MOUNT AYR — “Music is therapy,” Ken Campbell — a local musician — said of his inspiration for creating guitars out of unusual objects.
The Mount Ayr native said he had never played guitar until, at age 35, he was in a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. He spent the summer in the hospital and, when he was released, decided it was time to do the things he’d always wanted to do.
So he bought himself a guitar and learned to play. Although he lost some of the use of his right forearm due to the accident, he has enough to play the guitar and credits the playing with helping him develop and maintain the mobility he has.
Later he was researching Bo Diddley on the internet and stumbled across diddley bow guitars — traditionally single stringed instruments made from baling wire and cigar boxes.
Campbell was intrigued and decided to make one of his own. And then he was hooked.
He said he has made more than 80 of the guitars with increasing complexity and creativity.
“I would be in the shop working on them from morning to after dark,” Campbell said. “Nowadays, I probably make five to 10 a year. I try to get a little more creative with them so they don’t all look alike.”
He has added wooden sides, zombie decals and his own brand of 1964 CK etched into the wood.
Sharing the music
Campbell plays with Birds of a Feather at the Creston Farmers Market each Monday. He occasionally brings one of his handmade guitars with him to play. This is how Creston Community Middle School teacher Jeff Norman got involved.
Norman also plays with Birds of a Feather, and when Campbell brought some of his guitars one Monday, Norman was fascinated and decided to make his own.
He has made around 10 of the guitars. Although it has been a couple of years since he has made one, Norman has plans and materials for the next one. An old-fashioned, metal, child’s lunchbox.
Both Campbell and Norman have made the traditional style cigar box guitar with a cigar box, a neck and strings, but their creativity has pushed them to ever-more-interesting designs.
One of Campbell’s guitars is actually a bass and two string guitar in one. He has used license plates, a hubcap and even made one out of a can he found in his grandfather’s barn.
Norman has used various square and round bases. He also branched out into making his own amp out of a cigar box.
Making a cigar box guitar
A basic cigar box guitar is made from a hollow box — wooden or dense cardboard cigar box, metal cookie tin, gas can, or even a hub cap — with a wooden neck and metal strings.
The bridge and nut, which supports the strings, can be made of a key, a bolt, a piece of cowbone or hard wood or other found objects.
“Finding different hardware and different things to hold the strings — It’s as far as your imagination wants to take you,” Norman said.
The neck of the guitar is generally made of wood. Campbell has used wooden dowels and a shovel handle to make some of his. He often uses oak or poplar. Norman prefers more exotic woods such as padauk or purple heart with a spruce or birch fret board.
The fret board can be designed with or without frets — small wooden pieces placed at intervals along the neck of the guitar to change the key as they are played. If a guitar is made without frets, it is played with a slide — a metal or glass tube used to press the strings to the wood. Campbell often marks the location for the chord with upholstery tacks.
Campbell sometimes uses vinegar with steel wool dissolved in it to stain his guitars. If there is any tannic acid in the wood it will change the color — in oak it will turn black. He then uses tung oil to finish the neck. He said regular stain can be used as well.
The guitars Norman and Campbell make can be plugged in to an amplifier. Although, Campbell said if he makes one that he knows will be used for decoration, he doesn’t take this step.
Norman said he often uses a copper wire to pick up the vibrations in the box of the guitar. The posio pickup is a copper disk with wire leads attached to a potentiometer, which allows the player to change the volume on the guitar.
Although both Campbell and Norman make most of the pieces for their guitars themselves, some of the parts can be found in online stores. Norman often uses www.cbgitty.com to find tuners and the electronic parts for his guitars.
Norman and Campbell get their cigar boxes from friends and cigar shops. They agree that wooden cigar boxes make better bases than cardboard ones. Campbell said that the cardboard absorbs the vibrations. His favorite brand of cigar box is Undercrown, but he said those are hard to find.
Playing the guitar
Campbell has sold a few of his guitars and given away many of them. He regularly donates them to the yearly Afton community fundraiser. Norman has donated several to auctions for people who were ill as well.
The guitars are not just for show; they are playable.
“You never know what they’re going to sound like until you make it, and you actually put strings on,” Norman said.
Campbell has played them at nursing homes, the farmers market and other gigs. Playing at nursing homes is a natural place for Campbell who has been a registered nurse for 35 years — 28 of those years at Afton Care Center. But he said his favorite place to play is on the street corner.
“You get people staring when they go by,” Campbell said. “You get people stopping to say, ‘Hi.’”
Campbell said he plays for the fellowship with musicians. For him, it is about the fun and camaraderie during the show.