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Craft instruments from yesteryear resurrected in an age of high-tech by Chuck Koucky

By Staff | Feb 19, 2020

Chuck Koucky does not refer to himself as a good musician. He didn’t grow up strumming a guitar or run home after school for any formal lessons. He has, however, found a love for creating one-of-a-kind stringed instruments out of cigar boxes. He says this has become something fun and creative that he does for himself. Many of the instruments made by Koucky have been given as gifts to family members and friends. After building a rapport with one of his organic creations, he often knows instinctively who should get it. Even when he let’s people choose an instrument for themselves, he says, they most often choose the instrument he had in mind for them all along.

“This is a whole movement,” said Koucky. “Music has become so sophisticated-everything has to be perfect. Everything is being tweaked electronically these days, but Muddy Waters and all those guys started with cigar box-guitars. They didn’t have any money so they made their instruments out of whatever they could find. You could get cigar boxes for free, in fact you still can.”

Koucky explains how musicians would sometimes use a broomstick for a handle, then pull wires from a screen door, stretching them to use as guitar strings. He explains that often a musician would make a two, three, or four-string guitar, but never a whole six-string cigar box-guitar. The music from these instruments, he says is also making a comeback, with a very fundamental and authentic sound, even when plugged into an amplifier. Koucky says the more he learned about these fascinating instruments the more his interest in making them seemed to grow. He explains that traditionally the old guitars had no frets, due to having broomstick handles, and would have to be played with a slide. The slide, he says, was often substituted with the neck of a beer bottle or a pocket knife. He admits to the desire to keep things a bit more sophisticated than that when designing and building these instruments. The sound of a cigar box rather than the types of wood guitars are made from these days doesn’t allow too much for an acoustic instrument, as he explains the resonation isn’t quite loud enough. Metal license plates are sometimes used, in an attempt to amplify sound lost on the soft wood of a cigar box, and also, Koucky says, old paint can lids. He starts with the neck and once that’s built he says he begins thinking about the finish, as he also has an affinity for woodworking. For his next project, he says he’s going to use an acoustic resonator without any frets. With the cigar boxes that are too small to use for a guitar, he often makes ukuleles or battery powered amplifiers. Since there is no rule on how long the neck of a guitar has to be, Koucky says he simply divides the distance.

“If the neck is 25 inches between the nut and the bridge,” says Koucky, “then halfway in between should be an octave.”

Since there are companies that make various parts for instruments, he says you can buy a part like the neck of a guitar at any stage of completion, with or without the frets. The hardest part, he says, is coming up with exotic hard woods for the front-boards. For some of the instruments he’s made, he’s used a simple maple or poplar wood to construct the front boards. He then buys different kinds of pickups in order to capture the vibration created by the wood, which he says can vary depending on the quality and thickness of the wood. The thinner and better quality woods, he explains, will produce a better sound. As far as the most interesting of all the instruments he’s made, Koucky says he would have to vote for a four-string he created out of four sheets of plywood.

“The fun thing about the four-string,” said Koucky, “is it’s basic open tuning, with G and G on the outside and D as a fifth, is the middle string, and then a B to finish up the chord.”

He says the four-string can be tuned as a ukulele or the top four strings of a guitar, making it the most unusual as far as its versatility and all the different things that can be done with it. As for the most fun instruments in his collection, Koucky has a love for the older style instruments he’s making, because of the newfound interest amongst musicians to get back to the roots of creating music without the help of modern engineering. He names the Cigar Box Festival, among others, where traditional Blues-players seem to be touting their natural abilities with tools of old more and more. Though these instruments are making a major comeback, with a retro look and vintage sound, Koucky says they aren’t meant to be finely crafted guitars.

“These are basic and simple-they were just a way to make music when musicians had nothing,” said Koucky.

To find out more about Koucky’s original instruments, you can email nrkdesigns@gmail.com