I'd been playing six string guitar for over thirty years before I first played a cigar box guitar. Like many guitarists I'd heard about guitars made from discarded cigar boxes but I never really took them seriously until I heard one being played by Keni Lee Burgess on Youtube and I was sold.
Making playable instruments out of cigar boxes is thought to have originated in the United States at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Times were hard and poor working folk couldn't afford store bought musical instruments. Instead they would creatively fashion a variety of instruments out of whatever they could lay their hands on. The one string diddley bow is a great example.
People would fashion a diddley bow from a piece of wire often nailed to a porch support post or fence post. The wire was tensioned over a can or a bottle and then fretted with a piece of bone or glass. This simple instrument is very similar to instruments made and played in Ghana, west Africa and it is thought that slaves, transported to America to work in the Cotton fields, were the first to make this simple instrument.
The cigar box guitar is related to both the diddley bow and the traditional guitar. There are no rules in cigar box guitar building. They can have as few as one string (generally called a diddley bow) or a full complement of six strings. The neck can be any length from that of a full size guitar right down to something more closely resembles a Ukulele. The key thing is that cigar box guitars are home made from rubbish that may otherwise have simply been discarded or burned.
The key aspect of cigar box guitars that keeps me enthused is that they make music fun and accessible. It's not necessary to have a top of the range guitar or the best equipment available from the local music store to make good music. A few strings, an empty cigar box and a plank of wood is basically all that is needed.
There are many well known guitarists who first started playing cigar box guitars. Jimi Hendrix, Lightning Hopkins and many other reputable guitar players were first inspired to play using cigar box guitars. But the modern day exponent who everybody has heard of is Seasick Steve. He has re-introduced primitive instruments into modern pop culture. But he's not alone. Jack White of the White Stripes is a great fan and player of primitive instruments, including cigar box guitars. And Johnny Depp is also known to be a fan.
Making a cigar box guitar is really easy, even I can do it and I am hopeless with wood and tools. But the satisfaction that you get when you sit down and pick out a tune on an instrument that you made yourself is immeasurable.