Rich Kennedy is one of those Renaissance men you meet and instantly like. He’s also one of the most fascinating guitar builders I’ve met in a long time.
Kennedy is the luthier behind Deepseed Guitars, one of the new masters of cigar box guitars-as-art. Deepseed Guitars takes old-world cigar box guitar ideas (wooden box resonators, floating bridges made from bolts) and uses them as a canvas for a new and exciting guitar style.
If Michelangelo designed guitars for Bo Diddley, they'd look like this.
Working out of his New York apartment, Kennedy mixes intricate pyrography (woodburning), stains, paints and stunning carvings to cover each of his creations, from box body to headstock. Geometric shapes, Celtic motifs and even vintage tattoo designs make their way into his work. (See examples in the photo gallery below.)
I cannot stress how intricate these designs are. If they were on a painter’s canvas, they'd have a frame around them and an astounding price tag. Yet, there they are, on a cigar box guitar, the instrument of the American peasant.
I first met Kennedy at the Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival in August. When I walked up to him, he was in the middle of a conversation with another builder, giving away building tips and advice (a common trait among this crowd). When I recalled this, Kennedy said, “It was one of my favorite moments of the festival!” He continued, “I was lending advice to a fellow vendor regarding construction tips. He was so appreciative.”
He’s really that much of a nice guy, folks.
Kennedy could easily get away with making electric guitars of a "normal" nature, yet he sticks to the traditional cigar box guitar styles.
“I love the idea of transformation,” he says, “taking something that already exists that was never meant to be part of an instrument. I've mainly used boxes with plywood pine tops. The sides and back are solid birch and basswood.” It’s a gumbo of found object art, sculpture, carving and luthiery.
“I love the woodburning because of the ‘etched’ texture and dimensionality it brings,” Kennedy says. “Woodburning and hand carving somehow makes you feel as if the wood evolved along with you in becoming an instrument.”
Guitar World readers might wince at the thought of a box with plywood top for a body. However, he chooses much larger boxes than typical cigar boxes, allowing for even more tone, volume and depth. I’ll let Kennedy’s own demo video attest to how well they sound:
Cigar box guitars typically have fewer strings than a normal guitar, recalling the Depression era when builders would use a couple of strands of screen door wire or baling wire as strings. Deepseed Guitars have four strings and are tuned to open G (G D G B, low to high). The use of bolts for the nut and bridge allows the player to easily change the string spacing by moving the strings from groove to groove. [NOTE: This is especially helpful if you decide to change string gauges and turn these blues machines into tenor guitars. Ah…so many wonderful options!]
Deepseed Guitars are sold at DeepseedGuitars.com. The website includes an extensive photo gallery of guitars past and present. The artwork is absolutely stunning.
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.