A Guitarist Rocks Out on Guitars Made from Shovels, Cigar Boxes, Oil Cans & Whisky Barrels

When Kei­th Richards felt he’d gone as far as he could go with the six-string gui­tar, he took one string off and played five, a trick he learned from Ry Cood­er. These days, the trend is to go in the oppo­site direc­tion, up to sev­en or eight strings for high­ly tech­ni­cal pro­gres­sive met­al com­po­si­tions and down­tuned “djent.” Tra­di­tion­al­ists may balk at this. A five-string, after all, is a mod­i­fi­ca­tion eas­i­ly accom­plished with a pair of wire-cut­ters. But odd­ly shaped eight-string gui­tars seem like weird­ly roco­co extrav­a­gances next to your aver­age Stra­to­cast­er, Tele, or Les Paul.

Ideas we have about what a gui­tar should be, how­ev­er, come most­ly from the mar­ket­ing and pub­lic rela­tions machin­ery around big brand gui­tars and big name gui­tarists. The truth is, there is no Pla­ton­ic ide­al of the gui­tar, since no one is quite sure where the gui­tar came from.

It’s most eas­i­ly rec­og­nized ances­tors are the oud and the lute, which them­selves have ancient her­itages that stretch into pre­his­to­ry. The six-string arrived rather late on the scene. In the renais­sance, gui­tars had eight strings, tuned in four “cours­es,” or pairs, like the mod­ern 12-string, and baroque gui­tars had 10 strings in five cours­es.

Clos­er in time to us, “the jazz gui­tarist George Van Eps had a sev­en-string gui­tar built for him by Epi­phone Gui­tars in the late 1930s,” notes one brief his­to­ry, “and a sig­na­ture Gretsch sev­en-string in the late 60s and ear­ly 70s…. Sev­er­al oth­ers began using sev­en-string gui­tars after Van Eps.” Russ­ian folk gui­tars had sev­en strings before the arrival of six-string Span­ish clas­si­cal instru­ments (two hun­dred years before the arrival of Korn).

Mean­while, in the hills, hol­lars, and deltas of the U.S. south, folk and blues musi­cians built gui­tars out of what­ev­er was at hand, and fit as many, or as few, strings as need­ed. From these instru­ments came the pow­er­ful­ly sim­ple, time­less licks Keef spent his career emu­lat­ing. Gui­tarist Justin John­son has cul­ti­vat­ed an online pres­ence not only with his slick elec­tric slide play­ing, but also with his trib­utes to odd, old-time, home­made gui­tars. At the top, he plays a three-string shov­el gui­tar, doing Kei­th two bet­ter.

Fur­ther up, some “Porch Swing Slidin’” with a six-string cig­ar box-style gui­tar engraved with a por­trait of Robert John­son. Above, hear a stir­ring ren­di­tion of George Harrison’s “While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps” on an oil can and a slide solo on a whiskey bar­rel gui­tar. Final­ly, John­son rocks out Ray Charles on a three string cig­ar box gui­tar, made most­ly out of ordi­nary items you might find around the shed.

You might not be able to pluck out Renais­sance airs or com­pli­cat­ed, sweep-picked arpeg­gios on some of these instru­ments, but where would even the most com­plex pro­gres­sive rock and met­al be with­out the raw pow­er of the blues dri­ving the evo­lu­tion of the gui­tar? Final­ly, below, see John­son play a hand­made one-string Did­dley Bow (and see the mak­ing of the instru­ment as well). Orig­i­nal­ly a West African instru­ment, it may have been the very first gui­tar.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Kei­th Richards Demon­strates His Famous 5‑String Tech­nique (Used on Clas­sic Stones Songs Like “Start Me Up,” “Honky Tonk Women” & More)

Meet Brushy One String, the One String Gui­tar Play­er Who Will Blow Your Mind

The His­to­ry of the Gui­tar: See the Evo­lu­tion of the Gui­tar in 7 Instru­ments

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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