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The DIY Musician: Electric Cigar Box Guitars, the Blues and Other Lies

In the world of the blues, there can be staunch traditionalists. I’m sure it’s the same in just about every other genre.

Thank god nobody goes to my concerts to see anything authentic …

I perform with cigar box guitars and a foot-stomp board, and my bandmates play washboards, washtub bass and harmonica. When music promoters see the instrumentation, they automatically assume we play traditional bluegrass, jug band or some sort of Americana.

Um, no. We’re balls-out hard rock.

Yes, the music is based in the blues (along with prison chants and field hollers), but our basic starting point is somewhere between R.L. Burnside’s Fat Possum stuff and Led Zeppelin’s first album.

This week, I’ve built a new axe to add to my live arsenal: the DeltaLectric cigar box guitar. Based on a traditional three-string fretless cigar box guitar (played with a slide), I’ve hot-rodded it with a vintage-style lipstick tube pickup in the bridge position. It’s a beautiful lie: It looks like a primitive blues instrument, but it screams like a bitch. (Yes, I sell these. You can buy one here.)

Should I also mention that the guitar is fed into a signal chain that has distortion, two delays, polyphonic octave, chorus and rotating speaker effects? It’s then fed into a screaming Musicvox tube amp (15- or 30-watt versions, depending on the venue). This ain’t no Robert Johnson. Hell, it ain't even Hound Dog Taylor. It’s liar’s blues.

The DeltaLectric cigar box guitar allows me to summon the ghosts of blues past. Its three strings are set up without frets, so I have to use a slide the entire time. The sound and feel are distinctively Delta blues, yet the electric tones harken something more hard rock.

I’ll be honest, I could probably mod a regular electric guitar to play like the electric cigar box guitar, but that would totally miss the point. There’s a bit of danger in playing homemade instruments. The audiences and I are in this tightrope walk of reality where we know the show could be destroyed or explode at any given song in the evening. The louder the show gets, the more fiercely the instruments get abused. Sometimes a single string break can completely throw-off a song based on a three string guitar. That’s when the band erupts in chaos and instruments get thrown across the stage.

Why should Slipknot and Gwar have all the fun?

The blues used to be dangerous, then it got packaged into an adult contemporary box and organized into TAB charts. Luckily, nobody has passed any laws demanding pure traditionalism. I’d rather be a blues liar.

You are more than a guitarist. You are a musician, a creative force. You have the right to take several opposing styles or influences, feed them into the Veg-O-Matic of your mind and come up with something totally unique. If people accuse you of straying from the fold, be proud. Be bold. Create your own freak flag and wave it high.

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.

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