For Gipson Shoemaker, owner of Lucky Devil Cigar Box Guitars, his passion for cigar-box guitars all started with seeing Jack White in the 2008 documentary, It Might Get Loud. In that film, White built a diddley bow — an instrument similar to the cigar-box guitar. When Shoemaker first saw the diddley bow, he became curious about them and started doing research online. Once Shoemaker discovered cigar-box guitars, he never looked back. He wanted to make one of his own and set out to make one himself. Although it didn’t come easy at first, Shoemaker was hooked by the end result.
“It was so horrible,” Shoemaker chuckles. “I actually bring it with me normally and hang it up so people can kind of see how far this has come.
“I just thought this was the dumbest thing ever, like it was never going to work,” Shoemaker continues. “I was just pouting about it the whole time because I had driven around for two hours to get all the PA’s and electronics, because I didn’t know where to get anything. So I put it together and I strummed it and was like, ‘Oh my god, this is freaking amazing.’ I couldn’t wrap my head around it, because how does it sound as good as my $300 guitar?’”
Fast-forward six years: Shoemaker enjoys working as a professional cigar-box guitar maker and has his process down. The cigar-box guitars Shoemaker creates look similar to a ukulele in terms of size and number of strings, but still sounds a lot like a regular six-string guitar. Each of the three to four strings is tuned to an open chord, and Shoemaker uses different recycled objects — old keys, for example — for the pickups he mounts on the the cigar boxes he uses for the bodies of the guitars. Shoemaker admits that it might be a little bit of a learning curve for the average guitarist to learn how to play one of his guitars, but he works hard to make them accessible to the average guitarist while still staying true to the instrument’s roots.
“That’s as far as I want to take them technically because [if I go] beyond that, now I’m [creating a typical] guitar … I want it to be a cigar-box guitar,” Shoemaker says. “It’s supposed to be an Americana-roots instrument that’s kind of made from scraps and it’s upcycled.”
The history of the instruments he makes is not lost on Shoemaker, noting that cigar-box guitars originated in poverty. “That’s where these guys started,” Shoemaker says of the pioneering builders of the instruments he fashions now. “They didn’t start because it was cool, they started because they were poor and they couldn’t afford a guitar. For most of them it was a shame-based thing. They’d sit there and build one, play it in church and get a little recognition, but the minute they made three dollars [to] get a used guitar, they would dump these things so fast. So it’s a little ironic that the instruments most guys were trying to get off of their hands as fast as possible, I’m sitting there making them for guys who can’t get them in their hands fast enough.”
Part of the way Shoemaker passes down the history of the cigar box guitar to more people is by bringing them to the State Fair and engaging with potential customers who come through his shop. He has had a shop in the West End Market for the past few years and plans on coming back year after year.
“This is kind of my bread and butter, I’m not gonna lie. We do a few pop-up shows throughout the year, but this is so valuable for a lot of reasons,” he says. “But the nice thing is that I get to stand here and talk to people and educate them about the guitar … This is about as good as it gets. Even if I didn’t sell many guitars, I’d still find massive value in this experience.”
After the Fair ends, Shoemaker has his sights on traveling to Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi, where he plans to bring his guitars and spend more time learning about its history.
“There’s a thousand guys down south making these, and up north, I’m killing it because I’m [the only one]. There’s a few hobbyists but there’s nobody doing it professionally,” he says. ”I have watched every YouTube video, every video, like, I’ve exhausted as much as I could from just a spectator point of view so I think the last bash for me is to go on that trip to this Mecca, go to the cemeteries where these guys are buried, go down to Clarksdale [Miss.] to really get into the heartland of the whole thing. I would find that really rewarding.”