Austin pair Bobby Bergland and Taylor Green join throwback movement with their handcrafted cigar box guitars
'Who says you need to buy a guitar?' Jack White queries at the beginning of 'It Might Get Loud,' the movie that brings the White Stripes/Raconteurs guitarist together with Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin and the Edge from U2 to philosophize about their instrument of choice.
White, who also drums in Dead Weather, had just finished building a guitar out of a scrap two-by-four, an empty soda bottle, a couple of nails and some wire. He added a pickup, plugged it in and then slid a bottleneck down the lone string to produce glorious riffage. It was DIY made easy, and proof that the crudest, most bygone of guitars — in this case a diddley bow of some kind — are more than just novelty items. They're vessels of righteous sound. 'It Might Get Loud' was released last December, just as Austinites Bobby Bergland and Taylor Green started making their own brand of throwback guitars called cigar box guitars — one of a variety of cigar box-type stringed instruments, including violins, banjos and ukuleles.
Composed of wood necks attached to a cigar box body, cigar box guitars date to the Civil War and enjoyed a heyday on through the Great Depression. Now, thanks to White, Bergland and Green, and a former headbanger from Pennsylvania — more on him later — they're in again.
"I promise you, man," Bergland says, referencing White's act of backward pioneering, "that inspired a whole bunch of people to not only create that kind of music but to kind of change their mindset to where they appreciate things that are homemade, and things that aren't technologically sophisticated but that have some appeal to them that's more rudimentary and much more tangible — something that's like, you know, making your own butter."
Bergland and Green are one of only a handful of cigar box guitar makers cropping up throughout the country, in Canada and across the pond. They call themselves Bobby Taylor Cigar Box Guitars. They work out of a shed behind Bergland's house, near 45th Street and Airport Boulevard. It's the kind of place that would appeal to the guys on "American Pickers," the TV show about one man's trash being another man's treasure.
Tools galore collate with all manner of bicycle parts. Tires. Rims. Frames. Seats. Handlebars. Bergland says buying and selling old-school 10-speeds is how he makes ends meet. "Those hipsters, man \u2026 I can sell those all day long."
Bergland wears glasses with amber-hued lenses and a "LOVE" T-shirt. He's the garrulous salesman with a knack for winding pickups. Green sports rolled-up jeans and flip-flops. He's the quiet craftsman, the sculptor. Both are 30-something musicians. Theirs is a synergy of mad science, retro sensibility and entrepreneurial necessity.
"We always come up with crazy ideas," Green says. "And this one has actually kind of worked out."
Bergland and Green struck a chord at this year's South by Southwest. They had a table inside Antone's, where their three- and four-string wares were on display the night of Alex Chilton's memorial show. "That opened a lot of doors for us," Bergland says.
Since then they've sold about a dozen guitars — at roughly $200 a pop — and have given away plenty more. Bergland says you can buy them at Sonny's Vintage on Guadalupe Street. Another option is to place a custom order through their website, www.bobbytaylorguitars.com.
Bergland says M. Ward and Charlie Sexton each have a Bobby Taylor Cigar Box Guitar, as does "Japanese Action Comic Punk Band" Peelander-Z, who are recording their new album with it.
"I feel the guitar is really great for playing slide," Peelander-Elvis, the band's producer and support guitarist, says in an e-mail. "The sound is completely natural. The guitar could make us experience the past and future of the blues."
The cigar box guitars combine functionality and folk art aesthetic. Then there are the pickups. "Our pickups are hot, and they sound killer, man," Bergland says, handling a pristine guitar made of a Punch cigar box finely embossed with trademark Joker figure. "They pick up a lot of sound and the fidelity is exquisite."
"Another thing about these," Green adds, "is we use pretty much all recycled material. We got all of the necks right out of the dumpster."
What about the cigar boxes? "Most liquor stores will just give 'em to ya," Bergland says.
Best of all, the guitars are easy to play, says Bergland, who relays a story about a "junker" he gave to a friend. "Man, he's not even a guitar player and he took to that thing, and he was like Hendrix on that thing, man. It was amazing. Just kind of esoteric, free-form, stream-of-consciousness playing."
Cigar box stringed instruments have a long history. Wisconsin lumberjacks of yesteryear made guitars while stationed at camps. Larry Fine, in his pre-"Three Stooges" days, played a mean one-string cigar box fiddle as part of his vaudeville act. And a host of mainstream musicians have wielded a cigar box stringed instrument at one point in time, including Billy Gibbons, Tom Waits and B.B. King.
This is according to recovering metalhead Shane Speal. The York, Pa., resident and forerunner of the cigar box guitar renaissance was drawn to the instrument after reading a story in 1993 about how the first guitar played by Carl Perkins, of "Blue Suede Shoes" fame, was a cigar box guitar built for him by his father and taught to him by a sharecropper. Since then, Speal has become a repository for all things cigar box guitar.
He's built 700 or so of the guitars — the first modeled after Perkins' description of his own. He maintains the website www.cigarboxnation.com , a 3,000-member international community of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" purists and hardcore punks, wherein instructions for building your own cigar box guitar can be found. And later this month he will host the first Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Fest, which he expects will be bigger than its stateside counterpart the Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza in Huntsville, Ala., as well as festivals in England.
"When I was younger, I was a heavy metal musician," Speal says. "Then when I was in college I discovered the blues. Whenever you listen to the blues, there's always this progression. OK, you know, Jimi Hendrix is awesome. Jimmy Page is so cool. Who influenced them? And so you start going backwards. Okay, there's Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and Hound Dog Taylor \u2026 Elmore James. Who influenced them? Then you go back one more step. OK, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton. That's so cool. And that's usually where people stop. I decided to question who influenced them. And that's what ended me up to the cigar box guitar. And it was just like, OK, this is one step deeper than the Delta blues. And that's what I was looking for."
Back at Bergland's, Austin's resident cigar box guitar makers convene in the backyard separating Bergland's shed from his house. An array of guitars rests on the ground. Green picks one up, plugs it into an amp, and, with the aid of effects pedals, rips off a gnarly Dick Dale-meets-Marc Ribot solo that reverberates through the neighborhood.
Who says you need to be Jack White?