GK Interviews Shane Speal: Originator of the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution

Many who know me (or about me) have heard how I’ve fallen in love with cigarbox and found-object guitars and basses. I’ve built, played and sold quite a few. But the one formerly known as “The King of the Cigarbox Guitar” as it turns out, has been a mentor to me in all this.

I’ve been a life-long student (reading, watching, listening) of the blues on all levels. Part of my quest for deeper blues integrity came about some eight years ago when I began building these little guitars (slide only… so far). I found and lurked for perhaps a year on a website Shane built from scratch called CigarBoxNation.Com.

One day I posted and Shane himself replied, causing me to fall off my chair. I had no idea he’d known me from Adam. The rest is an unfolding history.

So let me introduce Shane Speal. The interview starts now 🙂
(Formerly known as “King of the Cigarbox Guitar”)

GK: Shane, how in the world did you discover these little guitars in the first place?

Shane: Actually, it was a natural progression that led me to the instrument.  I discovered the blues during my first year of college.  It was Hendrix and Led Zep at first, but then I started asking the question, “who came before them?”  That sent me to Muddy Waters and Hound Dog Taylor and all those cats from the 1940s-60’s.  Of course, I asked “who came before them” again and it sent me to the Delta blues guys.  By then, I had put down my electric guitar and was playing a beat-up old Stella acoustic with absurdly high action and a spark plug socket for a slide.

But then…I asked the question “what was before the Delta blues”…and I had a tough time finding anything.  I was looking for something more gritty and primal than Blind Willie Johnson, Ishmon Bracey and Son House.  (This was before the days of the internet.)  In the books and magazine interviews I read, I discovered stories of these blues legends making cigar box guitars when they couldn’t afford real guitars.  “THAT’S THE SOUND I’M LOOKING FOR!” I told myself and built my first in 1993.

GK: How did you get into building ’em? Any earlier history of luthier’s work?

Shane: I had found an article about Carl Perkins’ cigar box guitar that described it as a stick thru a box.  I had a cardboard Swisher Sweets box that I just finished smoking and decided that it was perfect to try.  I used a huge plank of old oak from the barn on my dad’s farm as the neck and put three strings on it to be fancy.  (Perkins guitar only had two strings.)  I used old guitar tuners and the tailpiece was made from the bottom of a Hershey’s cocoa can.

The guitar was crude, but I could BURN on that sucker!  It was the right instrument for my hands.   It was exactly what I was looking for: a crude, primal sound that was “one step deeper than the Delta blues.”

GK: Have you also built amps? I know about your stompboards but please elaborate on your own builds and what interests you and why.

Shane: No amps.  I’m a total hack builder.  It took me 16 years to get the courage to fire up a soldering iron!

Although I perform with some really incredible instruments made by the best builders out there, the guitars I create are still just the stick-thru-the-box style that originally got me started 20 years ago.  It’s the most basic of guitars (no frets, no real bells and whistles) and it’s a ticket to a simpler time…simpler music.   I don’t build guitars, I build time machines!  LOL!

It’s all about downshifting in life…slowing down. Playing an instrument that is half -broken to begin with.  Playing something imperfect that buzzes where it shouldn’t and creaks when you hold it.

GK: Do you focus on slide or “straight” playing cbg’s… and do you tend to favor 3 stringers, 6 stringers or what?

Shane: I carry 6-8 cigar box guitars per live show.  Some are slide, some are fretted and played traditionally.  All of them are in various open tunings.  There are different guitars for different songs.  Some are work horses, like my 3-string slider or my 5 string Daddy Mojo fretted.  Others may only have a song or two in them.   An unexpected feature of having so many instruments is the banter I can do in between songs, describing the guitars, their builders and other cool stories.  It really pulls the audience in.

GK: At one point you mentioned my band sort of helped you through seminary or Bible College or something. Care to elaborate? I don’t need the strokes, just wondering what that was about?

Shane: I survived one year of Fundamentalist Bible College!  LOL!  I learned so much then, but I kept getting in trouble for sneaking rock and roll cassettes into my dorm room.

