The Maya never predicted that 2012 would be the Year of the Cigar Box Guitar. They missed the most important story. The end of the world, which ought to be in a couple of hours, is not this year's crucial event.
Should the world end, it won't be remembered as vividly as Paul McCartney's appearance with the surviving members of Nirvana: an incident that produced indifferent music, but introduced the world to the Next Big Thing -- an instrument that will change the face of rock and roll.
Just to be sure that it will change the face of rock and roll (Paul's good at this), he appeared with this same instrument, and these same remnants of a band, a second time. On this occasion the results were not so much indifferent, as different. That's not entirely fair: this time Sir Paul's slide cigar work was properly front and center, and it was jaw-dropping.
The advent of the Cigar Box Guitar (CBG) may not be as important as the introduction of the Fender Telecaster. I guarantee, however, that music historians will consider Kurt Cobain's Jag-Stang a mere blip on the iconic radar relative to this new instrument.
All right, this new instrument is in fact older than your great-grandfather. The difference is that Paul McCartney never played one in front of a huge audience in 1850. He waited until 2012.
To be precise, that odd-looking beast hanging around the neck of Sir Paul was a Resofiddle, built by Matty Baratto, one of the shining lights of today's cigar box guitar revival. It is Barrato's Dobro-like version of the CBG, and the circular metal thing on the front is a cone, just as you'd find on an expensive resonator guitar. This one was made with a paint-can lid.
Baratto's standard model of cigar box guitar, sans resonator, is called the Cigfiddle. It's really nice. I want one.
That's okay: I'm about to have another fine instrument, banged together by another vaunted cigar box luthier: Bluesboy Jag. En route to me is a three-string Avo Heritage, which I particularly admire, because it sounds like this:
(That is in fact my very guitar. You can't have it. It is currently being abused by the Mexican postal service, and I expect it to arrive any moment.)
Yes, these are made with actual cigar boxes. "Avo Heritage", before it was the name of my guitar, was the name of a cigar.
If I really wanted to be legit, I'd kludge together my own CBG. Most people do -- that's the whole point. Back in the day, blues players -- including the most revered -- could not afford luxe instruments like Martins and Gibsons. They bought mail-order guitars from Sears, Roebuck & Co. And if they couldn't afford one of those, they made their own. The home-made guitar in fact antedates Sears Roebuck itself by quite a stretch.
Now, if you're going to make a guitar-like instrument, you need a hollow, resonating chamber. These days, such a chamber might have a face of Italian Alpine Spruce (favored by Stradivarius), with sides and backs of Brazilian rosewood (endangered and illegal), and set you back thousands of dollars. Such a guitar makes a truly refined sound, and I want one of those as well. On the other hand, a $3 cigar-box works too, and makes a sound that is arguably superior for certain kinds of music. Not "arguably." It just is.
You don't want to play gutbucket blues on a boutique instrument crafted by elves beneath the watchful eye of a master luthier. You want a cigar box, nailed to a blunt neck: preferably red oak. That nut and bridge carved from fossilized mastodon tusk (yerp, you can buy those) are just not appropriate: threaded bolts will do -- the kind of bog-standard bolts you use to put together bad furniture. That's right... drumroll... the nut is a bolt. The bolt is post-mastodon, in Darwinian terms, but way pre-fossil, when it comes to guitar history.
If you're too lazy to build a cigar box guitar yourself -- or simply want something above your skill level -- Bluesboy Jag is the sort of builder you want. He hammers together CBGs in his laundry room, when he's not gigging. He hand-winds his own pickups. He makes bass drums out of suitcases.
Matty Baratto is more of the high-end luthier kind of guy, since he also makes bespoke non-cigar-box guitars -- expensive ones -- for famous people. Baratto's famous-person CBG, however, is nicely primitive. Yes, somebody once smoked cigars delivered in the resonant box now played onstage by Paul McCartney.
I'm a bit late to the cigar box revival, which is at least a decade old. This is because I am, fundamentally, uncool. There are a few people less cool than me -- I do play passable slide guitar, really badly, and this gives me a touch of street cred. Unfortunately, you can manage a wretched rendition of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" -- and still be So Ten Minutes Ago. In fact, you're going to be. Pretty much by definition. So, like the rest of the world, I discovered the cigar box guitar at that crucial moment in history, just prior to the end of that same world, in which Paul McCartney appeared onstage with a funny-looking thing that I couldn't identify.
I did ask this precise question in a Facebook update (trying to beef up my cred here): "What the hell is he playing -- an electrified Dobro cigar-box ukulele?"
And lo: he sort of was.