If I had a nickel for every time somebody posted viral shovel guitar videos on my Facebook page, I could afford to buy a respectable guitar. Until Zuckerberg starts handing out nickels, I’ll keep playing my new Shovelcaster by Richard Newland of Bakersfield, CA.
The Shovelcaster is a fretless three-string instrument, played slide-only, and is very much in the cigar box guitar tradition. Newland starts with a square-point railroad-type shovel and hand machines stainless steel bridge and nut parts. All machining is cleanly done, giving it a pro setup that doesn't come across as homemade-looking. Even the screws have acorn nut caps on the back, which guarantee you won’t be scratched or snagged by the end of a bolt. Fret markers are woodburned up to the 9th fret. Note markers continue the fret marks, using screws up the metal shovel handle.
I have been playing a three-string cigar box guitar for 25 years, so this setup was easy for me to play. The strings are tuned to G-D-G, just like a power chord, and make for an easy way to learn slide guitar. Using a shorter guitar slide, such as the Bone Digger from StubbySlide, enabled me to work between each string and get in some advanced playing styles.
Sonically, the Shovelcaster delivers some very clean tones via the 12 Bar Blues handmade pickup by Marshall Hammond. These pickups are some of the thinnest you’ll ever see and mount directly to the top of the shovel. With the pickup in the bridge position, you can get some great country tones. Crank the amp and it’s a snarling shovel monster.
My only gripe is the pickup jack. The 12 Bar Blues pickup is hardwired to a female-end guitar cord, similar to those used in extension or patch cables. These female ends have wiggle room when you plug a guitar cord, allowing for buzz as seen in the demo video. The easy way around that is to put a small piece of tape on the cord and jack.
Musician and author, Shane Speal is responsible for the resurgence of cigar box guitars in modern music. He fronts the DIY-instrument band, Shane Speal and the Snakes, curates the Cigar Box Guitar Museum inside Speal’s Tavern in New Alexandria, PA, and has made 2,000 cigar box guitars to date. His latest book, (Fox Chapel Publishing, August 2018) combines DIY instrument projects with their deep blues history.