Six years ago, Kirk Withrow, MD, had never heard of cigar box guitars. Today, he has made over 100 of the quirky instruments and recorded a number of albums featuring them. He also holds down a day job as a head and neck surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.
Six years ago, Kirk Withrow, MD, had never heard of cigar box guitars. Today, he has made over 100 of the quirky instruments and recorded a number of albums featuring them. He also holds down a day job as a head and neck surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. To find out more, MD Magazine recently spoke with Withrow about his offbeat hobby.
MD: How did you get interested in making cigar box guitars?
Withrow: I was a third-year resident at UAB doing my ENT residency, and one of my patients was a cabinet maker. During the course of his stay in the hospital, we talked intermittently about music. He mentioned these cigar box guitars, which I had never heard of. Before he came back to the clinic, he gave me a call and said he wanted to bring me one, so he did and from there I kind of fell in love with playing those instruments. That one was a three-string guitar, and I’ve since started playing mostly four-string guitars that I make. … The way a six-string guitar is tuned has just never really made sense to me. I can play chords on a guitar, but I have never been able to play a six-string guitar all that well and I have never really enjoyed it. Five strings seemed like plenty, and four strings seems like just the right amount to me now.
MD: How long was it from when your patient gave you a cigar box guitar to when you first made one yourself?
Withrow: I would say it was probably within a month or two after he gave me that first one that I went to [a cigar box guitar festival in] Huntsville and it was maybe a few more months after that before I decided to tackle my own. It was definitely a very simplistic instrument compared to the ones I make now, which are still simple instruments. It was a three-string guitar with no frets, so you play it with a slide. That makes it a lot easier because you don’t have to worry about how high the strings are, you don’t have to worry about getting the frets in a perfect position because you just play it with a slide. From there, every time I’d make another one, I’d change it a little bit or add something to make it sound different.
MD: How did you learn to make cigar box guitars?
Withrow: I mostly taught myself. One of the interesting things about a lot of [these] guitars is that once you take the strings off, the bridge that the strings go over is a moveable thing and you can just open the box right up. So I took [the one my patient gave me] apart and dissected it and saw what he did and thought about the parts that I could do or that I wanted to use or change and went from there. And some of the guys I met at Huntsville I talked to and would get ideas from what they would do, but mostly I taught myself. I hadn’t really been active in any woodwork at all at that point. I had normal run-of-the-mill household tools, but started acquiring a few more here and a few more there for more specialized parts of making guitars. It’s really a lot of trial and error—sometimes you make some that aren’t that great and you think about how you might change them to make them better.
MD: How long does it take you to make a cigar box guitar now, from when you sit down to start until it’s ready to go?
Withrow: Well, like anything, there is a range. One time some folks from the local NPR station wanted to make an audio clip of making the guitar, and I was able to put together a very simple, playable three-string guitar in just about an hour. But I would say on average I probably spend more along the lines of 10 or 15 hours. It gets to be pretty tough to measure because there’s not all that much concentrated time. It’s more a little part here and there and you just hope to get back to it in the next day or two.
MD: Why use cigar boxes as the basis of these instruments?
Withrow: It’s not a new concept. It’s kind of a historical instrument that has been played by people for ages. A friend of mine has some plans from the 1800s or so, and you’ll see a Revolutionary War soldier playing a cigar box fiddle. In the past people made instruments out of what they had available. You know there’s lots of cigar boxes and you just put a stick in there and string some wire over it and you can make some sounds. So it really comes out of that. You can use anything that is a hollow vessel or a chamber. You can use a tin, it could be round, you could use a wine box. I saw a guy that made a mailbox instrument.
MD: What kind of music do you like to play using these guitars?
Withrow: I play mostly old-time music, sort of pre-bluegrass fiddle tunes and hill country blues like north Mississippi blues and then I sort of change it all so that it’s speeded up a little bit. As a banjo player, I always want to play things real fast.
MD: You’ve recorded a few albums, are those all using the cigar-box guitars?
Withrow: Yep. There may be some instances where I have used other instruments that I haven’t made, but not many at all. For the most part I have used the ones I have made or occasionally instruments that other people have made for me.
MD: How many albums have you recorded at this point?
Withrow: Let’s see, I’ve recorded one under a band called Buckeye with a drummer who played drums I made for him. Then I recorded a couple just under my name that are more old time. Then when my son was born, I stayed at home for about a week when my wife was recovering and I was kind of watching him and during that week I recorded an instrumental album called Lullaby with either the guitars that I had made or his crib toys for extra sound effects and so forth. It was sort of imagining what it might be like if you were in the womb and the next day not, how strange it might be. Then I recorded one more recently, that was all more or less kids songs, called Cows & Crocs &Dirty Socks. That was pretty much all with the instruments that I made myself. So I guess five or six albums in all.
MD: Do you perform much?
Withrow: Less now than in the past. I’ve got two kids now and when I finished my residency and started work I was under the false impression I’d have more time, but I have less time. I’d like to say that I played more than I do, but I still play mostly at festivals and things like that.
MD: So you’ve never been tempted to become a full-time musician or a full-time instrument maker?
Withrow: No. Interestingly, right before I started medical school there was a band in my hometown that was just sort of taking off. And the day they sent me a letter saying I got into medical school, this guy called me wondering if I wanted to sign up with them to play banjo and go on tour. I did have a brief second where I thought, “Well, that might be all right.” But I think I made the right choice.
MD: Sort of a fork-in-the-road moment there.
Withrow: Yeah, briefly. I realized it wouldn’t be for me. Even though they’ve done pretty well, I would still get tired of traveling around. Plus, if you start to do something because you have got to do it, it kind of takes a lot away from it. If I was forced to make music or instruments, then it becomes like a job and it’s not that fun.
MD: Do you see any overlap between the experience of doing surgery and making instruments?
Withrow: I do. It’s interesting because the whole idea of making instruments has really changed the way that I think about everything. You just sort of realize that you can do lots of different things. You can make these instruments and make music and record it all on your own. It opens your mind up that maybe you don’t have to follow the exact same thing as everybody else is doing to do something well.
MD: How many cigar box guitars have you made at this point?
Withrow: I couldn’t say for certain, but probably between 100 and 200. Plenty, to the point where sometimes I’ll put them up for sale on Etsy. If you start making anything, it’s like rabbits, they just multiply, and then you’re like, “Where do I put all these things?” and then you just give them to people. I’ve got a room in my house that’s just full of them and that’s not considering all the ones that I’ve gotten rid of.
MD: When you’re sizing up a box, what makes a good cigar box as the raw material for a guitar?
Withrow: Most cigar boxes are made out of wood, so that helps. I had one guy not that long ago ask me to make a guitar and his grandfather had this old cigar box and he specifically wanted that one used. It was cardboard, so I had to build a box inside the box so it would hold up. A wooden box is good, and from there, if I’m making a regular-size instrument, I try to get a pretty big box because you can get a deeper, fuller sound out of a bigger resonator, or bigger box.
MD: Of all the guitars you’ve made are there any that stand out as ones you’re most proud of at this point?
Withrow: I’ve made probably four, five, maybe six resonator guitars where I use an aluminum cone and put that on the inside and then it basically is a second resonator, so it increases the volume a lot and they tend to sound and play really well and then you have to put a metal cover plate over the top of it and so that gives me a chance to do some metalwork, which is nice, and they look fancier, but they certainly play and sound better for the most part. One or two of those that I have in particular are probably the ones I play the most because I can play them and get more sound out of them without plugging them up if I don’t need to.