By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
North Carolina-based slide blues guitarist Justin Johnson will be in Cullman Thursday to put on a clinic on playing the rustic, roots-y cigar box guitar — and then he’ll put on a clinic from the stage.
Johnson, acclaimed by the national guitar press for his virtuosity as a multi-genre artist with firm musical roots in the blues, will host a cigar box guitar workshop at 6 p.m. Thursday at Berkeley Bob’s Coffee House, where he’ll talk a bit about the instrument’s history and some of the techniques involved in making the simple, handmade guitars sing.
Then he’ll take the training wheels off, going onstage at 7 p.m. for a full concert. The cigar box workshop is $10 per person; the show afterwards, like most of Berkeley Bob’s shows, is free.
Thursday will mark the second visit to Cullman for Johnson, who first took his unaccompanied blues set to Berkeley Bob’s last summer. It’s one of those shows that enthusiasts view as a treat, since Johnson is a musician you’re more likely to read about in a magazine than catch at a local venue.
Johnson said Monday it’s likewise a treat for him to return to a place where the music is what matters most.
“Bob does a good job of getting a clientele who is respectful of the music; who listens,” he explained. “I received a lot of appreciation when I was there [the first time]. I think that’s one of the most fun parts I enjoy about traveling: you go to a new place and explore, and in doing that, you find things you love in the most unexpected places. Bob’s is the kind of venue I really enjoy; it’s a place where the people get into what you’re doing, and that makes you want to come back.”
But what’s with all the fervor for playing a guitar made out of a stick, a string and a used cigar box?
“Historically, these were homemade instruments, and that’s really the basis for their significance in blues music,” said Johnson. “A lot of the people who pioneered in the musical genres I play — and blues in particular — grew up in poor rural areas and made their own instruments. Sometimes they were one-stringed; sometimes a few strings, but they were basically a few strings on a cigar box attached to a neck, which was often a fretless broomstick, and they were played with a slide.
“In the workshops that I do, basically I give a general overview of how I approach the cigar box in my performance and my playing style — the tuning; the strings — and then I go into the history of cigar box guitar. We do some slide guitar and slide guitar techniques, and I explain some of the techniques that have helped me out. I gear it so that anybody can participate; you can be a beginner or someone who’s never even heard of cigar box guitar before, or you can be someone who’s got a bit of experience. Even with the technical parts, I try to present everything in a way that anyone can understand.”
This is a hands-on workshop, and Johnson will bring several cigar box instruments for participants to play during the session. If the workshop gets you hooked on the cigar box thing, Johnson said it’s easy to continue learning by following his lessons online.
“I put more lessons up every couple of weeks, so people can continue to learn new things after the workshop,” he said. “I always give people my email if they’re interested in keeping up with it, and I’m glad to answer questions after the show.”
Visit justinjohnsonlive.com for more on Johnson, his music and, yes, cigar box guitar lessons.
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.