A man sits on a folding chair in the basement of a Rutland duplex. He picks up a crude, four-stringed guitar and places it on his lap. With his left hand, he runs a metal slide along the strings, which sit a quarter-inch above the fretless neck. His right hand plucks a soulful, Delta-blues riff from the instrument, the notes bending and moseying on a 12-bar progression. The sound, though rough hewn, is clear and true and packed with feeling. “That’s just a piece of board we glued to a cigar box,” the man says.
The player is Rick Redington, a singer-songwriter with a passion for guitars and music history. In 2009, he typed “building plans for cigar-box guitar” into Google and ended up making his first instrument. About a dozen guitars later, in May this year, he founded Vermont Mojo Box, and produces “poor man’s guitars” and percussion boxes from a small workshop in his Rutland home.
Redington, 45, is the front man for a three-piece Americana rock band called Rick Redington & the Luv. Since he began making and playing cigar-box guitars, he’s used them to promote his band’s music. And, because he plays the instruments so well, his performances have promoted his instruments, too.
Redington, who grew up in Rutland, came to music by way of a kidney defect. As a kid, he wanted to play hockey but couldn’t get his doctor’s permission. So, when he was 12, he traded his hockey stick for a guitar and dreamed of one day playing like his heroes from classic-rock bands Grand Funk Railroad and Black Sabbath. Redington assembled informal bands in his mom’s basement and played into the night. Since she worked the second shift at General Electric, she wasn’t bothered by the sound of teenagers rocking out. As a high school graduation present, Redington’s entire family chipped in to buy him a Gibson Les Paul guitar — his first real axe.
Redington’s musical world expanded that year when he met Cecil Ducharme, who ran an eclectic music store in the old Castleton train station. Ducharme, who died in 1989, was a font of music history and his place was stocked with guitars and mandolins from the early 1900s. Redington interned with Ducharme while attending Castleton State College, an experience that turned him from just a guitar player into a bona fide connoisseur of the instrument.
Today, Redington has five albums to his credit and tours all over the East Coast in a 1970 charter bus that used to be a mobile medical clinic. He plays clubs, bars and events several times a week in Vermont. His instrument collection has now grown to about 50, including a guitar worth $16,000, but his humble cigar-box creations are among his favorites. “There’s something about the sound of these things,” Redington says, making a hollow-sounding knock on a cigar box hitched to a simple poplar neck. “This is part of the history of American music.”
The earliest guitars, of course, predate America itself; it’s the trick of making a cigar box into a guitar that’s unique to this country. The compact storage devices for 20 to 50 cigars were developed around 1840; before that, cigars were kept in bigger crates and barrels. At about the same time, people began using the cast-off boxes to make fiddles. According to a history provided by the National Cigar Box Guitar Museum in York, Pa., slaves on Southern plantations first conceived of a cigar-box guitar. Their African ancestors had made instruments out of gourds, a neck and strings — called the “banjar,” it’s thought to be the precursor to the banjo.
Lacking gourds or the means to purchase guitars, American slaves used whatever they could find to create instruments, and that often meant a cigar box attached to a broom handle. They would incorporate the cigar-box guitar into “cakewalk” celebrations, where people would play music and dance around a cake. The best dancer would, as the saying goes, “take the cake.”
The cigar-box guitar became integral to Southern blues music — the lack of frets contributed to the “slide” style of playing. After the Depression, when money was tight, the instrument found its way into early American rock ’n’ roll. And it wasn’t just obscure blues and rock musicians who used them: “You hear stories of Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix starting on cigar boxes,” Redington says.
Now, cigar-box guitars appear to be making a comeback — is it a coincidence we’re in a recession? They’re popular among the do-it-yourself crowd, and the Internet is full of resources. Aside from being curious about the instrument, Redington researched cigar-box guitars so he could give his 12-year-old son something cool, yet affordable. The online instructions he found read “just like a list for marinara sauce,” Redington relates. Depending on the recipe, you need a three-foot board, a hacksaw blade with duct tape on two ends (for handles), a couple of screws, a wooden cigar box and not much else. You can make it acoustic or, as Redington prefers, electric.
Though he claims not to be mechanically inclined, Redington found his first cigar-box guitar surprisingly easy to build. Now he spends between 20 and 30 hours on each model and charges $150 to $450 per unit. “I really love the designing,” he says, “finding the right box, the right pickup, the right tone.” Redington also makes percussion instruments using cigar boxes and electric pickups, which can be tapped with a foot or a hand to produce a strong beat.
The key to success, he explains, is to find an all-cedar cigar box, not one made with cardboard and paper. Redington sources his cigar boxes on eBay, and purchased a couple dozen factory- second necks from the C.F. Martin guitar company.
For help with the more technical aspects of electrifying the guitar, he turned to Bubba Reis, a retired engineer in Ithaca, N.Y., where Redington happens to have a loyal fan base. Reis was so taken by Redington’s first fretless guitar he decided to build his own six-string fretted instrument. Then Reis’ friend Scott Adams started making cigar-box ukuleles and mandolins out of Reis’ scraps. Now they both have their own cigar-box-instrument businesses — BubbaSmokinGuitars and Lil’scrapyard, respectively. “Between the three of us,” Redington says, “we want to be able to build you any funky thing you need.”
Redington’s latest idea is to build an electric cigar-box backpacker’s guitar. Typical backpacker models are tinny and weak sounding. Since the cigar-box design is already compact, you can add a pickup to it and have a versatile instrument for the campfire or the stage. The price: $400. “That’s what you’d pay for an acoustic backpacker guitar,” Redington says, “but you can’t go into the club at night, plug it into an amplifier and start ripping solos on it.”
Despite Redington’s talent and reputation in New England and New York, it’s a tough time to be a musician without a day job. Regular gigs are drying up, and the remaining jobs don’t pay well. He says he’s working twice as hard for half the money, compared to five years ago, and is barely able to make the payments on the tour bus. But Redington didn’t get into the cigar-box-guitar business to make money, which is a good thing, because he’s earning the equivalent of minimum wage each time he sells one. What the pastime does provide is something nearly as important as cash: “It’s given us this mojo,” he explains, “this little bit of fuel.”
Rick Redington & the Luv will be performing this Saturday, August 14, at the August West Festival at Jay Peak. For more information about Vermont Mojo Box, visit www.vtmojobox.com.