Cigar boxes serve as musical muse for local artist

Cigar boxes serve as musical muse for local artist
From left to right, Steve Zwetsch with Factory Bar owners Michelle Guest and Tom Lyons. (All photos courtesy of Steve Zwetsch).

By Kathy Chouteau

While the pandemic has been unkind to many local businesses, it has inspired the creativity of local artist Steve Zwetsch of Cigar Box Kitchen Guitars. A baker by trade, Zwetsch has been crafting cigar box guitars as a hobby that he hopes to expand into more of a money-making endeavor.

“I think was 2015 when I started, and you know the funny thing is I’ve made 47 of them and I used to make like two or three a year. It takes some time [but] I’ve made 12 since the pandemic,” said Zwetsch.

Five years ago, Zwetsch spotted a video of someone playing a cigar box guitar they made themselves on YouTube and was immediately hooked.

“I watched that three or four times and I thought, ‘you know, I think I could do that.’ I’m pretty handy and like to work with my hands and wooden tools and stuff, so I made one.”

At the time, Zwetsch had been an aspiring guitarist, but had experienced some difficulty playing a full sized guitar. This made the concept of trying out a smaller, cigar box guitar more appealing to him.

“I’ve got some physical limitations with my wrists and things that just make playing a full size guitar difficult,” he said. “I found that I could play these things a lot easier. It’s much smaller and it’s easier with my situation…they’re mostly three or four strings instead of six and it is [often] played with a slide.”

Zwetsch makes his cigar box guitars out of his home workshop in El Sobrante. He estimates that it takes him about 10-15 hours to finish each one and said that an important driving factor in his work is to use recycled parts and not buy any guitar parts except strings and tuners. He visits garage sales, yard sales and places like Urban Ore in Berkeley to find his cigar boxes and other parts.

“It makes you a lot more aware of your surroundings when you’re looking for stuff like this because you see stuff that gets discarded all the time and stuff out of dumpsters and all things that would make a cool accent piece or a working part,” Zwetsch said about his artistic explorations for his cigar box guitars.

As it turns out, upcycled cigar boxes make excellent guitars, according to Zwetsch. “The thing that’s cool about them is that some of them are really well made boxes [that have] dovetail corners and they’re made out of mahogany or cedar. They’re a lot nicer than you would think that they would put cigars in, and because of that, they make a really great sound box for a guitar,” he said about cigar boxes.

Currently, Zwetsch is working on a series of rock & roll themed guitars using posters for the images on the cigar boxes; so far he’s created Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones pieces. “Every one I make is different,” he said about his creations. To date, he’s sold about half of his cigar box guitars, which are equipped to plug into an amplifier and work really well for playing blues, folk and rock music.

Recently, Zwetsch gifted a Rosie the Riveter themed cigar box guitar to The Factory Bar—the new Richmond bar that celebrates the city’s WWII history—as a precursor to an art show he will have there in the future. He said that the bar’s owners have plans to put the Rosie guitar on the wall near the back patio entrance by the restrooms.

Zwetsch’s cigar box guitars are for sale and range in price from about $150 to $500, with commissioned pieces ranging on the higher end. To learn more, visit Cigar Box Kitchen Guitar’s website or contact him at [email protected] or (510) 386-2301.