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2013 - a few thoughts from a Chickenbone perspective

I suppose this is my version of those awful ‘round robin’ letters you get sent with Christmas cards, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, then please read no further. I haven’t been trekking in the Andes, celebrating a birthday in the Maldives, skydiving, buying a Porsche or seeing my children graduate from Oxford University…nobody is forcing you to read on, so rather than posting to tell me to shut the f*ck up, just stop reading, OK?  Having said that, I’ve felt the need to put my thoughts in order about what’s happened to me over the past 12 months to help me get some perspective and try and set out my direction for the next year It’s not all been good, but I’ll try not to dwell on the negative aspects….maybe that’s the sort of thing I ought to start writing songs about. In some ways it’s been the culmination of the past 4 years, I’ve gone  from making a few guitars each year to a few each week (although I made my first cigar box guitar back in 2005).

The past 4 years have also been full of some pretty heavy personal stuff, but I’m not going to go for the sympathy vote, everyone has their own share of life’s travails to deal with. 2013 has been the year when I’ve moved fully into earning my corn at guitar making and music, so I hope you may excuse me if sometimes I seem opinionated and at times come over as being a bit of a know-it –all. It’s been damned hard, so don’t go thinking I’ve been lucky, luck has precious little to do with it. I see too many people sitting around waiting for an opportunity to drop into their lap...well let me tell you, that’s not going to happen, not unless you are totally committed and are willing to work. And for me, work means long hours.   I’m usually at work by 6.00am, whether at my computer, in the workshop or on the road, and often the day doesn’t end until midnight or the small hours the next day...that’s how you get lucky.


Learning to play cigar box guitar – workshop at the East Anglia Guitar Festival


So, as the year draws to an end, I’m reflecting on what changes the past year has brought.  With mixed feelings at least I can say I’ve been spared some of the sniping and grief of that had been shot in my direction from some quarters the previous year, but I’m under no illusion that some folk are always willing to have pop at me for some reason or whatever.  On a more general note, I know everyone is out there on the cigar box guitar scene “doing their own thing”, but I feel it’s not quite the same cohesive and open-minded community that it used to be. Sad to say, but my perception also is that Cigar Box Nation isn’t the force it used to be, and for me it isn’t the vibrant forum for new and inspiring ideas that it once was. It’s only my personal view, and it continues be THE go-to contact point for the subject. However, I sometimes  need to remind myself of some of the lines of the Desiderata, “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are a vexation to the spirit”. I haven’t been that active on CBN of late, mainly because I’ve been too busy actually doing things rather than talking about it, and sometimes I feel I just need to keep my head down.  It makes me a bit sad but I hope it may all come back round in the fullness of time. It’s the nature of the internet, and to each their own.


First gig in Germany – Bremen Roemer Club


For me the past 12 months has marked a huge change. Before this year, I did the odd workshop, made guitars and sold them at guitar kept me busy and provided me with a decent income. This year has seen a massive take-up for guitar making workshops, and going overseas to make guitars and play gigs -  both aspects have completely altered my perspective on what I’m doing.  Some press and TV exposure have also helped…and not wishing to play that down, that’s just been part of the mix.


Demand for my guitar making workshops has been satisfyingly steady, and I’ve got more geared up and more organized so I can now make a good proportion of my living doing it. I’m always glancing around to see what else is happening, and I know I’m not the only one doing this caper, so all that keeps me on my toes. 


Massive thanks must go out to Hollowbelly, for my being able to (literally) profit from his contacts in Europe, which got me my introduction to working overseas. He has been unstintingly supportive and generous in spirit in teaming up for these joint ventures…and I have learned a lot from spending time on the road with him during the course of 4 European road trips. Also, all my new contacts, customers and friends, particularly in Europe have buoyed me up and given me a new sense of optimism and direction.


