Museum to host cigar-box guitar workshop

Feb. 07, 2013 @ 04:32 PM

Bob Johnson’s unbridled passion for making cigar-box guitars began innocently enough, when a friend asked him to do a simple favor.
In the process, Johnson stumbled across the world of cigar-box guitars, and the favor almost didn’t get done.
“I started making these cigar-box guitars, and it took me close to a year before I got around to (fulfilling the favor),” Johnson says. “As I kept making the guitars, I got fairly good at it. It’s fun, it’s interesting, there are no rules, and each guitar presents its own set of challenges, because every cigar box is different.”
Johnson, of Hillsborough, will lead a cigar-box guitar-making workshop Saturday afternoon at the High Point Museum.
Starting with cigar boxes, lumber from a hardware store, minimal guitar hardware and hand tools found in most garages, Johnson will craft two high-quality cigar-box guitars over the span of a couple of hours. He’ll cover everything from materials acquisition, tools and cigar box preparation to internal bracing, neck shaping, fretting, stringing, tuning and intonation.
He’ll also cover the history of cigar-box guitars and the different styles of cigar-box guitars, and his presentation will be interspersed with musical demonstrations by a couple of experts, Justin Johnson and Wes “Moaning Mule” Yates.
“Justin is a wizard with cigar-box guitars,” Johnson says. “You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between him playing a cigar-box guitar and Chet Atkins playing a traditional acoustic guitar.”
Johnson began making the unique guitars several years ago, after a schoolteacher friend asked him if he could make some canjos — stringed musical instruments fashioned largely from a coffee can and a piece of wood — for his young students.
“I did some online research on how big to make them and how to make them to scale, and in doing that I bumped into this burgeoning subculture of cigar-box guitar building,” he recalls. “Having been a cigar smoker in the ’80s, I had a bunch of old cigar boxes, so I decided to make one, and I forgot all about the canjos.”
After several years of making the instruments, Johnson has become picky when it comes to the cigar boxes he uses.
“People look at me pretty strange when I go to cigar stores, because I’m picking up the empty boxes and tapping them, listening for the sound,” he says with a chuckle. “I look at the cigar boxes probably as closely as a lot of people look at the cigars.”
Johnson’s nickname, “Maduro Bob,” refers to a type of cigar — the only kind Johnson would smoke when he was a cigar aficionado.
During Saturday’s workshop, he’ll go through the entire guitar-building process, demonstrating that it requires a certain amount of patience and precision, but you need not be a master craftsman.
Johnson typically sells his cigar-box guitars for anywhere from $125 to $350. They can be found on his website, www.madurobob.com.
“I think what really draws me to this is that my day job is a desk job,” he says, “and like so many people with desk jobs, I work and stress all day long, and at the end of the day I can’t point to something and say ‘That’s what I did today.’ But at the end of the day, I can go in my shop and build a guitar, and it’s something I can point to and say ‘That’s what I did.’ And it’s music, so it’s fun.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579

Want to go?

Bob “Madurobob” Johnson will lead a cigar-box guitar-making workshop Saturday, from 1 to 3 p.m., at the High Point Museum, 1859 E. Lexington Ave.
The workshop will be interspersed with live performances by Justin Johnson and Wes “Moaning Mule” Yates, demonstrating various cigar-box guitar playing techniques.
The two guitars created during the workshop will be raffled by the museum, with all proceeds benefiting the museum.
In conjunction with the workshop, a new exhibit, “Homegrown Harmony,” will be open through mid-April in the museum lobby. The exhibit features examples of handmade banjos from a local collector, as well as one from the High Point Historical Society’s collection — a wooden cigar-box banjo made by Levi White Johnson of Thomasville around 1900. He was a brickmason, carpenter and blacksmith until he lost his sight in 1935; he played music until his death in 1964.
For more information, call the museum at 885-1859 or visit www.highpointmuseum.org.