Have a cigar (box) with Steve Cinnamon

The Venice-based craftsmen turns old cigar boxes into new (and sought-after) guitars.

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click to enlarge OUTSIDE THE BOX: “More than anything else, I wanted to leave behind a legacy,” says Steve Cinnamon. - Heidi Kurpiela
Heidi Kurpiela
OUTSIDE THE BOX: “More than anything else, I wanted to leave behind a legacy,” says Steve Cinnamon.

Cigar box guitars can be traced back to post-Civil War America, evolving from the poor rural South’s West African-rooted diddley bow. The early primitive instrument could be easily made from found or recycled materials; a sturdy wooden board, a single wire stretched between two nails, and a glass bottle placed between the wire and board that serves as the bridge and magnifies the sound as a player plucks the wire and varies the pitch with a metal or glass sliding device. Remember that thingamajig modern blues rock guitarist Jack White assembles, then plays the hell out of in Davis Guggenheim’s 2009 documentary, It Might Get Loud? Yeah, that’s it. (“Who says you need to buy a guitar?” he mutters at the end of his screaming solo, and the irony of his statement isn’t lost on any of us, least of all White.)

Cigar box guitars have ebbed and flowed in popularity throughout 20th century blues, and are currently in the midst of a slow, reverberating resurgence among the indie sect. Current sliders include Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, his electric cigar box guitar a Lowebow model; idiosyncratic indie-rock icon Tom Waits, who plays cigar box banjo on his 2004 album, Real Gone; and the femme half of Airstream-mobile punk-grass roots stompers Hymn for Her, Lucy Tight, whose three-stringed frills-free cigar box guitar has a broom for a handle.

Florida’s own recent revival has been aided in part by Steve Cinnamon, 66, who’s enjoying a second career as a cigar box guitar luthier. His background in advertising shows in the way he sells himself and his ideas, but he has an appealing no-nonsense attitude that’s as refreshing as his genuine enthusiasm about what he’s doing. His pleasure translates into lovingly crafted instruments. “For semi-retirement, this is a wonderful thing.”

Cinnamon is a Bronx native who moved to Rockaway, N.J. at 26 to raise a family. More than three decades later, ready for a change of pace and scenery with his soon-to-be-third wife, and drawn by a real estate opportunity, the couple re-located to Venice, bought a house and tied the knot on the beach. They were hit hard by the recession, their finances dwindled, and Cinnamon suffered a mild heart attack (coincidentally on the same day of Michael Jackson’s death). But he pulled through it, health and marriage intact, and even managed to re-connect with an old friend.

He and Jerry Depaulis had listened to doo-wop and played around on guitars as teens, but lost contact decades ago. A series of fortunate online circumstances put them in contact again; as fate would have it, Depaulis lived pretty much up the road from him, in Ft. Myers. “I think a lot of people find old friends down here. This [Florida] is the home for wayward souls.”

Depaulis ultimately sparked Cinnamon’s current passion with a phone call and a question. “He asked, ‘Did you ever hear of a cigar box guitar?’” Depaulis had been working on one and invited Cinnamon over to check it out. Interest piqued, Cinnamon returned home and did some research, uncovering a more than 150-year history. “It was fascinating how they made these instruments out of nothing,” he gushes, and says it got him to wondering: If his friend Depaulis could make one, why couldn’t he? “The first one took me about two weeks to master. Now, I knock ’em out, one after the other. I just kept learning, it's been a learning experience, and I LOVE it, I love it. It’s so much fun. The first time I plucked a string on a finished electric one, I said, ‘Oh my god, it actually works!’ I was shocked!’”

He makes both acoustic and electric models. The empty cigar box acts like a resonator as on a standard guitar, except there are three strings rather than six, and the hole is fitted with a tasteful gold bathtub strainer. Though the construction is essentially the same for both models, Cinnamon says, “The more I make them, the more I think the solid wood ones are the best for the electric, like a Fender or Gibson guitar. The ones that have some wood and some compressed cardboard, as long as it’s strong and not flimsy, make the best acoustic guitar, because you get more resonance and rumble out of it; it’s not so rigid.”

The neck is made from a 1'x2' piece of oak, “which I shape, grout and make into a pretty piece. Keep it simple. There’s a lot of creativity that goes into the headstock where the tuners are, because there’s no right and no wrong way to do it, so I can make up whatever I want. Play it by ear. What’s the difference? It’s fine to me.”

He started out giving them as gifts, but as soon as someone offered to pay for one, he realized he could make his hobby into a business and get his finances back on track. Two years later, word has spread, and he makes and sells between four and six cigar box guitars a week, each crafted in a workshop-nook in his home garage. Acoustic models go for $175, occasionally $150 without all the bells and whistles. His electric models are never less than $250 – “I don’t budge a nickel because it’s a lot of work” — and his customers range from grandmothers buying a sweet gift for their grandkids, to professional musicians like Sarasota bluesman Steve Arvey, who uses it live onstage. “They are so talented, they make me look good, and they promote me.”

He’s had a wealth of stories written about him, and he was featured in a recent episode of WEDU’s A Gulf Coast Journal with Jack Perkins. But his guitars will exist long after the media buzz is over and that’s what pleases him most. “More than anything else, I wanted to leave behind a legacy,” he says, explaining he wasn’t able to do so in his decades-long advertising career and has achieved it in only a few years of making cigar box guitars. “I’ll be dead and buried for 50 years and people will still be playing with my instruments, and their great grandchildren probably won’t even know where they came from. I wanted to leave something behind, and I’ve already left 135 somethings behind!”

Find out more about Steve at cottinpickinblues.com.

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