Unique Cigar Box Guitars resonate for Wellington

Cigar box guitar. Photo zeroemissionsexpeditions.com

By Rod Wellington

Unstable weather accompanies me on a humid April evening as I travel over gravel roads to Patrick Mallette’s property near Blair, Nebraska. The sky is dark twilight blue and the aggressive rumbling of distant thunder signals an approaching springtime storm, the kind of storm that turns farm fields into shallow lakes and swells the Missouri River to flood levels. I’m hoping the rain will hold off until I reach the Driftwood Restaurant, a popular riverside steakhouse owned by Patrick and his wife Janet.

“Follow the Driftwood signs until you get to Serenity Lane,” says Patrick when I speak to him over the phone, “You can’t miss it. The parking lot is full of cars.”

Indeed, business appears to be booming as my truck headlights flash across the rows of parked cars in front of the restaurant. Tonight the Driftwood is playing host to a high school basketball awards ceremony. There are more than 80 people in attendance.

My truck comes to rest beside a small house next to the restaurant. A large man rises from a chair on the porch, steps down on the packed gravel and advances toward me with an outstretched hand. In the evening gloom I make out a small red glow beside the man’s mouth. Then I smell cigar smoke. My face breaks wide in a generous smile.

“Man, you’ve had one heck of a journey since you were here last,” says Patrick as he pumps my hand with a firm grip. “Good to see you made it in one piece!”, he said.

As we chat, the night settles around us and a few errant drops of rain dot the hood of my truck. The rumbling of thunder increases. Behind us, a mere stone’s throw away, the Missouri River silently flows past the lighted windows of the house and restaurant. It was here, in November of last year, that I pulled my plastic kayak up the muddy riverbank and strode across a spacious lawn toward the Driftwood. In my hands were four empty water bottles that needed filling. Patrick Mallette, sitting here in the same chair on the same porch, greeted me like an old friend. He talked of the devastating floods of 2011 and how the river had inundated the restaurant and filled cornfields all the way to the nearest bluff, two miles distant. He talked about his father, Patrick Sr., who had a long, successful career as an NFL referee. And he talked fervently about his creative passion for building cigar box guitars, unique hand-crafted stringed instruments that were unfamiliar to me then. Before we said our farewells, Patrick presented me with a bag of vegetables from the restaurant’s kitchen. Bottled water and soft drinks rounded out his improvised care package. I left the Driftwood smiling, struck happy with the good fortune of meeting such a genuine and generous soul.

Days later when I finally had a few minutes to check out the website address Patrick had given me, I saw for the first time the beauty and the unique simplicity of a cigar box guitar (CBG). As I scanned through scads of photos on CigarBoxNation.com, an online forum for all things CBG, I sat amazed and awestruck, admiring the high level of ingenuity and vision that goes into the build of each guitar. It seemed that almost everything from door hinges to lunch boxes to hub caps to yardsticks could be incorporated into the design of a guitar. Certainly, wooden cigar boxes were the norm when it came to body design, but beautifying and expanding on that original idea was limited only by the builder’s imagination. These were works of art, extensions of the minds of master craftsmen.

“You get to a point, like where I am, where it’s become kind of a sickness. Everything I look at, I think, ‘I wonder if I can turn that into a guitar?’” says Patrick with a wry chuckle. “That’s when you know you’ve been bitten by the bug.”

Judging by the stunning array of miniature guitars that fill the back room of his small house, the guitar-building bug has bitten Patrick in all the right places.

An antiques dealer and general contractor by trade, Patrick enjoys the pick of prime relics to accessorize his one, two and three-stringed creations. His broad woodworking experience allows him to bring out the beauty of the oak, walnut, pine and cherry wood he uses in the neck, head and heel construction of each guitar.

Amid the multitude of guitar amps of every size and shape, some crafted from a repurposed sewing machine cases and old radios, I spy a hand-stained guitar so unique that it looks like a throwback to another time. The nostalgic image of a dusty old man playing it on a rickety porch in rural Tennessee in the early 1900s comes to mind. This one comes with a pickup and features a fretless neck, perfect for playing some amplified blues. I ask Patrick what materials went into its construction.

“I suppose you could call it a relic,” he says, cradling the guitar to eye level for a closer inspection. “This is an enamel lid off an old boiling pot, I suppose from the turn of the century. It’s got a skeleton key for the bridge, two old rusty cans with holes drilled in ’em for the resonators, the end of a shotgun shell for the volume knob, .22 shells for fret markers and an old square barn nail for the nut. This wood came from an old barn outside of town on the farm where my grandmother was born.”

Patrick carefully sets the guitar down on its floor stand. The mention of his grandmother and her farm has struck a sentimental chord.

“I probably won’t get rid of that one,” he says with a smile.

We check some of the other guitars that hang from strips of leather tied through holes in their heads and laced through eye bolts anchored in the ceiling. Each one is vibrant and unique, traits akin to its builder. We arrive back at the pot lid guitar. I ask Patrick if he would be interested in selling it. He’s obviously attached to it. Ties to family are hard to relinquish. But he also realizes that this handiwork of his just happens to resonate greatly with his new paddling friend. He names a price. I counter. We haggle. We smile. We shake hands. It’s time for the pot lid guitar to hit the road.

Not content to leave with just one unique handmade guitar under my arm, I select a handsome little three-string CBG with a wooden neck fashioned from an antique yardstick. Embossed between the frets are the words “Moser Memorial Chapel – Funeral Directors”.

One could say that the true worth of a cigar box guitar is measured in its uniqueness. Judging from the genuine passion that Patrick Mallette and others within the Cigar Box Nation markedly exude in their beautiful creations, handmade guitar building is far from being a dead art.