I recently had the privilege of purchasing a hand-made cigar-box guitar. The brand is Hard Times CBG, built by Bob Lowery, from right here in central Ohio. When I met up with Bob to purchase the guitar, he was gracious enough to take the time to let me interview him for my blog.
After taking a few moments to admire the guitar, I started the official interview.
Me: How long have you been building guitars?
Bob: I started around October of ‘12
Me: Oh really? Ok, how did you get into it?
Bob: I had a buddy who started making them. We had worked together and kinda both had just an obsession for odd projects. I think around the time of “It Might Get Loud,” the documentary with Jack White, The Edge, those fellas, there was a little clip of Jack White building a diddly bo at the beginning of it, and I think that kinda sparked our curiosity, and we both started tinkering with different homemade instruments and seeing what we could do with different things.
He started making guitars, and eventually I just wanted to. I do all kinds of projects. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Most things I do, I do it, never use it. I just want to prove to myself that I can do it, post them up on Facebook, just show people what I’ve been tinkering with. I got asked a lot, with a lot of my projects, if I could reproduce them, if I would consider selling things. And a lot of the projects I did, I could get them done, but they were so frustrating by the end that I never wanted to do it again. I started making these, and realized I could probably reproduce it and do it in a way that it wouldn’t drive me insane to be able to sell them and I enjoy doing it, so it wasn’t so hectic that I want to pull what was left of my hair out by the end.
Me: How many of these have you sold?
Bob: Let’s see. Right around, It’s numbered. I think 16.
Me: Where do you number them?
Bob: I number them on the inside, if you look inside the soundhole.
Me: No kidding, that’s awesome. So obviously you use cigar boxes, but what else to you use to build them?
Bob: As far as general matierials, or for bodies?
Me: We’ll start with general materials.
Bob: I’ve always used maple necks. I try to find prettier maple when I can. It’s kinda the luck of the draw with a lot of what Home Depot has. I know I could always go to a woodworker’s store, but then I’m paying a premium for wood, and it kind of becomes cost-prohibitive because I don’t want the cost to be any more than what I’m asking for them. So occasionally I’ll find some nice flamed maple. If not, I try to find something with some type of decent grain or body to it.
Me: So this was a hunk of wood from Home Depot?
Me: That’s cool. Obviously you’ve got guitar tuners on it, but what about the bridge and nut?
Bob: The bridge, I use poplar, and then use 1/8” brass, hand-shape the poplar, and turn the brass and buff it out, round the edges off, give it a more finished look. The tailpiece is a hinge that I found that works well for me. The nut, I get a blank bone nut and shape it out and carve them, but they come as little rectangles of bone. I like to use red oak on the wings of the headstock. The soundhole covers, they can be any number of things. They can be, in this case, a drain cover.
Me: No kidding! I would not have guessed what that was.
Bob: I try to use as little material intended for guitar as possible. If I can make it, I make it, if it’s too much, either find something that’s not necessarily made for a guitar to make it a little more eclectic. In the case of the tuners and strings, you don’t get a lot of choice.
Me: I guess not. What about the cigar boxes themselves? Are these common anymore? A wooden cigar box?
Bob: Yeah. You can find them. Just about any cigar store will have them. I’ve found certain sizes that work for what I like to do for the sound I like to end up getting out of them. Some of them usually have a ton. Some places charge more than others. Every now and again people will just give them to you. It just depends where you’re at, what the box is. Winter time is not a good time to get them. I usually stock up in the summer just for the simple fact that people don’t smoke cigars. With all the smoking bans, people don’t want to go outside and stand in this sub-zero temperature and smoke a cigar for however long they last, 40 minutes. The cigar store sales go down. A lot of them even close early, so the choices become very limited once the cold weather hits until you get through the Spring a little bit and they start selling again.
Me: What do you find the most challenging when it comes to building an instrument from scratch?
Bob: That really depends on the instrument. With this, the most challenging thing for me, the way I build these, is getting the neck fitted to the body the way I want it to. There’s tons of different ways people do it, but for me, getting it the way I like it inside the body is probably the most frustrating, just to make sure everything lines up good, and to be able to get the electronics in and have them sit where they sound good.
Me: What’s the most rewarding thing about building your instruments?
Bob: Well, for a while, just the fact that I got to play them. In general, just the fact that I can prove to myself “yes, I can do this,” and then I can clear my head and move to another project. With the guitars, all of them that I’ve sold to people, they’ve been extremely happy with, and anymore seeing somebody else enjoy something that I’ve put my effort into.
