This is the original text of the article published in the Walden Local, 18 August edition of the paper
Sourcing Sound From a Box
By Jiff Godfrey
The cigar box guitars currently used in Moonshine Coyote are just two of many that I have built. These quirky little instruments were not something I ever envisaged building, until about six years ago. I had been in bands in the late 80’s, early 90’s and occasionally still playing, but I really had no real interest in gigging again. Then out of the blue I began a musical journey that would change my world and pretty much become a way of life and reignite my passion for playing live music again.
My initiation into the world of Cigar Box Guitars (CBG’s) and journey began with my seeking an elusive sound, after exposure to the track ‘Little Red Rooster’ by Howling Wolf. This version was not polished and crisp, it was grainy unprocessed and raw. Could have easily been labelled in a modern world as tired and dated…Not for me though! I heard honesty, character and charm. I had to have that sound! And obsession took over as I tried in vain to recreate a similar sound, no studio effects or re-tuning or re-stringing guitars would expose the sound I wanted. In a bid to alleviate this frustrating situation, I sought guidance via the internet, my quest to seek out this most elusive of sounds had me trawling through various music sites and YouTube clips for many hours. Following virtual crumbs, I happened to find the sound I was looking for and at the same time stumbled upon the latest revival of the Cigar Box Guitar (CBG) movement. I say the latest, because it turns out that cigar box instruments go back to beyond the American civil war and plans for a cigar box banjo were published in 1884 in The American Boy’s Handy Book, by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America. These plans showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box. Many years later there followed a revival, it was during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a resurgence of homemade musical instruments, times were hard in the American south and for entertainment sitting on the front porch singing away their blues was a popular pastime. Little did these people know that the sound they were creating would be so sought after by myself and so many others in years to come.
The future is now and thanks to the internet I had uncovered the sound I had been seeking, the only problem was that I did not actually possess a cigar box guitar of my own! I could have easily purchased a CBG from the many luthiers advertising their very smart looking guitars, but there seemed to be more to this Cigar box guitar malarkey than splashing some cash out on a new toy. Father’s Day was looming and instead of putting in a request for an obligatory present, I selfishly requested that on that day I was to be left alone, uninterrupted for a few hours to build my very own CBG. I had been inspired by what I had seen and read on the internet; it turns out there were a lot of people still building their own CBG’s. And I wanted in too! I wanted to live the moment and to make my own CBG, I wanted to expose the secret sound hidden in some old box!
On a seeking and finding mission, I clambered around the attic. Unable to find a cigar box, an old trinket box and an old broken teak coffee table would have to do, as I had nothing else! Using various internet sources for guidance, I worked with just the very basics of tools: a small saw, drawknife and a hand drill. I then made use of salvaged guitar parts to make it function properly. I badgered and fettled away for a few hours, until I had fashioned my very first three string CBG. I then decoupaged the box with the print of an old cigar box label I had printed off to complete my creation, and I was as pleased as punch. Although it was a bit crude and lacked the finesse of a brought one, it was mine and I had made it myself from items that were repurposed, just like they used to in old times! Indeed, it looked oddly antiquated and basic, it was after all only a stick through a box with some strings. I tuned it to DAD for amusement on Father’s Day. And YES! There it was, the secret sound of this trinket box, more importantly that elusive sound that inspired this journey into the past and putting me on a path that would eventually lead back to enjoying making music again. I really threw myself into learning how to play this stick in a box, using a bottle neck to slide up and down the strings, alternative tunings and the different techniques that were needed for playing these great little guitars. In no time at all I had made a four string to go with the three string, then another and another. Before I knew it, I began making a few six string cigar box guitars, in no time this hobby has become a bit of an obsession to the point where I enjoy building and playing them so much, I now seek out old cigar boxes and broken guitars regularly to build with. It has taken over to the point of now having a bigger shed to accommodate the creation of more Cigar Box Guitars, cigar box amps and many other things including props for the band.
I thank those early pioneers sourcing sound from a box for inspiring me, if it wasn’t for those folks, I would have truly given up on regularly playing music. I now gig on a regular basis with the marvellous East Anglian band Moonshine Coyote, who rehearse at Fairycroft house SW. A highly entertaining band who give off the vibe of being redneck country folk, with a thing about making ‘a good old moonshine sound’ in an Americana Blues style. The band love performing familiar and old re-jigged songs played in their own moonshine style, using instruments that are a little unusual and yet in some way still traditional. By appearance it becomes obvious that the instruments Moonshine Coyote use are far from most bands standard branded and familiar choices. Presenting themselves as a Cigar Box Blues band, Moonshine Coyote have a preference to perform music on an eclectic array of homemade, bespoke and refurbished instruments. A revealing closer look at the bands alternative instrument choice begins with the back line, percussionist and second vocal Lee, who plays a bespoke cajon (kohon), which has been fashioned in the shape of a medium sized beer keg. The superb choice of the style for the cajon was made by Lee himself, as it fits so nicely with the Moonshine theme. With the band on Bass and third vocal a talented and true American friend, Corn Cob Ken, all the way from North Carolina playing a genuine Cigar Box bass made from a vintage Punch cigar box. Ken moved to the area a few years ago with his family and has truly fallen in love with the region. Next in the band and the most recent member is Martin, who packs an incredible amount of talent into the moonshine experience with his re-built bespoke lapsteel guitar, vocals and slide mastery. The lapsteel in Moonshine Coyote has replaced the traditional harmonica that most blues bands have, the songs still have the feel of a blues genre, but with a phenomenal range of frequency that literally slides from under Martin’s hand and weaves through the air charming all within reach. And finally, I as band founder, cigar box guitar builder, and front man, Jiff Godfrey, lead on main vocal and guitar, playing a self-built resonator cigar box guitar made from a 1940’s Medallion cigar box.
It’s so much fun making music on instruments that I have built myself and playing them with Moonshine coyote creates a bespoke sound and feels like no other Americana Blues band out there. I feel that I owe some of that to those pioneering Cigar Box Guitar makers for pointing the way. And I also feel the destination is yet to be fully revealed as I now travel further on this journey. By bringing the old sounds to new ears with Moonshine Coyote through a revived craft that has been rediscovered by my own sourcing sound from a box.
By Jiff Godfrey