The Cigar Box Guitar Revival: David Sutton and his CBG Obsession

By Joe Bosso

A dozen years ago, David Sutton’s young daughter expressed interest in playing the guitar. Sutton, a Chicago-based photographer and amateur musician, owned some beautiful vintage guitars, but he thought he should start his daughter off on something smaller–and less valuable.

“I’d had some experience in woodworking, and I had vaguely heard of these things called cigar box guitars–these three or four-stringed instruments made from cigar boxes,” he recalls. “So I decided to see if I could build one myself.”

After doing some Googling, Sutton found some basic information on building a cigar box guitar. “The biggest issue was locating the right boxes,” he says. “But once I located some nice cedar boxes, I was off and running. I really enjoyed the process.” So much so that he built two models, one for his daughter and the other for himself.

It didn’t take long for Sutton to become a passionate cigar box guitar aficionado, and he discovered that there was an underground community of enthusiasts. So he decided to spread the word: His first book, Cigar Box Guitars, published in 2012, is a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to cigar box guitar building. A year later, he followed it with the photo-packed An Obsession with Cigar Box Guitars, a lovingly detailed look at over 120 unconventional, handmade stringed instruments. (The book’s second edition, titled Obsessed with Cigar Box Guitars, was published in 2019.)

“It’s a whole wide world out there of cigar box guitars,” says Sutton. “Some people make simple diddley bow-type instruments, while other folks get really elaborate with their electronics. You’ve got people who play them on their back porches, but there’s even big-time guitar stars who play them in concert. I just enjoy building them. You don’t have to be a master craftsman to put something together with your own hands–and it’s something you can play! What could be better than that?”

Are some people surprised that they can pick up a cigar box guitar and make music from it rather quickly?

Absolutely! Because they’re usually turned to an open tuning, making chords is easy. And the guitars are perfect for rudimentary slide playing. You don’t have to be a brilliant musician to have fun with one of these things. For most people, the most complicated aspect at first is learning how to tune the instrument, but there are apps for that. If you’re building a cigar box guitar, you’re probably interested in music, so your ear might already be developed and you can tune it by yourself.

That helps in keeping with the integrity of the blend…

It also prevents the whiskey from picking up some of the harsher, more bitter notes that can come from being over-oaked. Many estimate 50-to-60-percent of the flavor of whiskey is determined by its barrel. So, choosing the best barrels, and then putting the whiskey in at a proof that allows us to take advantage of those beautiful notes over the course of 8-11 years, is a part of what makes Uncle Nearest so great…and premium.

Have you seen the audience grow and change for cigar box guitars over the past few years?

For the first six or seven years that I was involved, I noticed a lot of forums starting up. There’s Cigar Box Nation by Shane Speal, and that’s an incredible site. More than anyone, Shane is responsible for the recent popularization of cigar box guitars. The history of them is quite rich. They started before you had factory-built guitars; people built them because they wanted something to play.

That changed in the ’50s and ‘60s. The economy and manufacturing were booming; people were back from the war and they wanted what was new. Factory-built guitars became more available and were less of a specialist item. You could buy a guitar from the Sears catalogs and things like that. And people weren’t interested in something that you built yourself. And fewer and fewer people had the skills.

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By |2021-03-29T13:38:49-08:00March 29th, 2021|Feature Interview|0 Comments
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