Me: How did you come up with the name “Hard Times?”
Bob: I kicked around the idea for a while, and I was really big into skateboarding when I was younger. I remember there was a budget- I mean, as budget as you can get for what you would consider professional, real skateboards at the time- and there was a Hard Times skateboard company who based their designs and color schemes on being mindful of budget. They were a little cheaper; they were still made well, but they didn’t put all the bells and whistles on. That came to mind, and just being a depression-era instrument, it seemed to fit that it was something that was traditionally thrown together due to hard times. Somebody who couldn’t afford a real instrument would make do with anything they could find. This is probably a little bit more refined than your 1920’s-1930’s cigar box guitar. I’m sure people went over the top with them. Some people just had to make do with what they had. The combination of those just seemed to click, and it had a good ring in my mind.
Me: I like it. Is there an instrument that you haven’t built yet, but you would like to? Maybe a challenge you’d like but haven’t taken on yet?
Bob: I’ve considered building a lap steel, or even a six-string. I’d probably go with a lap steel first. The only drawback is a couple years ago I bought one, and didn’t really enjoy playing it. So I kind of lack that portion of the drive, but at the same time, it seems like something that’s straightforward enough that it would be easy enough to do, other than just the planning it out. Lately I haven’t had the time to tinker nearly as much as I’d like to. I’ve thought about trying to figure out a way to do more of a bass. I’ve built a few basses, but I rarely pick them up. Not that they don’t sound good or play well, it’s just that I prefer my electric bass over those.
Me: I think I saw a picture of it or two on your Facebook page.
Bob: That was something I did because I was curious about buying a Kala U-bass, which is a short scale bass. They make acoustic-electric or electric. At the time, I couldn’t find one in town to try out. I was really curious about them because I’ve always liked the upright bass thuddy, gut-string sound. Since I couldn’t play one and they were a little pricey, I was a little hesitant to drop the money on them, so I decided I would just buy the strings that they were using that seemed to be the predominant reason they were getting the sounds they were getting out of it. This kind of followed suit with an upright I had built previously out of PVC. That was a really frustrating project because I had never done a solidbody, never done a tapered neck, and getting the math with the different gauges of strings and trying to map out the fingerboard on it really drove me nuts on that. Once I got it done, I did come across an acoustic version of it in one of the local guitar stores, and actually preferred mine. There were slight differences in scale and different things, but I actually ended up liking the feel of mine a little better. Not to discount them: I’m sure their instruments are much more refined than what I made. It just had more of a, to me, a solid feel that theirs, and I guess it’s probably because of how small it is, being acoustic, me being used to holding a heavy instrument, it felt very toyish to me. On my build, I chose to go electric because making a true acoustic body is something that I don’t think I’m prepared to do and do right, and just with the type of strings being such a low frequency, I couldn’t imagine it resonating well, and really making any sense having it be acoustic: it wouldn’t be loud enough to hear, really, with anybody else playing except for maybe somebody who was barely touching their guitar. I ended up going solidbody. The one I played was acoustic and confirmed the fact that there would be no way I would want to buy an acoustic one, but I’m sure their electrics are quite nice. I ended up happy with mine.
Me: Any advice that you’d give to somebody who wants to, for the first time, create their own instrument?
Bob: I don’t know (laughs)
Me: Well is there anything that you wish you had known when you started, something you discovered along the line, that “it would have been nice to know this?”
Bob: Almost everything. (laughs) I went into it blindly. I never really did any woodwork, so to speak, I mean, other than building very simple things, you know, like skateboard ramps when I was younger. This was kind of the onset of me learning anything about working with wood. Luckily, my buddy, who had also been making some, he had done quite a bit of woodworking. He was able to kind of help guide me around different areas, different tools, how I could use the tools get what I needed done, but a lot of it is guesswork, a lot of it is trial and error. Chances are, somebody else has built it, and I guess my advice would be is trust Mr. Internet for a little bit, get on there and look at what other people have done, take what works for you, know what suits what you have to work with, what suits your tools, and take a little bit from here and there until you can find something that is yours, unless of course your goal is to emulate somebody else’s exactly.
After the “official” interview was over, Bob showed me some more features of the guitar: for example, how he set the bridge, and how he determined the scale and marker placement (he showed me a picture of the scratch pad he used to perform the calculations).
If you want to check out Bob’s creations for yourself, then you can check out his creations on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/HardTimesCbg.