Curmudgeon and the Crone

By Pat Sunderland


Curmudgeon and the Crone | artist

Rick Smith demonstrates a three-string cigar box guitar, an instrument that's tunable and playable. He also sells kits so folks can put together their own stringed instruments.

A curmudgeon is defined as a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man. Although retired, Rick Smith is not elderly, nor does he seem to be ill-tempered. "Crone" doesn't fit his wife Susan, either, but those are the words they chose to describe themselves. The Curmudgeon and the Crone collaborate on an impressive variety of crafts which they sell at craft shows and Renaissance festivals.

Their booth is lined with jewelry, stained glass, naturally dyed silk scarves and fabric art, but it's the cigar box guitars that always seem to catch the eye of passersby.

Rick saw a video of the cigar box guitars three or four years ago and was intrigued to learn they'd been around for 180 years. Around 1840, cigar makers began packing cigars in boxes, rather than crates. Cigars were cheap, plentiful and popular; long after they'd been smoked, the empty wooden boxes remained. Resourceful folks, short on cash but not on ingenuity, transformed the old cigar boxes into guitars and banjos by adding a piece of broom handle and a couple of wires from the screen door.

Rick loves the idea of recycling and repurposing materials, so the cigar box guitars are a natural fit. He also sells the components in a kit, for folks who want to assemble the instruments themselves.

He picks up the cigar boxes at a smoke shop in Grand Junction or on ebay. The neck is generally a hardwood, like pine. To build the neck up to the height of the box, he lays a piece of yardstick along the length of the neck. The yardstick is a useful addition. "Since my guitars don't have frets, people can use the markings on the yardstick to figure out fingering," he said.

The bridge is made from eyebolts, nuts, a shell casing Rick happened to find when he was out in the 'dobies with his dog -- anything that raises the strings. On one guitar, he fashioned a fanciful character out of polymer clay as the bridge. The pick is cut from an old credit card. Slides are made from a variety of materials, including the necks of wine bottles.

The final product is tuneable and playable, Rick says, as he strums the three-stringed instrument. The strings affect the guitar's sound. A guitar with thin strings has almost more of a banjo sound, he says; the thicker strings sound closer to a bass.

By twisting the tuning pin, the guitars can be tuned any number of ways, from rock to jazz to blues styles. YouTube has videos of accomplished cigar box guitar players. Rick points out that Paul McCartney actually played one in concert, and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top performs with a cigar box guitar.

These versatile instruments can be laid on a table while the slide is moved up and down the strings. Some folks use bows and play them like a fiddle.

"Almost all of the ones I build are electric and will plug into a standard amplifier or a cigar box amplifier," Rick says, pointing out two of his cigar box amplifiers. The electronics are fairly simple, he says. He picks up old boom boxes and computer speakers at Salvation Army, then dismantles them and repurposes the components.

The cigar box guitars are quite popular at Renaissance festivals, because they're reminscent of lutes and other stringed instruments played during the Renaissance era.

Since retiring, both Rick and Susan have more time to travel to craft fairs to sell the cigar box guitars, as well as their jewelry, fabric art and silk scarves.

The scarves are a joint venture with the Smiths' daughter, Meghan Gallenbeck. A little scavenging around the neighborhood produces the woodbine berries, crabapples and other natural materials that are used to dye the purchased silk.

On forays into the 'dobies, Rick and Susan keep their eye out for agates, fossils and petrified wood. These natural materials are showcased in pendants. Each piece of jewelry is one-of-a-kind, which is a hallmark of the Smiths' work. Rick enjoys experimenting with silver, wood, fabric and glass, so each piece of craftsmanship is totally unique.

Recently he's tried transforming cookie tins into drums; turning the cigar boxes into clocks is another idea taking shape in his head.

While he hasn't done stained glass for some time, he's applied some of those techniques to an upcycling project that starts with old cupboard doors. He roughs in a design, then outlines it with a woodburning pen. He applies fabric and paint to sections of the artwork, which from a distance bears a strong resemblance to stained glass. Closer inspection reveals sections of denim from an old pair of jeans and other scrap materials. His first attempt at fabric art was patterned after an early piece of stained glass.

As the weather warms up, the Smiths extend their creative endeavors to the outdoors. Susan has an extensive herb and flower garden. The koi in their backyard ponds are also becoming more active. While keeping the ponds clean and the fish fed could seem like a chore to some, it's a hobby that both Rick and Susan enjoy, along with their crafts.

See more of their work on the Curmudgeon and the Crone's Facebook page or call 874-3543.