By Kathy Chouteau
The Standard’s series, “A Few of My Favorite Things” takes a look at some of this reporter’s top local treasures—be they food, drink, places or faces—from Richmond and beyond. Up this week: Artist Steve Zwetsch’s cigar box guitars.
Artist Steve Zwetsch’s cigar box guitars first caught my eye two years ago when I saw an impressive Rosie the Riveter-themed guitar he gifted to The Factory Bar to welcome them onto the Richmond scene.
I wrote a profile on him soon after, and being both an art and rock & roll enthusiast, I then commissioned Zwetsch to create a cigar box guitar themed on my favorite album: The Beatles’ Abbey Road. This beautifully crafted, functional piece of art not only has a place of honor in our family home, but also gets a regular jam sesh courtesy of my budding guitarist son, Logan.
Zwetsch first started crafting his cigar box guitars in 2015 after watching a YouTube video of someone playing one and thinking to himself about possibly making his own, “I think I could do that.” Given that he has physical limitations with his wrists that make playing a full size guitar challenging, Zwetsch quickly found that creating and then playing a smaller, four-stringed cigar box guitar was “a lot easier.”
Since those early days, Zwetsch has made 70 cigar box guitars—and now, ukuleles too—via his El Sobrante home workshop, selling many of them through his business Cigar Box Kitchen Guitars. Each piece takes him roughly 10-15 hours to complete, can be equipped to plug into an amplifier and is especially well suited for playing blues, folk and rock music.
“Initially, you get a lot of people that come into the shows and [see the] stuff that I do and they go, ‘Oh, that’s cute. It’s like a little toy!’ And then they play it and they realize that it’s really much more than that… it’s a real instrument.”
Zwetsch’s creative ethos in making his instruments is to use recycled materials and not buy any guitar parts except strings and tuners. In the past, this commitment to upcycling has seen the artist frequenting garage/yard sales and Urban Ore in Berkeley to find his cigar boxes and other supplies. But these days, his go-to creative source is the El Cerrito Recycling Center, thanks to his El Cerrito Creative ReUse (ECCRU) Artist Residency that started in April 2022 and will soon renew for a second term through the end of 2023.
The gig comes with a parking spot and another sweet perk: Zwetsch gets early access to the Recycling Center on certain days so he can beat the rush to peruse its treasure trove of potential materials. He spends most of his time at the location’s Exchange Center, where he finds trinkets, décor items, scrap wood for guitar necks, metal pieces and more—all of which have expanded his work beyond cigar boxes.
His visits turned up a child’s aluminum crutch and an old film canister that he fashioned into a lap steel guitar. To date, he’s made seven guitars from the Recycling Center’s materials and plans to give the City of El Cerrito several guitars stemming from his visits during his residency.
Zwetsch’s residency at the El Cerrito Recycling Center has proved fruitful toward another endeavor: His budding creative collaboration with fellow East Bay artists on the “Local Artist Guitar Series” that will see him pairing up with one artist per guitar to feature their art on it. The effort was inspired by his work with his friend, Casey Smith, a mixed media artist who contributed artwork, including musician Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues lyrics, to one of Zwetsch’s guitars. To date, 11 artists have agreed to be part of the Series, which they aim to complete by spring 2023. The finished guitars will be sold to benefit local charities chosen by each participating artist and future art shows are in the works to display the pieces at El Cerrito City Hall and The Factory Bar. Fun fact: Many of the Series’ participating artists also helped create the bar’s Richmond mural.
“Initially, you get a lot of people that come into the shows and [see the] stuff that I do and they go, ‘Oh, that’s cute. It’s like a little toy!’ And then they play it and they realize that it’s really much more than that… it’s a real instrument,” said Zwetsch about his guitars. He also noted a lot of musicians find them “a lot of fun to play.”
Zwetsch’s cigar box guitars and ukuleles are for sale; the guitars range in price from about $150 to $500, with commissioned pieces ranging on the higher end. Ukes usually sell for under $200. To learn more, visit @cigarboxkitchen on Instagram or contact him at [email protected].