Locally Made Cigar Box Guitars
Jun 25, 2015 09:47AM ● Published by Brandi Barnett
Mojo Factory GuitarsJuly 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Taryn Burkleo
Travis Brooks just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “I recently saw somebody perform with one as I was walking past a bar in San Luis Obispo,” says Brooks. And though he doesn’t recall the name of the band, he certainly remembers the instrument they were playing: a guitar built from a cigar box.
“They’ve actually been around since the 1800s, and the first etched painting with one is from the 1860s,” says Brooks. A poor man’s instrument, the cigar box guitar “was predominantly made by African American or white plantation workers in the South,” using whatever resources they could get.
Now the cigar box guitar is making something of a comeback, though Brooks says the instrument has remained popular throughout the southern and eastern states in certain musical genres, like blues. Wanting to contribute to the instrument’s westward revival, Brooks and his partner, Antonio, began making the guitars in January.
The two founded Mojo Factory Cigar Box Guitars earlier this year, but Brooks explains how Antonio began making the instrument more than two years ago.
“He’s been building these cigar box guitars as a means to regain hand-eye coordination,” says Brooks, recounting how Antonio was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade during his military service in Afghanistan. “He lost all motor function, couldn’t speak, couldn’t walk, memory loss,” says Brooks.
After Antonio returned to Hanford, Brooks’ father, who knew they shared a mutual interest in cigar box guitars, introduced the two. Antonio helped Brooks build his first cigar box guitar, and Brooks suggested they begin building the guitars to supplement their income.
Mojo Factory operates out of Antonio’s home, though Brooks says they’re searching for a workshop where they can showcase their instruments.
And really, these guitars are worth displaying as much as they are worth playing. “Half of the appeal of a cigar box guitar is what it looks like,” Brooks says. “100 percent can be customized, from the shape of the head, the neck, the grain of the cigar box… It’s nice when you can get those boxes with unique grain patterns or stains.”
Brooks spends about two weeks building each guitar from scratch. “Basically, you start with a cigar box and a straight piece of wood, and the neck goes all the way through the cigar box.” Then using grafts and files and sandpaper, “we polish and shape it the way we want.”
The guitars can have two to four strings, a fretted or unfretted neck, and include vintage or custom parts, like an industrial bolt for a bridge. They use bone – “which we get from PetSmart” – for the tuners.
True to their heritage, Mojo Factory guitars won’t cost an arm and a leg – somewhere between $150 and $300. But that doesn’t mean they can’t produce professional sound. When asked what kind of tone the guitars create, Brooks struggles to find a comparison. “It has a pretty good acoustic tone,” he suggests. “I don’t know, I guess, well, it kind of sounds like, like a cigar box guitar. Really, it has its own sound.”
But with a little electrical work, that simple box can duplicate an even bigger sound. “I put an entire Les Paul system in [one box]: two pickups, two volume (knobs) and two tones, a three-way switch, the whole package inside a little cigar box. And it sounds exactly like a Les Paul,” insists Brooks. “And it’s just a four-string guitar.”
Brooks plays his own cigar box guitar in his band, Saltwater. “We have four songs written with a cigar box guitar, and a couple of covers,” he says. “We do a really cool rendition of The Wind Cries Mary by Jimi Hendrix.”
An appropriate cover, since Hendrix was a master guitarist. And though Hendrix may never have picked up cigar box guitar himself, he was certainly a man of the blues, a genre that Brooks says has close ties with the cigar box guitar.
Sharing the culture of the cigar box guitar is why Mojo Factory does what they do. “Mojo is a very important part of that culture, the old Southern culture,” explains Brooks. “You know, you’ve got the mojo, you’ve got the feeling, you’ve got the groove.”
Ultimately, Brooks says he and Antonio “were pumping out the mojo like a factory,” hence the name: Mojo Factory. “And we’re really trying to get the idea of the cigar box out there. It may not be mainstream, but we’d definitely like people to learn about them and understand how much a part of the culture they really were, and how people are still using them: playing, making them and keeping them alive.”
Mojo Factory Cigar Box Guitars • (559) 362-7177
Find them on Facebook and Instagram
Find their products at:
Main Fork & Co, Three Rivers
Enjoy the Store, Visalia
Independent Music, Hanford