“Junior Ben” didn’t want me to mention his real name when I told him I was going to write about his guitar. He was still afraid of being called a “snitch” by other prisoners who had helped smuggle parts and illegally build it years ago in Huntington State Prison in Pennsylvania.
He’s been out for more than 18 years.
This guitar came to life inside the 126-year-old jail that is so massive, it’s known locally as “The Wall.” Junior Ben had a broken guitar neck to start with. The heavy body was hand-carved from Pennsylvanian walnut and oak with white-painted binding. The hand-stamped brass truss rod cover has the word, “LADY,” a tribute to B.B. King’s “Lucille.”
All the wiring was smuggled in from the prison shops or pulled out of headphone jacks. All the knobs are spaced very closely together, a necessary step in order to keep wiring to a minimum.
Because Junior Ben worked the front desk at the prison, he was able to get pickups mailed to the prison and smuggled back to the shop. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the correct humbucker pickups to fit the routes and resorted to mounting single coils into the body, using black construction paper to cover the gaps. The guitar spent five years in prison with him and was shipped home right before he was released in 2000. He continued to play this guitar for the next 13 years.
Junior Ben sold it to Guitars on George, a music store in York, Pennsylvania. The owner, Jerry Duncan, called me because he knows I’m always searching for the next “poor man’s guitar.”
Soon after acquiring it, I tracked down Junior Ben and we had a good afternoon together, talking about this guitar and his love for the blues. When I asked him why he sold the guitar, he said, “My arthritis keeps me from playing music anymore. Besides, this wasn’t the first time I sold it. It was sold away several times in prison when I needed things.”
He looked at me with a sense of pride and bragged, “Its worth increased to 20 packs of cigarettes.”
This is an exclusive excerpt from Shane Speal’s new book, Making Poor Man’s Guitars (2018, Fox Chapel Publishing). Speal is the curator of the Cigar Box Guitar Museum inside Speal’s Tavern in New Alexandria, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit ShaneSpeal.com and PoorMansGuitar.com