Somebody's Gotta Do It

Making music from a cigar box

Mike Rowe’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT Thursdays on CNN.

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Mike Snowden builds cigar box guitars and plays them as a one-man band

Each guitar is hand-crafted and takes three weeks to make

CNN  — 

Mike Snowden plays bluesy rock as a one-man band. But he’s not playing a Gibson Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster – his music comes from a guitar he built from an empty cigar box.

“If I met you on the street, I wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m Mike Snowden. I play a cigar box guitar,’ because you would look at me like, ‘What?’” Snowden said.

He certainly didn’t invent the cigar box guitar: The first etching of a cigar box instrument dates back to the 1870s, and even musicians like Bo Diddley have played them.

It wasn’t until Snowden had stepped away from the music scene for a few years that he happened upon the unusual chordophone.

“I was in a band. We were touring, and we were playing 250 shows a year,” he said.

He played bass guitar with Band de Soleil and opened for acts like the Indigo Girls, Joe Cocker and Dave Matthews Band.

“Looking back, it really just wore me out. I was exhausted. I didn’t even want to touch a guitar,” he said.

Burnt out, Snowden got a full-time job working as a store manager, and he and his wife started raising a family. By the time his daughter was 4 or 5, he realized she’d never seen him play music.

“I didn’t want to be in a band like I was before. I wanted to do something different,” he said. “I saw a guy on YouTube playing a cigar box guitar, and I was like, ‘What is that?’ I’d never seen that before. So I made one.”

Then his buddy saw it, and Snowden made one for him too. Before he knew it, he was building and selling cigar box guitars for people out of his garage in Marietta, Georgia.

He started working part-time at the store and eventually quit his day job to focus on his cigar box guitar business.

“It was very organic,” Snowden said. “I never sat down and said, ‘I’m gonna do this.’ It just kind of happened.”

Since 2007, Snowden has sold close to 1,000 cigar box guitars online to people around the world.

“The Internet has made the world so small that some guy can buy a guitar that I make out of my garage in Marietta, Georgia, and he can get it in Thailand. It’s pretty crazy when you think about it,” he said.

Snowden builds mostly three- and four-string guitars, and he spends three weeks handcrafting each one.

“There are no two alike. They’re all individual because every cigar box is a little different,” he said.

He makes some with bird’s-eye maple, walnut inlay and tuners like the ones on a Gibson Les Paul.

“There’s some kind of magic going on in the box. I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t sound like a banjo. It doesn’t sound like a guitar. It’s hard to describe,” he said. “A bigger box has more of a deep tone. A smaller box has a tighter tone.”

Just like with his business, Snowden didn’t start out with the intention of playing music as a one-man band.

“When I started making the guitars, I made a record just to show what they sounded like. And then people started asking me to play shows, and it evolved,” he said. “I perform, I play shows, build the guitars, it’s all-inclusive.”

Snowden has put out five records since he started playing cigar box guitars. He’s keeping a piece of music history alive on stage and in his workshop in the garage.

“Sometimes when I’m down here working on guitars, I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’” he said. “But then people see them, and they’re like ‘Whoa, man, how cool is that?’ I’ve been doing it for a while so you kind of forget. It is kind of a cool thing.”

CNN’s Mike Rowe shares his sentiment. Rowe traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, to learn how to make his own homemade guitar in his series “Somebody’s Gotta Do It”.

Watch him play with Bill Abel, another master on the cigar box guitar, on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN.