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The Art of Cigarbox Guitars

Johnny Washday at Gallery 911

Dec. 4, 2012
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Longtime Milwaukee musician Johnny Washday got the idea to make his own cigar box guitars after reading an article in Guitar Player Magazine.  He got a cigar box from a cigar store and started collecting hand tools. He spent an entire summer in his studio, perfecting his first guitar.  From there, he continued making more guitars, giving them away as gifts.

Johnny ran into an old friend, Mark Melchior, a luthier (guitar smith) with over 10 years of experience. Melchior started working under Evil Cardonni and Presley Haskel before moving to Los Angeles, where he went on to create some prominent guitars. Melchior showed Washday the correct methods and tools to produce a better guitar.

Cigar box guitars and fiddles were important in the rise of jug bands and blues. As many of the performers were black Americans living in poverty, many could not afford a "real" instrument. Carl Perkins, Jimi Hendrix, Roy Clark, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Armstrong, Ted Nugent, and Ian Anderson all built their own cigar box guitars as the first instruments they played.

Each guitar produced by Johnny Washday is unique, made from cigar boxes in different sizes and with different designs printed on them. He uses found wood for the necks, which he hand carves.  Under every fretboard Washboard etches words of tranquility, such as “calm,” “peace” or “love.”  What is truly special about his guitars is all the love he puts into making each one.

Washday had the honor of helping to curate the Les Paul Interactive Installation at Discovery World and constructed a cigar box guitar for the great guitarist. When Paul died, Washday's guitar was sold at his estate sale for $1,000. A photo of this guitar is in the catalog of Les Paul’s collection with a note, “Thanks to Johnny on Washday.”

Johnny Washday will be showing his cigar box collection on 5-10 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, and 3-10 p.m Saturday, Dec. 8 at Gallery 911, 911 W National Ave.



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