First workshop in the Netherlands


Doing filming for the History Channel “Pawn Stars” programme was an interesting start to the year, and getting a guitar reviewed in Guitar and Bass magazine was a bit of a coup, but the big shock to my system was going to Europe. I’d been trying to organize a workshop and gig in Holland for some time, but despite my best efforts it had all fallen through...mainly down to not being able to get the money part of it agreed.  Undeterred, through the wonder of Facebook I managed to hook up with one of Hollowbelly’s German contacts and also with the help of a complete stranger in the Netherlands who seemed to like what I was doing and offered to sort out gigs and a workshop. Me and Hollowbelly formulated a somewhat illogical intinerary, with the route looking like a drunken spider wandering across a map of northern Europe…and I was thrown in at the deep end with 10 days on the road. Although I know HB from the very first Boxstock 5 years ago, the logistics of sharing the car, rooms and gigs for a week and a half was a bit daunting, and it was a lot of pressure to carry this venture off.  An exciting and challenging prospect, but an enterprise not to be undertaken lightly (sounds like marriage…). Well, we managed not to come to fisticuffs, and in fact it all turned out pretty groovy…some nice gigs, exhausting but inspiring workshops, and I came back to the UK older, wiser and a bit wealthier...and with about 2000 miles on the clock. I think those miles were harder on me than on my car. It’s difficult to sum up what I learned, but after seeing the way HB dealt with his stage performances and his overall approach to what he was doing, I felt I’d been given a membership card to a secret alternative world, which to me had previously been hidden. The fellowship, friendship and general hip-ness of this alternative music scene on the continent seemed to have been offered up to me on a platter, and I was all too happy to hoover it up like Posh Spice on a coke binge. Not that it’s all drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, far from it. I realised I’d taken on a massive physical and mental task...huge amounts of driving through snow, ice and pitch black nights, seemingly endless flights of staircases to lug countless boxes of gear up, packing gear into the car, unpacking again…and all this in constant close physical proximity to a guy I really didn’t know all that well, on a trip the like of which I’d never undertaken.  I suppose It wasn’t all totally alien to me, having toured with Tinqui8, Mike Snowden and Claude Hay in 2012, so that had at least got me into the crazy daily routine of drive, unpack, set-up, gig, break down, sleep, drive, repeat and repeat daily for a week or so…and the mood swings and exhaustion that it brings on. However, going abroad, staying with strangers and being responsible for the whole shebang was pretty mind-boggling. Still, in the words of Andy our German host,  after the first workshop and gig in Bremen “We did it guys!!”…and I think I can say with a degree of satisfaction, continued to do it and do it well for the rest of the year.


I’ve missed a few guitar shows this year, due to personal and overseas commitments, but it’s something I try and keep doing, getting the product out to the people face-to-face. The 2 day Birmingham show is the first one of the year, and it’s on my doorstep, so I’m sort of duty-bound to be there, but it is very expensive to take a stand. The take over 2 days isn’t as good as one day at somehere like Haydock…I like Haydock’s a nice venue and people always seem up for spending their money with me. It’s all part of the various aspects I have to consider to see what’s going to be most beneficial for my business.


The next big deal for me was Muddy Roots Europe festival in Belgium. Again I went with Hollowbelly. This time it was a leisure jaunt for HB, being asked back as a guest after playing the festival the previous year, but for me it was my first opportunity to take my shop on the road in Europe. What was very cool was the prospect of being able to meet up with Jos Maesen from Belgium who had come to the 2nd UK Boxstock, and also to meet up with Andy and Ozzy, our German and Dutch “fixers”. I was bowled over by the intimate friendly atmosphere of the event (as well as the great music) was as if everyone was family. For me this cemented the idea that this was the way music should be, and indeed when we returned to Bremen a few months later for the Van Thom Weekender, we met up with a lot of people that we’d seen in Belgium. 


Making new friends at Muddy Roots.


For my last European road trip of the year, I decided to arrange the next visit for HB and me as a short hardworking weekend. 

Eindhoven for the 2nd time this year


Ozzy sorted us out with some return visits to Belgium and Holland, packing in 3 gigs and 2 workshops in 4 days. It was enjoyable but hard work, and by now I was getting the hang of how to approach the job in a professional manner…all those unglamorous things like turning up on time, working out a route, making sure you have all the right leads, mics, amps, guitars, strings etc., plus all the materials parts and tools to make over 50 guitars (you can’t nip back to the house for something when you are 600 miles, 3 countries and a ferry journey from home).  The workshops are really a day-long performance in themselves, entertaining people and keeping them happy…it really is very hard work – I now understand what a difficult job being a teacher must be.

Back in the UK - Upton Blues Festival, jazz style.



Birmingham Beer Festival with Chickenbone Blues


Last year I think we’d been too ambitious with Boxstock, so this year we decided to change the format – less outgoings, a smaller venue, no Friday night and a lower ticket price. It seemed to work well, and was certainly a lot less stressful to organise … apart from the minor inconvenience of loosing our headline act with 4 days to go. These things happen: you have to try and be a bit philosophical about it and just get on with it.

