Marietta Man Makes Music By Turning Cigar Boxes Into Guitars

Sep 23, 2019

Smoking cigars isn’t healthy and touring as a musician can take the fun out of performing, but Mike Snowden of Marietta has found a way to make money and have fun by crafting guitars out of cigar boxes.

In the early 1800s, cigars were shipped in large crates and they weren’t taxed. By mid-century, taxes were imposed, and the law required cigars ship in smaller boxes — and those boxes couldn’t be refilled with cigars for sale. So, what do you do when the boxes are empty?

Some people fashioned them into musical instruments. The earliest models had two strings and worked as basic chordophones, which make sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points.

The earliest illustrated proof of a cigar box instrument known is an etching of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle copyrighted in 1876.

Some of the cigar box guitars Mike Snowden builds in his Marietta home.
Credit Ellen Eldridge / GPB News

“A cigar box guitar can have one string or you can have a hundred,” Snowden said. “I mean, there's no rule. That's what's really cool.”

Bo Diddley is famous for making a one-string guitar using a cigar box as a resonator.

“He took an old cigar box, a broken broomstick and a like a piece of fence wire or a piece of screen wire and made a guitar out of it,” Snowden said.

With three strings, players can simply strum and don’t have to worry about making a chord like with a traditional six-string guitar.

Snowden started out as a traditional musician, playing bass in a band that played 250 shows a year.

“When it finally broke up, I was exhausted,” Snowden said. “Looking back on it, I was just I was done.”

So, he took some time off and had a daughter with his wife. About 12 years ago, Snowden got the itch to get back into making music. But this time he did it literally.

Snowden said he’d read about idols of his such as Jeff Beck who made a cigar box guitar in his youth.

“I even think when I was in like kindergarten, I can remember we would take like a Kleenex box and put rubber bands on it and, you know, make a little guitar out of it,” Snowden said. “So, it's just the coolest thing in the world to me.”

He’s now back in a band and plays cigar box guitar.

It's all I do,” he said. “If I'm not building them, I'm playing them.”

Snowden made his first cigar box guitar out of a piece of pallet wood. It didn’t even have frets on it and you couldn’t really play it.

What I really like about cigar box guitars is there's no right way and there's no wrong way to do it,” he said. “I mean, you can't take it all that serious; it's a cigar box guitar.”

Now, some of his cigar box guitars have solid bodies. They have strings, frets and pickups. And Snowden’s cigar box guitars sell online for as much as $1200. He makes the instruments in his in-home shop. Snowden even sold one to Ozzy Osbourne of the famous metal band Black Sabbath.

They came to my shop and Ozzy bought a cigar box guitar from me,” he said. “So, we got to jam with him and everything; he had his harmonica. And it was just awesome to meet Ozzy and having come to my house. I was just like you know kind of blown away with that.”

He makes 12 to 15 cigar box guitars at a time in batches. And they sell fast. This is Snowden’s main source of income now.

It takes me about two to three weeks to make them and they go really fast,” he said.

Snowden has waiting lists of customers waiting to buy those boxes that once piled up because they couldn’t be refilled with cigars. And most importantly, he’s having fun, enjoying his work and his music as crafts.