Johnny Cash called it a Tennessee flat-top box. At its heart, an acoustic guitar is just some strings and a box to resonate their sound.
Drawing on a tradition dating back to the first American country music, Winthrop resident Mel Cooke has spent the past year learning how to make guitars out of real cigar boxes.
He was inspired to begin crafting the unique instruments after learning about them in a Ken Burns documentary about country music.
“People in Appalachia had no money, and they could find old boxes. Some of these are made out of tin cans,” he said. “There was no rules on it, it was whatever they could come up with.”
That’s still true today, Cooke said.
First he started with a kit and Google. He found help and hardware from resources like cigarboxnation.com — a website bringing together many people with interests similar to Cooke’s.
Now he has his own templates and designs each instrument himself. He buys some of the boxes from websites like Etsy, and sources others straight from cigar shops.
The design of the unique instrument starts with the cigar box as inspiration.
“And I’ll sit around and just play with them, with where would I want to put the sound holes, or what type of neck would I want to put with it,” he said. “… Some of these boxes are solid wood, some of them are made out of pressed cardboard.”
All of Cooke’s guitars have three strings, and unlike traditional guitars, have no frets — like a violin, or stand-up bass. They’re also tuned to an open G chord and the strings are placed high above the neck, making it ideal to play with glass or metal slide.
Open tunings allow a person to play any major chord the same way — with a single finger depressing, or barring, all six strings between two frets on a standard guitar, or all three strings on Cooke’s guitars.
“It’s a really good guitar for non-guitar players, which is me,” he said. Since learning to make the guitars, he’s also learned to play them, he said.
Standard tuning for a six and 12-string guitars is E-A-D-G-B-E, or the key of E.
“If you know how to play guitar, you would pick it up really easily,” he said.
The strings are attached to each end of the wooden neck, extending the full length of the guitar at each end of the box.
Cooke said he has dabbled in woodworking for decades, and doesn’t consider himself a fine instrument maker. His cigar box guitars are mostly functional crafts or art pieces. Of the 16 he’s finished and put up for sale at Methow Valley Goods in Twisp, some have been bought by musicians and others by people looking for a unique piece of local art for their home.
“It doesn’t require a lot of specialty tools; it’s mostly hand tools to put them together,” he said
Cooke’s finished products are for sale at Valley Goods in Twisp. For more information, go to methowvalleygoods.com/