Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Hector Peña                                                                   ©2013 Salee Sweeney

An upscale cigar store in Santa Fe, New Mexico is an unlikely place to encounter Delta blues; for that matter, a cigar store in Santa Fe is unlikely in and of itself, given that there are likely more gallons of green juice consumed and alternative therapies undergone per capita than just about anywhere in the US. Yet, the blues wafted out of Primo Cigar Shop onto the sidewalk one April evening, where folks avoiding secondhand nicotine overdoses craned for a view. The rolling and tumbling guitar figures had a familiar, inviting feel as I walked into the shop; what was obvious even outside was that the guitar sounds were way different – distinct from a steel-body sound, they still rattled eerily and were capable of the extreme portamento usually coaxed from traditional Asian string instruments. That’s because instrument maker Hector Peña and his Zia Conservatory colleagues were playing his cigar box electric guitars; instead of traditional pick-ups, Peña attaches a piezo transducer to the stem of the neck inside the box, which blends every extraneous touch of the box and the hardware into the instrument’s overall sound; with the strings sitting as much as an inch off the fret board, the slide can create extraordinary, overtone-rich textures. While the riffs and licks were well in the main of the Delta blues vernacular, the cigar box guitars gave them a new iridescence.

Prior to this encounter, cigar box cigars were merely an encyclopedia entry, historical marginalia with pre-Civil War origins, the instrument and its fiddle equivalent easily migrating between the porches and roadhouses of Whites and Blacks throughout the remainder of the 19th Century, resurging as late as the Depression. Maybe I had heard them on an anthology of early recordings from the South; maybe not. Even the instrument’s recent renaissance had gone unnoticed. Paul McCartney played one with the remnants of Nirvana at the Hurricane Sandy benefit at Madison Square Garden? Oh; didn’t know. The one advantage of being all but completely ignorant of cigar box guitars was that I was effectively hearing them for the first time; instead of gauging Peña’s striking design aesthetic – he inlays the fret boards with 9mm bullet casings and his tuning pegs have skull-shaped knobs – or speculating about where he and his cohorts fit into the landscape of contemporary practice, I simply zeroed in on the guitars’ sound, a sound older in spirit than the country itself.

“They are uniquely American instruments,” Peña said between sets, “but they represent a journey that began in Africa. I’m sure if you gave one of these guitars to an African guitarist, the music would have an authentic African sound. When cigar box guitars were first made in the South, they were often played like a banjo, which has African roots. They have real mojo.”

We continued the conversation a few days later in Madrid – which is pronounced by locals with emphasis on Mad – a funky former mining town that is a haven for artists and a weekend destination for bikers and intrepid travelers of all stripes. Peña holds forth on Sunday afternoons at Roadside Attraction, an emporium brimming with art and off-center miscellany, spreading the gospel of cigar box guitars to all comers.

When asked what type of cigar box is best suited for guitar-making, Peña said that any box had the potential of being a fine instrument – it was just a matter of adjusting construction techniques to the specific box. Certainly, Peña said, plastic boxes produce a different tone color than their wooden counterparts – size matters, as well. However, he can never be totally sure about how reverberant a box will be. If, prior to sealing the box, Peña finds that the guitar is too noisy when plugged in, he will carefully spray the interior of the box with foam insulation sealant until the guitar has the right twang. Though he uses cigar boxes of all sizes, he prefers larger boxes, Arturo Fuente Kings being a favorite.

For Peña, who built hand drums before he caught cigar box guitar fever, constructing the instrument is part and parcel of the creative process. Building two or three instruments a week has been integral to Peña’s evolving articulation of the sound he wants from a cigar box guitar. Not only does this process guide Peña in his box selection, but it also extends to such details as determining the distance between the nut and the bridge on each guitar, as well as the hardware used for both. Every decision is critical because it leads to the guitar’s sound.

“A guitar’s sound hits you before the notes sink in,” Peña said. True, that; one needs go no further than a host of classic recordings by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson for confirmation. While it is true of all guitars, Peña contends that it is even more the case with cigar box guitar construction that perfecting the sound can mean “the difference between someone hearing it and saying ‘OK’ or making them cry.” It’s all about making the guitar sing, he insists; granted, he concedes, it does require a player with the right touch.

When Peña bottom lines it, it’s all about the blues; cigar box guitars are just another pure medium. Like any righteous bluesman, Peña considers the blues in metaphorical, even mystical terms, although his have an intriguing Diasporic spin. “We think of Delta blues as roots music and the Delta as the source of it all,” Peña reflected, “but, the Delta is really the destination in the sense that the blues came from Africa and the even Delta itself was carried there by the river. The river then carried the blues up to Chicago, and then the rest of the world. And now the Delta blues are everywhere, even in the desert. And they’re powerful, wherever they are.”

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