Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cajun Carl's Stringworks and Gumbo Emporium

I, recently, had a visit from my middle brother, the mysterious and legendary Jeff LaFong. I haven't seen or heard from him in five years or so. The 60s shaped his personality and he never quite left. When the Beatles and the Beach Boys were new and exciting, he picked up a guitar and never put it down. He is now a pretty good bluesman with a bent towards the slide guitar. During the course of his visit, he asked me if I knew anything about cigarbox guitars (CGB). I told him that I did not. I can set the stations on my car stereo, if I have the manual in my hands. That is the extent of my musical talent. He said that they were what the old bluesmen used years ago, during the depression or if they, like me, were Po' Boys and couldn't afford a mail order $4.95 geetar from the catalog. He wondered if I would be able to build one for him. I am a, fairly competent, woodworker. I did a bit of, on line, research and was fascinated by the whole culture, the ingenuity and the raw, beautiful sounds that guys are getting out of these primitive, homemade instruments. I went to the local seegar emporium and bought a couple of boxes and went home. I had a stash of maple that I salvaged from some discarded church pews plus my buckets and boxes of scrap wood. The neck is maple with a walnut fretboard laminated on, the tuning pegs are dowels with walnut knobs. I reamed the holes for the pegs with a taper reamer and tapered the pegs to match, much like violin pegs. Most of the CBG builders buy the tuners, but I decided to do it as close to the way a guy would have done it in the 30s. There are no frets, yet. I noticed that some of the guys play them fretless, so I'm going to send it to Jeff as is. It is really a prototype and I need his input. I don't even know how to string it up, so I'm taking it to a friend to see if it will play. One variation in the nostalgic theme is, this CGB is electric. In keeping with the lo buck idea, the cost of electrifying it was about 6 bucks. The pickup is a piezo buzzer from Radio Shack and a 1/4" standard jack. Some genius (there are others, but only one Boy Genius™) discovered that if you take one of these buzzers and apply 12 volts to it, oddly enough, it will buzz. But, if you cause the unit to vibrate, it sends a small electrical charge back through the wire. Voila! Down and dirty pickup. So, anyway, I screwed and glued the whole mess together, sprayed a few coats of lacquer on it and there ye be, one CGB. Unit #1. Again, eagle eyes may note that it only has three strings. The three string CGB seems to be a favorite and the most traditional. What do I know. I couldn't play it if it had one string. Actually, there are one string CGBs. They're called diddleybows. It may go to the dumpster or it may sell on ebay in 50 years for 500K. Who knows. It was a fun build, took all of, maybe, 4 hours and the total cost was well under 10 bucks.

Epilog. November 2. Brother Jeff called to inform me that the guitar is wall art. The neck is too long as well as a few other problems. The good news is that everything else is good. Not being a musician, I didn't know the distance from the "nut" (the little gizmo that the strings pass over as they leave the tuners) to the bridge is critical in order to tune the instrument. I have an old guitar so, this time, I'll use it as a template. I wonder if Stradivarius got it right the first time?

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