ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) - It started as a search for a different sound.
Kevin M. Kraft spent years unsatisfied with the instruments he had and was considering commissioning a custom-made guitar when he came across an alternative: Making one himself from a cigar box and other simple materials. The idea was hardly new, as cigar box instruments were being made as early as the 1840s; however, they've experienced a revival in recent years, the St. Joseph News-Press (http://bit.ly/10LS614 ) reported.
"It sort of amused me, really. I had tried building guitars out of shoe boxes and rubber bands when I was a little kid, and a cigar box guitar didn't seem much different," the Kansas City man says, adding that the project was something of a joke in his mind - until he began strumming the end result. "That was it! That was the woodshed sound I was looking for all my life ... and it came from a discarded box."
Since then, Kraft has become a cigar box guitar guru who founded the annual Kansas City Cigar Box Festival, which will take place for the third time this Sept. 22. And he's not the only one to recognize the appeal of these instruments; others in the Kansas City and St. Joseph areas also make and play the guitars.
Toby Tolbert of Camden Point, Mo., learned about the instruments from Kraft and made one with his daughter just for fun. But the guitar generated more interest than he'd anticipated and led him to begin a business, Barnyard Custom Cigar Box Guitars, in 2010. Also in 2010, Steve Talley of Platte City, Mo., began Stogie Box Blues with his father and uncle.
The instruments produced by each business show the diversity among cigar box guitars: Talley and his father make three- and four-string electric guitars, while Tolbert favors more primitive construction.
"I did go crazy for a while adding embellishments and bells and whistles," he says, "but I've pretty much gone back to a box and a stick with strings."
Both businesses produce cigar box amps, as well, and Stogie Box Blues also makes one-string diddley bows and slides out of wine bottles. All their products are handmade, and no two are exactly the same.
"You can kind of do whatever you want," Talley says. "There's really no rules."
Kraft seconds this, noting that even if a builder tried to make two cigar box guitars that were exactly alike, they'd probably still sound slightly different.
"Cigar box guitars allow the maker to customize his instrument to his needs," he adds. " ... In my case, they have revolutionized and even defined my musical endeavors."
This unique nature is part of the appeal of the instruments, as is their appearance. Talley notes that some people purchase his guitars simply for display purposes, although they're capable of much more.
"Women, especially, say Those are really cute; can you actually play them?"' he says. "Then I plug them in, and they can't believe the sound that comes out of them."
Both Tolbert and Talley have sold guitars to professional musicians in the area, and Kraft notes that he's seen a significant surge in interest in the instruments in the years since he started his festival.
"More artists than ever in Kansas City build, own, buy and play cigar box guitars," he says, adding that he now plays them almost exclusively. "I very, very rarely ever touch my normal,' factory-made Fender guitars anymore. In fact, I've cannibalized their parts for my cigar box guitars."
Of course, one of the most vital parts of a cigar box guitar is a cigar box, which at this point isn't too difficult to come by. Talley says he frequents a couple of cigar shops in the Kansas City area where he's usually able to buy empty boxes for no more than a dollar apiece. He is concerned, though, that the boxes might become more difficult to find as more people seek them for creative purposes.
But for the time being, the demand for cigar box guitars has been without drawbacks for Tolbert, Talley and Kraft.
Kraft notes that he, too, builds guitars for people on occasion - but more often, he encourages people to attempt to make their own.
"It's so fulfilling," he says. "There are few things more inspiring than creating music on an instrument you built with your own hands."
Toby Tolbert: https://www.facebook.com/BarnyardCBG
Steve Talley: stogieboxblues.com
Kevin M. Kraft: kevinmkraft.weebly.com