New Paltz Times - Features 1/29/2009
Baby, it's the guitar man
Homespun luthier Jack Murphy crafts Civil War-era sounds
by Erin Quinn
Jack Murphy has created a poor man's guitar with both a flair and a local flavor. Murphy, a New Paltzian since his days as an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz in the late 1960s, slips a copper band around his finger and slides it gracefully along a homemade guitar. The instrument has a cigar box for its body, a piece of poplar wood as its neck and a shower drain as a crude resonator to help amplify the tinny blues that emanate from his simple creation.
The do-it-yourself luthier has worked at the old Valley Video, served as a bartender for the old North Light, Homestead, P&G's, Canal House, peddled books at Ariel and now works as the Web coordinator for Ulster County Community College.
But in his studio, an office in his village home that she shares with his wife Suzanne, Murphy has created more than a dozen lap-steel guitars. His basement is filled with cigar boxes, old pieces of instruments, scrap metal, tools and specially ordered parts from far-flung Internet pals. His creations use lunch boxes from Manny's Art and Supply store, cigar boxes found at yard sales, pieces of discarded wood, and simple screws and bolts purchased from True Value.
A jack-of-all-trades, Murphy, among other passions -- photography, art, travel -- had long been a guitarist. He had always enjoyed the sound of a steel guitar. He purchased two lap steel-guitars and then began to explore them on the Web.
He stumbled on a YouTube video that explained how to build one yourself. What he learned from this video and more exploration on the Web changed his outlook entirely. There were creative ways to build a lap steel guitar with no frets, a resonator and an ability to amplify the sound with the use of cigar boxes, lunch boxes or cookie tins. People were using any number of materials to install a resonator, create a neck, bridge, nut and attach strings to create the desired sound.
What started out as a basic inquiry into how one might make a resonator guitar launched Murphy into the informative, wild and high-strung world of cottage guitar makers.
"I found a Web site that had 2,2000 members but really only about 100 active members," he said. "It was www.cigarboxguitars.com. We'd write back and forth among the members, but the old-timers often became frustrated with the newbies and soon it splintered off into various sites."
Murphy is an active member of two sites now, one which is filled with opinionated guitar-loving Southerners who "rant about everything, from music to politics to drinking ... the other site is more geared towards sharing information on how to build guitars ... but I subscribe and like them both."
From his first Macanudo cigar box guitar, made with a piece of poplar wood, some strings and a basic bolt screw, only a year ago, Murphy has gone on to make more than a dozen guitars.
And because cigar box guitars don't conform to the standard designs, they can have or lack frets, they can have any number of strings or they could more closely resemble a banjo or ukulele.
For instance, Murphy has made one-string diddley bows, combo lap steel guitars, banjos, ukuleles, a two-string instrument and instruments for various Internet contests. The "Halloween" and "Ugly Duckling" contests challenged cottage guitar makers to create their most haunted instrument or turn recycled and discarded parts into things of beauty.
"If you win the contest, you get some bragging rights by having your guitar on the home page of the Web site," said Murphy as he strummed a lunchbox guitar he made from scratch using a Manny's-purchased Elvis lunch box as the sound chamber.
"I just love the metallic sound of this," he said as he slid his copper slider along the strings. It had a Delta blues ring to it that recalled the bayou, even amidst the frozen winter in upstate New York.
He also created a lunchbox guitar with da Vinci's "The Last Supper" illustration that he played at his wife's relatives seder. "Nothing like celebrating the seder with music from 'The Last Supper,'" he joked.
While the cigar box guitar movement has taken on a modern twist, it has its roots steeped in American history.
"Now there is a movement that is similar to the punk movement that calls itself 'prim-rock,'" explained Murphy. "It's 'primitive' rock where there are 'no rules.' The basic concept is that all it takes to make a guitar is a box, stick and string. When someone writes, 'can I use this old bedpan I found?' the answer was always, 'of course you can; there are no rules.'"
"There is a certain group of people involved in the prim-rock movement that see themselves as people living on the edge -- they hate the popular music industry, the guitars mass produced in China, Eric Clapton," he added. "They encourage everyone to do their own thing, without pretense or rules."
That said, Murphy and many of his cigar-box counterparts are very versed in the history of instruments made with such modest means.