Although I was a REZ fan since I bought “Hostage” in junior high school, your biggest influence on my came after I left college and started building cigar box guitars.  At the time, I was burned out with Christian rock.  I was getting into blues and wanted music that expressed the earthiness of everyday life…the struggle of this world.  That’s when I found your Kaiser/Mansfield albums and it hit me like a nuclear bomb.  Here was music that was deep, bluesy and still had a message.  You also taught me about Blind Willie Johnson, of which I will be forever in your debt.  (Side note:  One of the first things I’m going to do in Heaven is request a cigar box guitar and ask where Willie is…)

I was building cigar box guitars and doing coffeehouse gigs in the late 90’s.  I still have my old set lists and about half of the material came from the Kaiser/Mansfield cassettes.

When I heard that you were now playing cigar box guitars, I nearly fainted!

GK: Any concerns (maybe pitfalls or ??) regarding the movement you’ve done so much to spawn?

Shane: Concerns?  Folks who never thought they could play anything are now performing in front of others.  The common man has been given the freedom to make any instrument they can dream up.  The humble cigar box guitar, an instrument of the American peasant has been rediscovered by many.  We brought it back from being a myth or just a forgotten piece of history.  People are singing and playing.  I’m sure this makes God smile.

There will always be the up-tight folks who try to make rules for the instruments or the art of music.  They’ll tell us that a cigar box guitar must be a certain way (or even that music must be played a certain way).  I’ve dealt with these fools for many years now and I just ignore them.  There are no rules.  Just play.  Just sing.

The cigar box guitar movement started as an online phenomenon.  I started the first chat room for the instrument back in 2003 and it grew like wildfire.  I eventually created CigarBoxNation.com as the hub of the entire scene and it exploded as well.  A couple years ago, I transferred ownership of Cigarboxnation.com to someone else because I was doing more work as a web administrator than I was playing music.  For me, the music is the most important thing.

So now that I’m no longer running the big website, I don’t consider myself the leader or main engine of this movement.  Maybe that was a mistake…I don’t know.  I’m a natural snake oil salesman and would spend a lot of time getting the people energized and excited for these instruments.  It seems to have calmed down lately.  The online stuff has become more “builder centric” and less about the music.  For me, the guitar has always been a means to discover the music.

GK: Other that what you’ve already mentioned, what are some of the positives you’ve experienced from building and playing cigarbox (and the like) instruments?

Shane: I have an army of friends from around the world that are just like me… We’re the house band for the Island of Misfit Toys!  LOL!  They’ve held me up, supported me, loved me.  I’m blessed beyond measure.

The biggest positive about playing a cigar box guitar is simply this:  When I play a normal guitar, I tend to sound like a cliche’ or a poor version of Jimi Hendrix.  When I play a cigar box guitar, I sound like Shane Speal.

GK: You know I’m a pastor as well as your friend. How can I and others best pray for you and yours?

Shane: Y’know…there is something I could use prayer for:  Many years ago, God called me back into doing music  He was relentless and wouldn’t let me quit.  I’ve seen many “fingerprints of God” thru the years to get me where I am now.  Now that I’ve struggled thru so much and am eaking out a living by playing and building, I don’t want to get complacent or waste my time.  I’m here for a reason…I really want to do His will and run the race to the very end.

The other thing is for my family to find a good church.  It’s been many years now.

GK: Shameless plug-time Shane. What websites should I point people to interested in learning more about these guitars, the revolution and your shows?

Shane: My music is at http://www.shanespeal.com

My handmade guitars are at http://shanespeal.bigcartel.com

Everything you need to build your own is posted free online at http://www.CigarBoxNation.com

GK: MANY thanks for all your kindness and interaction with me personally bro.! Looking forward to more shows together 🙂

Shane: Sharing the stage with you is a total Bucket List check every time!  I love you, Glenn.  I gotta get to Chicago one of these days so we can bring the boogie.

Thanks Glenn!


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