In the parking lot of York Emporium, a bookstore and repository of pop culture miscellany in York, Penn., Justin Johnson has set up camp. On Thursday night, he and partner Nikki Jaegar parked their RV and popped out the awning; by Friday morning, they were surrounded by cigar box guitar vendors and luthiers, all drawn to the 270-year-old Pennsylvania city for a festival celebrating the handmade instrument.
"We kind of went to bed in an empty parking lot and woke up in the middle of a roots instrument festival," Johnson says. He's played similar events in Chicago, Florida, New Jersey, Alabama and Missouri, and he's soon headed to Paris and—hopefully—Tasmania to do the same. "We've played just about every one we've heard of."
For Johnson, the cigar box guitar is not just a quirky alternative to its ubiquitous six-stringed cousin; it's also the reason he and Jaeger sold most of their belongings to become nomadic. Their RV, the "Gypsyvan," is a traveling museum of the instrument. Johnson still owns a few traditional guitars, but they have no place in his live show now.
"I've been playing as long as I can remember, one instrument or another," Johnson says. Stringed instruments, in particular, always spoke to him, so he focused on guitar. But it was a Christmas show in 2011 at The Mill in Gibsonville, N.C., that properly introduced him to cigar box guitars; the place had a few of the instruments for sale, so owner Jim Smith asked Johnson to play one during his set. "It had a different soul and a different vibe than any instrument that I've played. I played it most of the night."
Johnson now owns that instrument. From there, he was hooked, and he went on to meet builders and aficionados. Some of these people were musicians, people who loved the sound and playability, while some were woodworkers with no desire to play. Johnson soon left behind a rented home in rural North Carolina to wander the country, a roving museum of homemade guitars in tow.
Though born in California, Johnson has lived most of his life in North Carolina. For years he played in Wilmington, gigging hard in various reggae, blues and rock bands there. "That was sort of my onstage musical education," he remembers.
After he met Jaeger in 2009, the two found a place together in Snow Camp, just north of the Alamance-Chatham County line. Johnson began playing solo, while Jaeger handled the booking and promotion. In October 2012, they put in a 30-day notice at their rental, bought a camper and pulled up anchor.
"When you're in a home and you're thinking in your living room, 'OK, next month we'll be living in something that's half the size of this living room with everything that we're going to need to live and try to be comfortable,' it's a pretty scary proposition," Johnson admits.
The first few trips had their share of minor disasters, but Johnson and Jaeger quickly learned RV maintenance and upkeep. They've made a life together out of nonstandard parts, Johnson reckons, not unlike the instrument he loves.
"I know that's exactly what the first person looking at a cigar box and a stick probably thought, that this could work," he says. "'I've never heard of it, but let me put it together and see what we can make out of it.'"
For Johnson, the origins of the cigar box guitar are intertwined with those of stringed instruments in general. He envisions the ancient hunter with a bow and arrow, plucking away at the bowstring—"It's just fun, you get a sound out of it." From there, people realized they could bite down on the string and use their mouth as the resonator, as with a mouth harp.
"The next generation ... you see them attach this gourd to the back of the bow and it still looks like a bow, but then you have a gourd on one end so they can sing instead of bite down on it," he says.
The evolving instrument is now only a flattened neck and an animal skin away from a banjo.
Worldwide, folk luthiers used whatever was available for that resonator—coconuts, gourds, turtle shells. In industrialized nations like the United States, though, people were more likely to have commercial packaging lying around than coconuts or gourds. So when a tax law change in the 1840s required Cuban cigar companies to ship their goods in boxes rather than bundles, the empties soon filled this role. "They were shipping them in these beautiful boxes that were made out of tone woods—cedar and mahogany," Johnson says. "That was just an abundant wood source in the area these came from."
By the 1870s, the Boy Scouts had published blueprints for a cigar box banjo called the Uncle Enos Banjo. Such homemade instruments sprang to life in the jug-band era and resurfaced amid the harsh economic conditions of the Great Depression. Today, Johnson says, technology allows him to amplify or record cigar box guitars that were simply too quiet before, while their essential place in roots and blues music (many well-known bluesmen learned to play on such instruments) have piqued traditional music enthusiasts' interest. They are far cheaper than their larger, factory-built cousins. Many makers even wind their own pickups, carve necks of premium maple and allow remarkable customization options—particularly for the price. Johnson, for instance, has custom-built cigar box guitars with individual string pickups or both piezo and magnetic pickups with a blend control. These are top-dollar options on factory electric guitars.
"I think any guitar player that thinks it's a gimmick or a novelty, when they play it, I think that gets wiped out," he says. He thought similarly, but one Christmas in Gibsonville changed all that.
"Some people, if they have a guitar that won't work anymore—say the headstock's cracked or the wiring's no good—they'll take the parts that do work, put them on a cigar box guitar, and then fill in the blanks with homemade stuff, and you have a brand new guitar that sounds better, in a lot of cases, than what you had originally," he says. "And some builders look down on that and say that's a novelty."
For Johnson, though, cigar box guitars are a way of life. He posits that the same drive behind all art, from cave painting to high-tech CGI, compels humans to create unlikely devices like these instruments. Granted, his own experience is more practical than philosophical.
"With an instrument like a cigar box guitar, the boxes are all different and they all are made of different woods, different techniques," says Johnson. "They never sound the same. You are definitely the only one who owns that guitar."