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The DIY Musician: Weesay, the Oil Can Guitar Master — Exploring African Can Guitars, Part 1

He’s 37, blind and homeless.

He makes about $4 a day singing on the streets for whatever change is thrown at him. His guitar is cobbled together from an old stick, a paint can and old guitar strings.

And he is completely badass.

Wesseh Freeman (a.k.a. Weesay) became an internet sensation in December with a video uploaded by a potato chip company in his home country of Liberia.

Somebody with a cell phone camera approached Weesay on the street and asked him to make up a jingle for O! Chips potato chips. Weesay picked up his three-string "can guitar" and proceeded to rock out. The result was a two-and-a-half-minute video that was viewed by millions.

Before you watch the video and then drift off to the next viral thing, note a few things about Weesay’s guitar and technique:

01. His frets are made from bike spokes or coat hangers and are apparently moveable; yet he has a mastery of intonation. This instrument should be completely out of tune…but it’s not! Weesay plays it like a boss.

02. Being a fan of reggae music, Weesay has the frets set up mainly for I, IV, V chords and tunes his strings to a root, third and fifth for a major chord. This allows him the ability to play common reggae rhythms.

03. Note the stick plectrum, similar to a “risha” pick used by Mid-Eastern oud players. He uses downstrokes for almost all picking.

Here's the video that started it all for Weesay:

Apparently things are getting better for Weesay. One American fan bought him an Ovation-style guitar, and several locals are working on a crowdfunding campaign to get him a home and a medical procedure to fix his blindness. All of this is happening right now, and updates are being posted on the Weesay Liberia Facebook page. (Go there and become a fan.) The page is filled with more videos, pictures of the guitar and lots of information. I’m addicted!

A final thought: To me, these viral video internet stars are the modern-day versions of Alan Lomax's discoveries. Unfortunately, we are being barraged with a firehose of entertainment snippets pointed at us daily, making people like Weesay stars for only a 24- to 48-hour viral posting cycle. Most are rarely followed up with news stories/recordings/etc.

I hope to change that for Weesay and the fascinating concept of the African can guitar tradition.

A friend just gave me a gas can the same size and shape as Weesay's, and I intend on creating a guitar just like his. Look for the how-to article soon!

Shane Speal is the "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.