Making music with cigar box guitars

Peter Thorne demonstrates a simple tune while Evan Kalmokoff watches with his handmade cigar box guitar. (Patrick Davies photo- 100 Mile Free Press)
Earl Topnik (from left) Peter Thorne, Max Kalmokoff, Evan Kalmokoff and Gord Robinson pose with their handmade cigar box guitars in Thorne’s backyard. (Patrick Davies photo- 100 Mile Free Press)

It’s a wrap for Peter Thorne and his class of cigar box guitar makers at 108 Mile.

Thorne put a call out for people at the beginning of summer to sign up for a multi-week workshop in his backyard, where students would build and learn how to play their own cigar box guitars. This simple three-stringed instrument, which uses an empty cigar box as a resonator, was first made at the turn of the century and has been popularized in recent years.

Thorne is particularly interested in the instrument. As he and his four students met for their final session on Saturday, Sept. 12, strumming their guitars and chatting amongst themselves. Thorne was visibly enthusiastic about how things had turned out.

“I’d say the summer flew by. It was a lot of fun and these guys, I assume, learned a fair amount here and just picking and grinning at home,” Thorne said.

It was such a success that Thorne is considering doing it again next year, maybe with a bigger group and a final show where his students can perform at a coffee shop or something. The workshop was also a learning experience for him, he said, especially when it came to recognizing how long it takes people to put together the cigar box guitar kit he developed for the workshop.

He’s proud of how everyone customized their guitars to suit themselves – from the stocks to the holes in the body of the instrument – with each member making their own design. From shaping the neck of the guitar to modifying the nuts and sanding, the four worked to make a quartet of quality instruments.

One of the students, Earl Topnik, said getting an understanding of how the guitar is made has given him more respect for the instrument. In recent years he’s developed an interest in three-stringed guitars so when he heard about Thorne’s course, he figured should get in on it.

“I have a lot of respect for the instrument, how to fine-tune it, and it’s enjoyable to play. You have to experience it,” Topnik said, noting he joined the workshop because he loves music and playing the guitar. “I find myself sitting around in the evening plunking on it and time just goes like that.

“Music is a stress release, you can pick up a guitar and just get lost in it, it’s awesome. Peter was an awesome instructor and made things very easy.”

READ MORE: Peter Thorne hosting Cigar Box Workshop this summer

Gord Robinson, who had played guitar years ago and has been taking lessons with Thorne over the past year or two, agreed he also has a deeper appreciation for the instrument, knowing how much work went into making it. He too has found the cigar box guitar a lot easier to pick up around the house.

“I have more opportunity to play now, I find I do, instead of playing the six strings and think about it I pick it up, three strings, and away we go. I enjoy it more,” Robinson said.

Max Kalmokoff, who joined the workshop on a whim after his mother asked if he wanted to “go build a guitar over the summer,” had never heard of a three-stringed guitar before he attended the class with his older brother Evan.

“My favourite part was probably when we put it all together, plugged it in and actually played it. That was just awesome, I loved that part,” Kalmokoff said. “The sound is amazing with all the pickups and stuff, I’ve really enjoyed the summer.”

Kalmakoff intends to continue to learn how to play his instrument and is currently taking guitar lessons with Thorne for the six-stringed guitar. A pianist, saxophone player and now guitarist, he said playing music is fun once you find the instrument you really like.

“If Pete does this (workshop) again give it a try because it was really fun,” he said.

Thorne is hopeful that cigar box guitars will take off in the area and hopes they’ll help foster the live music scene.

“What I enjoy personally is to know that they are other people who enjoy these instruments as much as I do.”

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