built more than 2,000 cigar box guitars and other homemade instruments since constructing his first guitar nearly two decades ago. He uses jigsaws, wood burners, drills and sanders to put them together from scratch, and his creations range from a bare-bones one-string contraption called a diddley bow to an experimental six-string guitar made out of a deep antique cigar box complete with a Gibson P-90 pickup.
Traveling to festivals around the region to sell his instruments, Speal says he sometimes feels like Harold Hill form the musical The Music Man. However, Hill was a con man, and Speal has real musical talent, shredding blues tunes on one of his guitars to demonstrate its viability as an instrument.
“I’ve always tried to carve out a unique niche for myself,” Speal says.
A BUDDING MUSICIAN
Speal has been playing musical instruments since he was 5 years old. He started off on the piano at the prompting of his father, an accomplished honky-tonk pianist who first taught him how to play the blues.
By ninth grade, Speal was playing bass and later moved on to the electric guitar, honing his chops by listening to late ’80s speed metal and thrash bands.
But it wasn’t until college that Speal finally gained a true appreciation for blues music, discovering artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and Hound Dog Taylor. The sound of the Delta blues captured his imagination and has never let go.
“I wanted that mean grit – kind of the grittiest, grungiest blues sound,” Speal says. “It’s what I craved.”
Speal started satisfying that craving by researching old Delta blues musicians who couldn’t afford to buy true guitars and fashioned their own by jamming a stick into a cigar box and using screen wire as strings.
“That was the grit I was looking for – something so primal that it was just cobbled together from stuff around the farm,” Speal says.
He went to work building his first cigar box on July 3, 1993. It was made from a cardboard Swisher Sweet box and a plank of wood from his dad’s barn. That guitar now proudly hangs on the wall at his friend’s roadhouse bar in West Virginia.
A year after building his first guitar, Speal built his second and continued building more. He has built guitars for the likes of B.B. King, Ted Nugent and Corey Harris. He even shared a few beers backstage with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull after giving him a guitar.
KING OF THE CIGAR BOX GUITAR
When people ask Speal where the term “King of the Cigar Box Guitar” came from, he tells the story of a tongue-in-check tribute to former York resident and outsider musician James “Rebel” O’Leary who billed himself as The King of Country Music.
“People think it’s a total ego trip,” Speal says. “It’s not. Who would want to be the king of something as shitty as an instrument with a stick through a box? Me!”
His wife even bought him a tattoo of three cigar box guitars surrounded by his name and a crown for his 40th birthday.
The cigar box guitar has become Speal’s primary instrument. He has a collection
of acoustic guitars, but they are always left at home when he performs his gritty blues in bars.
Every Wednesday night at downtown York’s First Capital Dispensing Co. is Speal’s domain. He runs an open mic that he calls “a spectacle” and “a circus atmosphere,” as musicians come with all types of homemade instruments.
Speal considers himself a historian as well as a performer. During a typical show, he offers quick history lessons on the cigar box guitar. He points to some of the historical creators of the instrument – bored lumberjacks in Wisconsin and the Yiddish vaudevillians in the Catskill Mountain of New York. In fact, Larry Fine of The Three Stooges was known as one of the top virtuosos of the instrument.
In the 1940s, the Sears & Roebuck catalog helped to put the kibosh on the cigar box guitar, mainly because it offered widespread availability of cheap, good quality guitars.
But Speal says the instrument has made a resurgence in the last decade because of the current recession, a growing contingency of D.I.Y. musicians looking for an original gritty sound and curious woodworkers wanting to build their own guitars.
CREATING A MOVEMENT
Today, Speal is spearheading a bona fide movement of people building their own cigar box guitars. He created the first website devoted to the cigar box guitar, which features photos of instruments, instructional videos and more.
Three years ago Speal also launched the Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival, held annually at The York Emporium bookstore in downtown York.
Speal says the festival is a celebration of ingenuity and an “old-meets-new mindset” with musicians looking to the past for inspiration while using modern sensibilities. The festival now draws hundreds of fans from around the country and as far away as Australia and Canada. It includes performances on the back of a flatbed truck, seminars on how to make instruments and vendors selling instruments.
“The cigar box guitar is an underground movement, but it has some hardcore followers,” Speal explains. “I often call it the ‘fun cult’ – kind of like the Jimmy Buffett Parrotheads and the Star Trek Trekkies, but we have guitars.”
The 5th annual Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival returns to the York Emporium (343 W. Market St., York) August 22 and 23. Performances are free. All ages. Click here for more info.