Sunday, November 24, 2013

Have a Cigar (10.12.13)
Part 1

Spending too much time online looking up semi-popular music artists that have fallen off the radar can be a semi-dangerous—or, at least, semi-expensive—pastime. Finding Chris Connelly led me to attend a weekend symposium on the music business in Chicago. I don’t regret the experience, especially having gotten the chance to spend some moments with Chris and let him know that his artistry was appreciated. “Shipwreck” is one of my all-time favorite CD’s.

Rediscovering Pat MacDonald led to a more involved and expansive series of events that ended up having nothing to do with the ex-Timbuk 3 frontman and one of the most clever artists of the early days of the music video era. What it did lead to was spending time at a tiny bar and one-of-a-kind museum located about 45 minutes east of the East’s last real city—or the Midwest’s first.

Pat’s current project is another two-person group called Purgatory Hill. I opened a video and watched it repeatedly, trying to figure out what the hell he was playing. It looked like a box with strings running along a pair of broomstick handles. It was electrified, and he was playing it like a slide guitar. It turned out that the body was a cigar box.

I had never heard of a cigar box guitar, so I set about learning more about it. I found that these guitars can have any number of strings, from one (making it a “Diddley Bow”) to six or more. Many, including those I saw on other YouTube videos, seemed to have three strings. This was appealing to me for the sole reason that it must be easy to play. It is, if you are willing to be satisfied with a basic repertoire.

I know because I bought one (see photo at right). Like all instruments of this type, it was made by hand. I got it on eBay from someone in Alaska. It has an electric pick-up and short neck. I went back to the online store for a medicine bottle slide and began messing around with it.

For help with getting started I sought videos on YouTube. Here I came across a series of tutorials by a self-proclaimed “king of the cigar box guitar,” Shane Speal. There were many more aficionados out there than I would have imagined, as evidenced by their online presence.

As is usually the case, more research revealed more connections. I never dreamt that the next one would lead me just down the road to the aforementioned establishment near Pittsburgh. I came to learn that Shane was part of a family that had for years owned Speal’s Tavern. I had passed this place hundreds of times but never even noticed it.

It turned out that this was not just some dive bar, it was home of the world’s largest collection of cigar box guitars. The museum within a tavern was Shane’s brainchild. It includes instruments he made, that others made, and even one from the early 20th Century. The display also includes informational plaques identifying each one and still more with interesting facts about the origin of the instrument and how artists like Hendrix, King and others started playing guitar on their own handmade cigar boxes.

A longtime friend of mine supplied the final connection that gave me a great excuse to check it out for myself. Her husband Dennis James, a guitar-slinger from “down under,” played somewhat regularly at Speal’s. I learned this because when my Alaskan guitar was delivered to my office, my friend saw it and immediately recognized what it was. That was surprising enough. When she told me that her husband played at Speal’s, I was floored. She suggested I come for his next appearance there, which I naturally did.

Explore the interactive version here!
After seeing the exhibit for myself, I contacted Shane and his dad to make arrangements to create a virtual tour of the place. I was quite pleased with the way it turned out. It can be explored in great detail in two parts at 

Explore the interactive version here!

(Next week: part 2)

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