Boxstock 2013 in Leicester– learning to play the Hollowbelly way


So, 25 guitar making workshops, 2 TV appearances, 4 working trips to Europe, a few festivals, a few gigs and about another 100 guitars made…it’s been a busy old year.

Re-union gig with The Surprises

I could say I’ve been lucky, but it’s not been just luck, it’s been persistence and hard work…yes, some fortunate things have happened, some serendipity, but you have to put yourself in the way of fortune for things to happen in the first place. Something that Hollowbelly said to me earlier this year has stayed with me. If I recall rightly, we were unloading our gear off a converted trawler in Scheveningen harbour, dragging it across a snow encrusted gangplank and onto the quayside ready to load it into the car for a trip down into Belgium. He said (or words to the effect) that  “Most people don’t take the opportunities when they arise, because they are usually disguised as hard work.”  It struck me that during the task of hefting several hundred of kilos of gear at sub zero temperatures onto a snow-covered dockside, truer words were never spoken. I’ve been priviledged to learn a lot from Hollowbelly during the time I’ve spent on the road with him this year, about his work ethic and his professional attitude and his creative influences.


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Comment by darryl kernaghan on December 30, 2013 at 3:30am

great post rob,havn,t met john personally ,but he strikes me as you described

Comment by Rob (Treadstone Guitars) on December 30, 2013 at 1:47am

I totally look up to this guy. I'm his noisy, slightly younger under-study (he just doesn't know it yet!)

I do this as a part-time business, as I'm very lucky to have a wife who has a good career to support our family.

I've done the the guitar shows like John, and it's such a roll of the dice as to whether you come away with anything more than your outgoings (fuel, stand fees, coffee).

I get the impression that some of the other exhibitors (if not most of them) think of Cigar Box Guitars as a joke.I've over-heard comments about John, and I'm sure there's stuff said about me.

Guys you can stick your £1k strat up your ass.

We both did the Leeds guitar show this year, which was shite and at the end I asked him for advice on running a build day I've been asked to do. Not only was I stunned by the amount of info he enthusiastically gave me, but by how much time he was willing to spend talking about it to the point where where we were literally the last two exhibitors to leave the building, each of us having a lengthy (and mildly depressing) drive home to our respective families. 

How this guy can pull it off as a full-time venture is both bewildering and inspiring, but proves that it works with skill and commitment. Hell, I even build my CBG's to fit underneath his build-style, as if I even tried to do the same spec as him, I'd fall at the first hurdle. 

John, if you're reading this pal you've missed an important ingredient, and that is your brand. The Chickenbone John name is represented by you and would be knackered if it wasn't for your Brummie awesomeness.

Stay Mojo brother. :)

Poor bugger wandered over to my stall at the Upton Blues Festival, where I immediately rail-roaded him to demo one of my guitars in front of a jaw-dropped crowd. My wife suggested I was being a 'cheeky bastard'. 

Comment by Nicolas Leray on December 24, 2013 at 5:09am

Nice piece of life, even if long to read for a frenchy ;)

Comment by Richard G Caudill on December 21, 2013 at 7:24pm

U're certainly a teacher ,, as I always look at ur vids and comments .. Always .

Comment by 407bug on December 21, 2013 at 7:17pm

John all the best for another great year, sound like you grafted.. a lot!...

All good things come from hard work...but as you say, you also need some luck going your way too to make it happen..or kick start it..

Thanks for sharing the post and keep riding that wave...Best of luck Bug

(My first ever glass slide was bought from you way way back)

Comment by Malcolm Wright on December 21, 2013 at 6:45pm

I owe you a lot John, you've been nothing but an absolute trooper and you continue to inspire, inform and impress me year after year. I'm proud to call you a friend. May you continue to climb that greasy pole of success through 2014 and beyond - it's no more than you richly deserve. Cheers fella.

Comment by ian dawson on December 20, 2013 at 4:10pm

A great read, I wish you continued success, keep up the good work and have a great Christmas and an even greater 2014! Ian

Comment by Michael Fred Johnson on December 20, 2013 at 8:01am

You're spot on with the comment about being a teacher performing to educate and also entertain the class, as an escapee from the job I appreciate what hard work your workshops must be. I think it was Gary Player who said "the harder I practice the luckier I get".Hope your hard work generates lots of luck all the best for 2014 

Comment by Clock The Wolf on December 20, 2013 at 5:38am

I love that workshop photo!

Comment by t-belly johnson on December 19, 2013 at 7:27pm

Great read mate and from what you say you deserve all the success in the World. Good luck for next year.


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