I’ve been building, playing and collecting cigar box guitars and homemade instruments for more than two decades.
Like many guitarists, my Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) is a chronic and incurable.
Cigar box guitars, diddley bows, regular guitars and a host of other instruments fill my home studio and flow over into other rooms in the house. Collecting instruments is as much of a passion as songwriting and performing. To me, they all go together.
In 2010, I received an unexpected call from my father. He had just taken over Speal’s Tavern, a small dive bar in rural Pennsylvania that has been in my family since the days of Prohibition.
“I don’t know what to do with it,” he said. “There’s only five people here on a Saturday night.”
The tavern was once the watering hole for local coal miners and was about 30 years past its prime. However, my dad was excited to take over the business as it gave him something to do in his retirement.
“I have a basement full of cigar box guitars,” I told him, “and an extra PA system. Let’s turn the place into a live blues joint with a cigar box guitar museum!”
He went for it.
To prepare for the museum, I spent a couple weeks studying the layouts of Hard Rock Café’s and other instrument museums, taking notes on how the guitars were hung and lighting was pointed. For each instrument, I wrote a one-paragraph description of each guitar, its builder and any other relevant information and printed them out in 24 point type on cardstock. I mounted the descriptions onto foam-core board to give it an art museum look.
I loaded the van with all the instruments I wasn’t using in concert, along with that old PA system, and made the long drive to the bar. After cleaning the place from top to bottom and removing all pictures, posters and beer signs, we made a strategic layout for the new museum collection. All the guitars were hung using well-hidden plastic zip ties attached to strap buttons and securely screwed into the wall.
My rarest piece was placed at the center of the collection: a 100-year-old cigar box guitar. I made sure to place it right in the middle of the new stage area so that everybody could see it when bands would play. Other instruments were placed around it according to visual impact.
The results were stunning. This really was a museum and not just a bunch of instruments I collected.
We decided to launch the bar’s re-opening a couple weeks later. It gave us time to write up and send press releases to every media outlet in Western Pennsylvania. We not only hit the major newspapers, but also the small Pennysaver publications, blogs and college radio stations. The press release announced the “free cigar box guitar museum and the grand re-opening of Speal’s Tavern in New Alexandria, Pennsylvania.” We made sure to announce the addition of live blues music every weekend.
The major Pittsburgh-area newspapers picked up the story, running two- to three-page spreads with pictures, history and details. A few of the Pennysavers did too! In the end, we had standing room only for our grand re-opening. Cars were parked along the road for over a quarter mile. It was magnificent.
In order to promote the live blues music, we started the night with an open mic, and some of the best Pittsburgh blues talent showed up. Later that evening, I performed a solo concert on cigar box guitars.
In the past five years, the tiny little dive bar has become a destination place for blues aficionados and lovers of all kinds of music. The open mic night was so successful, they had to create a second open blues jam each week. This month, they’ll be debuting a jazz open mic as well.
I’ve continued to collect cigar box guitars and other instruments. I have about 30 more to add to the museum this year. This means I’ll have to take the entire collection off the walls and re-hang everything to fit the new ones. Once I get a chance to do that, you can guarantee I’ll be sending press releases out to tout the newest entries.
Speal’s Tavern is about 45 minutes east of Pittsburgh in the tiny town of New Alexandria, Pennsylvania. It’s still a tattered old dive bar from the outside and easy to miss. However, guitarists who venture inside will experience a "roadside Americana" museum the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while.
Do yourself a favor and stop in. Too far away? Take the photo tour.
And if your G.A.S. is out of control, why not open up a little museum of your own?
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 ShaneSpeal.com. Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C.B. Gitty Records.