Cigar Box Guitar Workshop Shows that Less is More

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Photo of Steve Arvey, courtesy of Music Compound.

Count Steve Arvey among those who managed to thrive during the pandemic. The blues guitarist, educator and ambassador took his spare time away from the stage and, with the help of his guitar-shredding YouTube protege Dovydas, beefed up his own YouTube channel. It kept him busy, earned him some income and allowed him to focus on the fulfilling task of sharing his passion for the blues. “It was nice to have a break from shows,” he says, “I did some songwriting, built instruments and made videos.” Among his many videos was series of tutorials for an instrument close to his heart: the cigar box guitar.

A cigar box guitar is exactly what it sounds like, a 3-4 stringed instrument in which the resonance chamber is a small wooden cigar box. The instrument was enormously important in the creation of the blues since it gave the genre’s earliest Black inventors an inexpensive way to express themselves and provide entertainment for social gatherings. Even today, the instrument has an accessible DIY mystique. “Some people think it’s a gimmick or a joke,” says Arvey, “but it’s a minimalistic approach that gives you a really great sound, especially with a slide.” 

In a poetic way, Arvey’s love for the instrument also celebrates the time he spent in Cuba as a child. His father owned a company down there and the family lived in the island nation until the political turmoil of the late 50s and early 60s. “In Cuba, they’ve got an instrument called a tres, which is very similar to the cigar box guitar,” says Arvey, “and during the slave trade, those instruments made their way to New Orleans.” Today, Arvey even owns a cigar box guitar made from an empty box of Cohibas, Cuba’s most famous brand of cigars.  

But tomorrow, Arvey’s personal history takes a backseat as he leads a workshop at Music Compound in which he’ll teach kids how to make and play their own. “This will be my first workshop since the pandemic,” says Arvey, who’s looking forward to getting back in front of a class. “Doing gigs is great, but what is it really?” he says. “There’s nothing more fulfilling than teaching.” 

For Music Compound owner and founder, Jenny Alday Townshend, sharing Arvey’s passion is exactly what she set out to do when she founded the music school. “I met Steve way before I opened up Music Compound and I had no idea the impact he’d have,” says Townsend. “He’s great at these workshops, so educational with the histories, so passionate and engages the kids and gets them playing.”

Tuition for the workshop was provided by Suncoast Blues Society.

Photo of Steve Arvey, courtesy of Music Compound.

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