"The diddley bow can be traced back to the slave days when a broom would be worn out and slaves would unwrap the wire, utilize the worn piece of wood, and string it up on a porch overhang to play music," he said. "There are also prints from Harper's in the 1800s, which clearly depict Union soldiers in the Civil War playing cigar box guitars and violins around their tents.
"The popularity of these instruments really fall in line with the state of the economy over the decades and centuries," Murphy mused. "When times were tough economically, it was much easier to use a glass bottle , a piece of scrap wood and fishing wire to make an instrument than it was to buy one. Even now, I could go out and spend $200 on a mediocre guitar or maybe $1,000 on a real good guitar, but for less than $20 I can make one myself. And the process is so personal and creative and fun. I just can't get over the sound of these instruments."
To illustrate this point, Murphy plays a Jimi Hendrix tune on one of his earliest creations and then some blues shuffles.
"It's amazing how much sound these cigar boxes amplify and how metallic the lunchboxes are," he said. He then plugs them into an amplifier and the sound grows and swells through the room.
Although he has yet to meet in person any of his Internet guitar-making comrades, Murphy trades guitars with them, enters the contests, trades information, tips, info and hopes to meet up with some of his buddies at their annual convention and jam.
"It was in Alabama this year, but with work and commitments I couldn't make it," he said. "But I want to next year."
He said he was inspired to learn the ukulele prior to his homemade guitars when he watched a concert aired on PBS dedicated to The Beatles' George Harrison.
"George used to always travel with two ukuleles because he could fit them as carry-ons for a plane ride," Murphy said. "That way, his son explained, he would always have an instrument handy for himself and another musician to jam."
Murphy taught himself how to play the ukulele and admits that he has one stored in his desk drawer at his office.
He pointed to a diddly-bow that had markings for both the dulcimer scale and the faux-guitar frets that he had constructed. "I want to teach a class to kids where they can actually make their own instrument," he explained. "This is easy to make and if you follow the scales for the dulcimer, they only hit whole notes."
While the process is personal and creative, it is also steeped in Internet bonding, history and a desire to make something out of nothing and inspire music. Murphy's work has already been admired by many and he will allow his homemade guitars to be utilized for an art and music show at Ulster County Community College this February.
Always a fan of talented musicians, Murphy created two, one-of-a-kind cigar box guitars for his string-playing gurus. One of those heroes was Junior Brown, and the other was David Lindley, who was Jackson Browne's lead guitarist, and who has traveled and recorded in many countries including Norway and Madagascar where he learned and played with native musicians and recorded their songs.
"These guys can play any string instrument you hand them -- they're geniuses," said Murphy, who had friends at the radio station WKZE and asked if they could find a way for him to present Brown and Lindley with the cigar box guitars he'd made for them.
Murphy created a guitar with an oak neck, nickel-steel frets, a Macanudo cigar box, with the name of his beloved musician carved out in between frets for Brown, and a similar one with a spun-aluminum resonator and David’s own image superimposed on the back of the instrument for Lindley.
"Lindley picked it up right away and started playing it," recalled Murphy. "It sounded incredible in his hands. I like to think that I'd given him something that he could have fun with at his hotel late at night or on the road."
Murphy, is also interested in encouraging anyone who is interested in learning to make their own guitars.
He points to various Web sites, including http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/CIGARBOXGUITARBUILDERS, which is a "group of builders that are very supportive and helpful to newcomers."
There is also the more intense and high-velocity Web site -- www.cigarboxnation.com, which has "loads of information, photos, videos and sound clips and includes Shane Speal, one of the leaders of the CBG movement that helped me get started building," Murphy said.
Among a dozen Web sites is one that Murphy points to -- www.tedcrocker.com -- who was asked by John Sayles to hand-build guitars for the movie "Honeydripper."
"All of these Web sites are informative and people are very helpful whether you're just beginning like I was a year ago, or trying to refine your instrument, go for a certain sound, find ways to creatively mute the pickup so that extraneous noise is not heard when amplified."
"I'm just having a lot of fun," admitted Murphy, who showed off his basement stacked with vintage cigar boxes picked up from the old cigar company in Rosendale. "These boxes in and of themselves are just beautiful -- the detail and design."
There are also shower drains, scrap wood, spun-aluminum resonators from a friend in Puerto Rico, old kids' instruments and other treasures scattered about -- all waiting to become another one of Murphy's musical creations.