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Elsinore man inspires others with cigar box guitars

Josh Gayou can make a guitar out of nothing.

In his home garage in Lake Elsinore there arent walls and cabinets and drawers of tool after tool.

He can still park his SUV in the one car slot on the stainless light gray concrete while fully utilizing one side of the garage, where a narrow workbench is clean and simple with everything he needs to build a unique type of musical instrument.

A person can make this instrument with just some wire, a wooden cigar box and a broom handle.

Gayou goes one further by using materials for a more intricate design with poplar, some nails and bolts, glue, tuning pegs and more.

Also, with tools including a tuning machine, drill, various saws, pocketknife and file, soldering iron, assorted chisels and sandpaper and a few other things, a fancier cigar box guitar (CBG) is born.

"When I build a guitar, I use a lot of traditional latherier techniques, mostly when working on the neck," he says. "The process I follow to build one is very long and detailed."

There is a rich tradition that dates all the way back to the mid-1800s of people who built their own musical instruments out of any items they could find, as jug bands would.

A big part of this was the CBG, Gayou adds in a letter to the Valley News.

"This form of guitar has enjoyed a resurgence over the last few years and, since I have discovered it, Ive been happily plugging away in my shop building custom guitars and selling them," he continues in the letter.

Cigars being very popular, their boxes empty quickly, leaving a carcass with a lot of potential.

"If you have trouble finding a used cigar box (which you should be able to find at any smoke shop for a couple of bucks), you can use a craft box from Jo-Ann Fabrics," Gayou suggests.

CBGs have their place in history, but still a lot of people might not know about them.

The Great Depression saw many items homemade, and in the 1950s even Peanuts comic strip character Charlie Brown was seen playing a CBG.

Notable players of the instrument are Tom Waits on his "Real Gone" album; also a solo artist, P.J. Harvey has used what is called a Baratto Cigfiddle; and Chris Ballew, lead singer of The Presidents of the United States of America, has recorded with a one-string cigar box bass made by Shane Speal, known as todays king revivalist of CBGs.

Now, Gayou builds CBGs from his home garage. He says he rarely has several finished guitars lying around his house, as they tend to sell pretty quickly when he makes them available.

"Theres something very special about these instruments which seems to quicken the imaginations of the people I show them to," he says. "Ive sold them to people all over the world, from Japan to England and the reaction is always the same.

"The basic idea seems to be this sudden understanding that music is accessible to everyone. You dont need to have hundreds of dollars to buy a new guitar and all of the gear. If you really want to make music, all you need is maybe $20 worth of parts and a stubborn attitude.

"It seems to me that there are fewer people today who really take an interest in learning musical instruments than even just a couple of decades ago. Kids want to get a high score on ‘Guitar Hero instead of learning to play an actual guitar. Its no good."

Gayou doesnt rush the product. He makes one CBG at a time, which takes about a month or so.

He just finished a guitar for Dennis Casey, the guitarist/vocalist of Flogging Molly, and it needed to cure for another week before Gayou felt good about boxing it up and shipping it out.

What initially sparked this interest in CBGs?

Gayou was on YouTube during his lunch break one day a little over a year ago when he came across video of a man from Pasadena named Brother Yusef.

Yusef was playing with Robert S. Hilton in their famous homemade blues set featuring a single stringed industrial can and a CBG.

The title of the video was "Show me your homemade instruments: Big can & cigar box."

Gayou professes with excitement, "Yusef is one of the greats. He plays like crazy. In the video he uses a broom handle and one string. They call that a Diddley bow. He also has a really good voice, too, which is hard to come by."

Yusef doesnt sing in this particular video, but the whole idea of a homemade instrument making really good music struck Gayou with intense interest.

Little did he know it would take him on such a long and passionate journey.

Though he initially set out to make an instrument for his son Anthony, now 2, laughs Gayou, like almost everyone else who says he just wants to make one CBG, he ended up making another and another and another.

Gayous first CBG was very primitive.

He has a builders perspective, not a players. In his day job, he is an aerospace engineer.

At first, not being able to play the guitar was a handicap for Gayou, but the more he understood the sounds his customers wanted, the easier it became to build a CBG in tune to their liking.

Starting off with something basic meant that when he progressed, Gayou would change one variable at a time. If something went wrong, he had a better idea how to fix it.

Gayous wife, Jennifer, decreed that his hobby "shall be, at a minimum, of neutral fiscal impact to the family budget."

When he sells his CBGs through his Smokehouse Guitars Web site, or eBay, Gayou says, "My prices are really designed to pull me just enough profit to build another guitar or buy a new tool here and there for the shop."

Gayou explains he likes to take it nice and easy. Its more than just the money for him.

"Its a way to decompress," he says. "I could have a miserable day at work. I will come home; spend some time with my wife; say, ‘Hey, to my kid. If everything is good with them, Ill go into my shop and all the nonsense just melts away.

"If more people experienced something like this, they could go out, learn to make something with their hands and connect with other people, too."

Right now, Gayou is taking detailed pictures and writing instructions on how to make a CBG for one of his clients.

"He says he just wants to build one," Gayou says of his client. "He doesnt realize this is musicians crack."

Friday, May 01, 2009


Elsinore man inspires others with cigar box guitars