By Tim Fenster:
Anyone who saw the funny little square-shaped guitars at Mikel Doktor's booth stand at the Music is Art festival might have thought Doktor had created some unique, alien-type of instrument. However, Doktor said cigar box guitars existed long before major guitar manufacturers -- even before rock 'n' roll itself. In fact, the cigar box guitar's role in shaping early blues music (which in turn shaped rock music) is what drove Doktor's interest in crafting the instruments.
"I've always been a big fan of delta blues and early folk music, and that instrument was a real big part of that," Doktor said. "It really helped carry that music along when there really weren't a lot of instruments to be had. These are instruments initially made on plantations, and also during the civil war and on the battlefield."
Doktor, who holds a nine-to-five job with the Guitar Center Corporation, built his first cigar box guitar about a year ago. He quickly found he'd a passion in crafting the simple, sonically-raw instruments, and pretty soon the Medicine Man Cigar Box Guitars business took off.
Over the last year, in his spare time, Doktor has constructed between 350 and 375 guitars. And while he said the experience has made the crafting process "a lot more refined," it has not made the process uniform at all.
"Every single guitar sounds different," Doktor said. "You never know what it's going to sound like until it's done."
The building process all starts with a cigar box, which Doktor has accumulated in mass. Every week Doktor will visit a number of local cigar stores to purchase boxes "about 30 to 40 at a time." Other times he'll search on eBay or Craigslist for interesting boxes. And sometimes he's lucky enough for art-show patrons -- often "old-time cigar-smokers" -- to donate spare cigar boxes that they might be keeping in their basement or attic and have no use for, Doktor said.
Once he's found a box he likes, then begins the building process. Some of the simpler designs might take him as few as five hours, while more complex, custom-made designs might take as long as twenty. One of the latter is a custom guitar he just finished for Reverend Payton's Big Damm Band, which is the first sponsor of Medicine Man Cigar Box Guitars, Doktor said.
"Every box is a new adventure, a new sound, and that is really what keeps me motivated to keep making these things," Doktor said. "When I pick up a box I try to figure out what sounds are going to come out of this thing."
Once the body is finished and the strings are attached, Doktor might add a few decorations, such as the Jack Daniels label or an Ouija board label. But for the most part he tries to "let the boxes speak for themselves."
With a large supply of guitars finished, Doktor might consider going to a festival or art show to sell them. He got noticed in the Buffalo area by getting a booth at the Saturday Artisan's Show at Buffalo Harbor. He also got a big boost in sales from a performance/art show at Nietzsche's, where Doktor sold about 80 guitars.
Now the art show offers are rolling in, but Doktor is being selective in order to keep true to the cigar box guitar's authenticity.
"I don't want this instrument to become so mainstream crafty that people expect it to be at every area art show," Doktor said. "I want to get one in everybody's hands, but at the same time I don't want it to be one of these cookie-cutter crafts. I want to keep it interesting and elusive."
As for the instrument itself, cigar box guitars typically sport four strings and offer a "raw, organic sound." Some Doktor compared to a mandolin-sound, others to a banjo-sound, and others he said are differently entirely. He emphasized that it is not played like a typical acoustic guitar.
"Sometimes, using open tuning, you're going to have one or two open resonant strings, and maybe (you'll just play) off of that one string, while others vibrate to an open cord," Doktor said. "I think it gives you a lot more freedom. It's almost like having two guitar players. One (finger is) just doing strumming, and the other is doing all the leads and melodies for you."
Doktor said he's sold guitars to musicians of all ages and styles, from "blues guys" to "punk-rock guys." Doktor encourages anyone -- experienced guitar players and not -- to try out playing on a cigar box guitar.
"Keep an open mind when using these things," Doktor said. "A lot of people tent to over-think them -- sometimes when they see something so simple they try to look for a bigger answer, and it's really easy. Just pick one up and play it."
Doktor's Medicine Man Cigar Box Guitars will be featured at the Indiesound Music Festival
on Saturday, Sept. 29 at the Black Rock Café. He will also have a performance/art show at Nietzsche's on Wednesday, Oct. 17.
Photo: Rimas Musteikis