Get your mojo workin’ with a cigar box guitar

Ben Redington, Don Tredtin, and Rick Redington show off their cigar box guitars

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 4/14/11] 
 
It’s a cold Wednesday night in downtown Rutland. Inside Last Call (formerly, Center Street Saloon) on the corner of Center and Wales Streets, a crowd has slowly grown over the last hour or so.

The door opens and closes steadily as smokers stream in and out, bringing with them a blast of icy air each time.

Onstage, Rick Redington holds court for his weekly downtown gig. He sits amidst an arsenal of stringed instruments. At his feet, the floor glows and blinks in a semicircle of pedals and other devices.

The sparse stage lights blend with the neon glare of window signs behind him, casting a shadowy glow that Redington seems to emerge from and retreat into at will.

Just finishing a song, he sets down his acoustic guitar and reaches for something different, something smaller and oddly-shaped, which he sets on his lap. It has a slender neck with four strings and a cigar box body.

Redington adjusts his volume and puts a steel slide to the strings, running it up the fret board and picking notes along the way, before he settles on a tune.

“Well, I used to wake the mornin’ before the rooster crowed,” he begins in his trademark growl, singing the opening lines of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Ballad of Curtis Lowe.”

The slide drags over the strings as Redington picks the tune, creating pops and scratches that add depth and character to the song. For a small instrument, it makes a big sound that is a strong match for his voice.

Redington is taking part in a tradition of homemade stringed instruments that dates back to the mid-19th century.

Cigar box guitars were an inexpensive option for people who wanted to play, but couldn’t afford a professionally made instrument. They can trace their history back to southern plantation and African-American slave communities.

Early blues players often favored the instrument, which also was a common component of jug bands where other do-it-yourself instruments like the washboard, harmonica and gutbucket (washtub bass) were also utilized.

Blues legends like Big Bill Broonzy and Lightnin’ Hopkins were cigar box aficionados. Jazz guitarist Charlie Christian also cut his teeth on one before going on to be one of the electric guitar’s early adopters.

Over the years, professional guitarists with blues roots have kept the tradition alive. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars count cigar boxes among their collections. An 8-year-old Jimi Hendrix made his first guitar out of a cigar box with rubber bands for strings.

During the Depression of the 1930s, cigar box guitars experienced a resurgence when musicians once again sought affordable alternatives to conventional instruments.

In recent years, as people have increasingly become interested in all things DIY, cigar boxes have enjoyed a renaissance.

Redington has always had a penchant for vintage instruments. Fans might recognize his grandmother’s ukulele-banjo — a diminutive four-string hybrid with a light, crisp sound — that often appears with him onstage.

His interest in building a cigar box took him and his son Ben to the Internet where they found a number of sites offering instruction and tips, which vary wildly.

“It’s kinda like grandma’s marinara recipe,” Redington said of the varying instructions.

Meanwhile, Redington found himself in the studio with Don Tredtin, where he was doing production work for Tredtin’s album. Reding-ton used his cigar box on one of the tracks. Tredtin was intrigued.

“People want to hear this sound,” Redington said, adding that they also want to make that sound for themselves.

He and Tredtin got to talking. Tredtin, who is in the flooring business, had no shortage of leftover pieces of wood, perfect raw material for the neck and headstock.

The two decided to build more of the guitars.

An engineer friend in Ithaca, N.Y., known as “Bubba” provided technical support and designed some prototypes, which Redington and Tredtin then replicated. Bubba still lends his expertise to the project, designing increasingly innovative and dynamic instruments.

The cigar boxes were procured from local smoke shops. As the instruments have gained popularity, they have been harder to come by. Redington said he has had to scrounge at times to find them, turning to the Internet, friends and wherever else they can find them. (“Tell your readers we’ll take them off their hands if they have any,” Redington noted.)

vtmojobox.com

All in, the process takes about 30 hours from start to finish. That includes Tredtin cutting the neck to the specifications before handing it off to Redington, who makes it sing, adding the strings, pickups and adjusting the fret board.

The neck is often the most difficult part, especially, early on when Redington was still learning.

“ It took a while to perfect the neck,” he said.

The end result is the Vermont Mojo Box. Over the past year or so, word of mouth and Redington’s performances have helped to spread word of this impromptu business venture.

Currently demand has surpassed supply, according to Redington.

(Full disclosure: I received one for Christmas and have been noodling away at it in my spare time.)

While playing a cigar box is both similar to playing a regular six-string guitar, it is also completely different. The neck is narrow and the action is high. While you can finger it like you would a guitar, Redington prefers to play it in an open tuning with a slide.

“Playing slide is pretty foreign to me,” Redington admitted, who explained that when he set out to make the Mojo Box,he wanted make playing slide easier. He kept the action high and the frets wide to make it “as simple as possible.”

“It’s slide guitar for dummies,” he joked.

It’s also a testament to the power of simplicity. Cigar box guitars are old school, low-tech and relatively simple to play.

“That’s what drew me to it,” Redington said, adding that the instrument’s straightforwardness makes it accessible to almost anyone.

But despite its simplicity, there’s no denying its sound — deep, full and steeped in tradition — which Redington describes plainly as “killer.”

Aside from the traditional cigar box guitars, Vermont Mojo Box is also experimenting with other DIY cigar box contraptions. Other prototypes include a shoebox-sized contraption called a “stomp board,” which works like a kick drum; a six-string ukulele; and a dual-neck bass/ guitar hybrid.

Starting on April 20 at Last Call, Redington will be holding a raffle of a cigar box guitar to coincide with release of his latest album. (The drawing will be held at a later date.)

You can also catch Reding-ton’s Cigar Box Band at the downtown Rutland Sidewalk Sales/Ethnic Festival on Friday, July 29.

To find out more about the Mojo Boxes, view videos of them in action or order one for yourself, visit vtmojobox.com .

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