BYRON -- Years ago, Jeff Lord was working as a carpenter and got an idea for crafting his own acoustic guitar.
His shop foreman told Lord that the task would be too difficult, and Lord -- a lifelong blues fan -- eventually gave up.
But the idea stuck with him. In 2009, while Lord was researching the likes of blues greats Muddy Waters and B.B. King, he read about “diddley bows,” homemade guitars that blues musicians used decades ago.
The guitars were notable for using one to three strings and being made out of essentially whatever the musician could put his hands on to craft the instrument, including cigar boxes.
“I was reading about these diddley bows, about how these guys would play these three-string guitars, and I thought it was bs,” said Lord, a firefighter with the Warner Robins Fire Department. “But I pulled it up online and, sure enough, there were videos of it. I’m a carpenter, and I thought to myself, ‘I could build that, but not necessarily play that.’ So I sat on the idea for three years.”
But when a friend with the fire department announced his retirement, Lord decided to try making one for him as a retirement gift.
In no time, Lord had a hit on his hands.
“I had three people come up (at the retirement dinner) and ask me to build them one,” he said. “It took off from there.”
Old Man Vinegar’s Cigar Box Guitars was thus born. The name of the business comes from a nickname he got from his fellow firefighters because he drinks a glass of vinegar a day.
In the 16 months or so since Lord crafted his first cigar box guitar, he has since built 85 of them, including one for Gregg Allman. Though Lord wasn’t able to meet Allman during his show in Macon last month, a friend with a backstage pass for the concert was able to present Allman with the guitar and take photos of him playing it. Allman also autographed one of Lord’s other guitars.
Chris Bryan, a Warner Robins resident who’s a firefighter in Albany, met Lord at the Byron Motor Speedway when Lord was looking to create a cigar box guitar event. Bryan, who plays guitar in his church band, immediately was struck when Lord showed him one of his creations.
“I thought it was really cool,” Bryan said. “I had never seen anything like it before.”
Bryan had a cigar box given to him by his late grandfather, which Lord used to make a custom guitar for Bryan.
Photo by Woody Marshall/The Telegraph Video by Phillip Ramati/The Telegraph
Though Bryan hasn’t yet incorporated the cigar box guitar with the church band, he said the learning process has been pretty easygoing from six strings to three.
For one, “It’s a lot easier” to play, Bryan said.
Bryan and his father, Alan -- who also has a custom cigar box guitar that Lord built -- have become unofficial salesmen for Old Man Vinegar’s.
“We’ve probably sold six or seven for him,” Bryan said. “People see ours and want one.”
A grand tradition
Lord has done extensive research into the history of cigar box guitars.
Back in the 1840s, cigars used to be sold in whiskey barrels. But because the government couldn’t tax the sale of cigars that way, it mandated that cigars be sold in boxes of 20 or 25.
“People threw (the boxes) away,” Lord said. “But people who couldn’t afford musical instruments made guitars and fiddles (from the boxes) through the 1870s.”
The popularity of the handmade instruments waned until the 1930s, when the Great Depression hit the country and no one could afford to buy instruments. There was a second wave of popularity for cigar box guitars.
Since then, many musicians of note, including Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd, have performed with cigar box guitars. Paul McCartney played one for the track “Cut Me Some Slack” in the documentary “Sound City,” as well as performances for Hurricane Sandy relief and on “Saturday Night Live.”
Lord said two members of the country band Blackjack Billy heard about his guitars and took to them instantly.
“These are primitive instruments, but their lead guitarist could play it immediately,” he said. “He said, ‘We’re going to write songs using these instruments.’ ”
Building a business
It takes about eight hours for Lord to make a guitar, and he usually builds four or five at a time. The process can take longer if he needs to glue parts together or if someone wants an ornate design on the box.
Otherwise, he said, the work is relatively straightforward. He’s made several guitar arms and will fit one for whichever cigar box he chooses. Each box gives its own special sound, he said, and no two sound exactly the same.
Many of the boxes he uses are given to him, and the rest cost no more than $5. Similarly, the wood he uses often is recycled from something else, such as an old dresser someone gave him. Not only does it keep the costs of building the guitar down, he said, but it also stays in step with the original tradition of building the guitars out of spare parts.
Elements such as strings and pickups are usually purchased to the specifications of whoever is buying a particular guitar.
The guitars start at $100, while more customized orders run about $150. Right now, Lord sells them only through his Facebook page. He doesn’t yet earn enough per sale to make it a full-time business, but word of mouth about the instruments has been catching on of late.
“Everybody likes them,” he said. “I’ve shipped them out to California, Dallas, Texas, Oregon. ... I sell them so I can keep on making them. I make $40 or $50 on them, so it’s not enough to pay my bills.”
Once he gets 100 guitars under his belt, Lord said he’ll probably raise the price a bit, but he still wants to keep them affordable.
“You never know what kid is going to end up with one and be inspired to do something more.”
Occasionally, some of his customers who can’t actually play buy his guitars as an expression of art.
“At least a third of them I’ve sold, people buy to hang on their wall,” he said. “That’s kind of sad to me.”
Despite taking guitar lessons as a youth, Lord said he hasn’t mastered playing the traditional six-string guitars. However, he’s learned a lot about music theory while teaching himself to play three-string guitars, and he’s starting to branch out with four-string guitars. Each of his guitars can be plugged into an amplifier, so it can be played either electrically or acoustically.
“People are amazed when you plug it into an amp and play it,” he said. “People think you need a $300 or $400 instrument to play, and you don’t.”
As for the traditional, full-bodied six-string guitar that Lord was discouraged from making years ago, he said he’ll get around to building one at some point.
“Eventually, I will make a traditional guitar,” he said. “But it’s not something I care to do at this time.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.