I’ve been playing guitar, mostly electric, since I was 11 years old. Every once in a while, I look for something new to try. It turns out that the very day that I looked at 3 string blues sticks at L&M would be the day I would hear about Cigar Box Guitars and Craig Williams. I knew I didn’t buy the blues stick for a reason! Craig was that reason! I ordered a box right way which turned into a budding musical friendship and inspired the following interview. Also note that 17000 of the Alan Lomax recordings are now available online.
When and where did you first see/hear about CGBs?
When i first picked up the guitar I was heavily influenced by the folk music that my parents were playing. Traditional English and appalatian stuff. As I started to find my voice I started stumbling across this old country blues music from early part of this century. As I started researching these old legends I discovered a lot of them started out with these crudely made, one string diddly bows and three string cigar box guitars.
What are some early recordings of DBs and CBGs people can check out?
The cigar box guitar dates back to the mid 1800″s where it was more commonly made as a fiddle. this is before records were being made. You tube is a great source of information and music. Most of this will be more current covers as a lot of the old blues guys had gotten a hold of actual 6 or 12 string guitars by the time they started recording. Buddy Guy, BB King, Sleepy John Este’s, Son House, and Bo Diddley are a few artists that started out with CBG’s. But there were many more. If you research Alan Lomax’s rural blues field recordings he made for the Library of Congress in the 20′s, 30′s, and 40′s, there is some recordings where CBG’s and Diddly Bows were used.
Also, check out the more recent movie “It might get loud”. the opening scene is Jack White, from the White Stripes, making and playing an electrified Diddly Bow out in a cow pasture. Very cool, and the setting gives off a little of the old timey vide. Jack White makes a Diddley Bow:
Thanks for lending me that movie, btw. I want a Diddley Bow in my kitchen! Your aesthetic is pretty classic. Your boxes have pickups (not visible) but they are gritty fer sure. Have you ever considered putting a more serious pickup in your CBGs so they can be played really loud? Half question, half request.
Yeah, I try to keep them as traditional as I can, but I have to make a few aesthetic changes. For instance, these guitars were often built with a broom handle necks and no frets. Obviously today’s players want something a little more versatile and nicer looking, so I do build a proper neck with frets on mine. I use bolts for my nut and bridge, and door hinges for the tail piece. It keeps them a little more authentic. I choose not to use a proper pick up on these and go with the simple piezzo transducer because the piezzo has such a raw and dirty sound which I feel suits these instruments a lot more. These things were crudely made, rough sounding guitars played by poor share cropping laborers in the south, mostly on back porches after a hard day in the field. I am not opposed to using a proper pick up, but to be honest, nobody has asked me yet.
I gotta say it keeps things simple and clean not having to see the pickup as well. Where did you learn about making bottle neck slides? Such a cool addition to the box purchase.
As you get more into the blues, there is no way to avoid hearing someone playing bottle neck slide style. I loved the sound and knew it was an area of guitar playing I wanted to get into. My father was given a really nice blue glass bottleneck slide, made from an Irish cream bottle, a long time ago. When he found out I was interested in slide playing, he passed it down to me. Of coarse, right away, I dropped it and it shattered all over the ground. I loved the feel and sound of it so I knew I had to get another one. I searched out how to make one on the interweb. If I remember correctly, my father and I went out and bought a bottle of Bristol Irish cream and made another one. Of coarse, again, I dropped it and broke. Guessing that blue glass wasn’t meant to be for me, I have since made a nice dark green glass one for myself that has lasted a few years.
As most of the original guys building and playing these guitars made them with out frets, the only real way to play them was slide style with a bottle neck, knife, or sometimes an old hollowed out piece of bone. In keeping with that tradition, every one of my guitars comes with a hand made WS Bluesbox bottleneck fitted as closely to your finger size as possible.
I have enjoyed mine very much, having never played slide before getting my bluesbox. What tunings can you use on your CBGs?
Well on the 3 strings I am sure there are lots of options but I use two. For slide guitar I use a simple 2 note open tuning. The guitar is strung E,B,E, which is the lowest key you can go as with anything lower the strings will be too loose. But with this, you can tune each string up a step all the way to open A, which is as high as you can get before strings start to break. For a tuning that gives you more options with chord fingerings, you can tune it in G,D,B. This also can go down a few steps to offer a few more tonal options and keys.
Who are your favorite blues and for that matter country singers? I definitely hear the lonesome wail of a cowboy on the range in your singing.
Well, i did grow up with some country influences. I am definitely a Hank Williams sr. and Hank III fan. I love me some old Dolly Parton too. As for the old blues, the list is long but if I had to narrow it down to five, I would pick Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, R L Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Howlin’ Wolf.
I also have to mention Townes Van Zandt. He sang a lot of great songs that crossed over from country to blues.
I love old Dolly with Porter Wagoner. Also, her version of Mule Skinner Blues is tip top. Of course, Townes is amazing and forever underrated. Who are your top guitar influences?
Yeah, Mule Skinner Blues rules. I am really digging how Bob Bozman plays guitar right now. There are so many greats. Mark Knophler, Robert Johnson, Tim Williams…. the list changes almost daily thanks to my endless hours on youtube.
Yes, youtube has made a great change in what we have access to now. Well, I think his concludes my line of questions, for now at least. Thanks for your time and I look forward to future bluesbox sessions and commissions. – interview by: Allen Forester – www.wsbluesbox.com
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