’That cruddy sound'

Paradise guitar builder finds that good old tone in cigar boxes

Bryan Shaver displays some of his custom guitars at the Sierra Fantasy Fest.

Bryan Shaver displays some of his custom guitars at the Sierra Fantasy Fest.

Photo by Ken Smith

“I love the sound of a guitar that sounds like it’s being played through an amp with the speakers torn up and completely blown out,” said Bryan Shaver. “I just love that cruddy sound, and when I say ‘cruddy’ I mean it in a good way.”

The owner of ONESIXTWO Cigar Box Guitars was explaining how his love of raw, unique sounds led him to start researching, buying, collecting and refurbishing what he called “junker” guitars—old department store and catalog off-brand instruments that “serious” musicians initially balked at. Of course, many have since become members of a devout cult of connoisseurs.

Shaver is a musician himself, and his obsession with the instruments extended to the people who played them. This led him to the revelatory personal discovery of Seasick Steve, an Oakland-based modern-primitive bluesman with a well-known penchant for altered, antique and hand-built instruments. Steve’s signature guitar is a beat-to-hell off-brand electric with only three strings called the “Trance Wonder” that the musician himself lovingly calls “the biggest piece of shit in the world, I swear.”

Finding Seasick Steve’s music led Shaver further down the research rabbit hole, following intersecting tunnels dedicated to three- and four-stringed guitars, blues history and biographies of the genre’s pioneers. All tunnels eventually led to cigar-box guitars, instruments handmade by cash-strapped musicians as far back as the 1800s, and for which interest has resurfaced in recent years.

“The fact that people can make this cool music off of something so primitive amazed me,” Shaver said during a recent interview. “It’s just a box with a piece of wood going through it and some strings, but the tones and music you can get out of these things just blew me away. I thought, ‘That’s something I could build, and start to make that type of noise myself.’”

Shaver had developed the appropriate skill set through his tinkering with junkers and many years of remodeling and construction experience. He and a friend used to run a small business in Sacramento, building cabinets and custom furniture, so at the time he had plenty of scrap wood to get started, and he finished his first cigar-box guitar in early 2008.

“I was blown away by how it played,” Shaver said of the instrument, which he still keeps and occasionally plays. “It wasn’t great by any means—the action was really high, it doesn’t stay in tune great—but it plays, and I plugged it in and it was amplifiable, and it made music. When I play it now I think, ‘Wow, that’s a junky guitar …’ but it looks super cool, like something that was made in the 1920s.”

Shaver started building obsessively, making the instruments more playable and experimenting with different materials—license plates and hubcaps for resonators; gas cans, candy tins and, of course, an ever-expanding collection of new and vintage cigar boxes for the instruments’ bodies. He also began building portable, battery-operated amplifiers, sometimes with themes and materials matching particular instruments (his latest project is several custom-ordered Star Wars-themed instruments and amps). “I initially started selling them out of necessity, because I’d built so many that they started piling up,” he said.

Shaver moved to Paradise a few years ago and now builds instruments full-time, which he sells on his website (www.onesixtwocbgs.com) and at various markets and festivals throughout Northern California. He also keeps a steady stock at Paradise antique shop Aunt Mabel’s General Store, and the instruments he builds—each of which can be appreciated as a work of art as well as a working instrument—intermittently grace the walls of Chico’s Morning Thunder Café.

Shaver said that, with the variety of materials he scavenges and brings together, each new project presents different challenges, and he’s always looking for the next; topping his list of materials he wants to acquire and turn into instruments are a motorcycle gas tank and an automobile muffler.

“Building each instrument is a unique process and some take a little more thought and engineering,” he said. “I’m always looking at things and trying to figure out how it’s gonna work, but so far I’ve been able to complete the task.”