It’s the chance to learn to play instruments most people have never heard of.
The Carrboro ArtsCenter’s latest workshops feature the cigar-box guitar — two instruments that are an important precursor to the modern guitar — and will be taught by Justin Johnson.
Johnson, who has played music professionally for years, said he immediately knew these instruments were special.
“It hit me that this is really a great-sounding instrument that inspires great music to come out of it,” he said. “The more I got into the significance of it, the more I became attached to these instruments, and they became all I play right now.”
Johnson said he thinks the appeal comes from the designs of the instruments.
“There’s no real set rules for how you need to design it,” he said. “I’ve heard from builders that what gets them addicted to building them is that they start real simple and then think, ‘I could make one out of a vegetable can.’”
Bob Johnson, who makes the cigar-box guitars and diddley bows the students will use in the workshops, said he uses lumber from his property and items found in thrift shops to create the instruments.
“One of the really cool aspects is that a lot of the bridges on my guitars are skeleton keys,” he said. “I try to tie into images that are on the cigar box.”
Justin Johnson said the sounds they make represent folk and blues music in the American South.
“A lot of people don’t have the means to buy their own instruments and so develop their own. These were the first musical instruments that were played by a lot of people who became influential bluesmen,” he said.
However, the genre is not restricted to blues.
“You can play anything that you want to on these instruments now,” Justin Johnson said. “One of my favorite genres to play is that sort of Django Reinhardt-inspired jazz music.”
Justin Johnson said most of his students take the class at first because they think the instruments look cool.
“When they really understand the significance of it, and they hear it and tie the sound in with it they realize that music really is a universal thing,” he said.
Bob Johnson said he thinks one of the reasons beginners start out on these instruments is because of their accessibility.
“You can get as fancy or as basic as you want,” he said — something Betty Rider, a student in the cigar-box workshop, said she agreed with.
“I want to be able to play better the cigar-box guitar that I have,” she said. “I really haven’t fooled around with it much because I haven’t had the time, but it looks like fun.”
Justin Johnson said he thinks the cool factor of these instruments will allow them to translate into modern, popular music.
“There’s a whole palette of tones that haven’t been accessed in the modern instruments because they are in the classic ones. It is rich with bravado and soul that you can just hear and feel when you play it.”
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