Cigar box raga

Obviously drone has been a big part of my life recently. Drone as a side dish has been a favorite for a long while, but recently, I have been really into drone as a main course. Its something I know a lot of people don’t quite get. Even some of the most open minded listeners I know can’t take Tony Conrad for more than a few minutes, let alone listen to something like “The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath” by La Monte Young, even if only for a small part of it’s full hours length.

There was a point in time when I thought that if there was only one note playing, nothing was happening, but as I pursued an understanding of music and acoustics, I came to find out there was a whole world of things that could happen. Harmonics or overtones specifically are a good bit of what makes drone interesting. Humans are not robots, so as we play we never exactly play the same “way” twice. These little mistakes change the way the overtones resonate and lend subtle shifts to the stillness of a sustained tone. This is one of the things that has really attracted me to drone. While within the stillness of the tone, you are focussed, on all of these smaller changes that would be very difficult to perceive if there were more than one fundamental tone being played. In a way, it’s kind of like zooming way in on a picture and seeing a whole new level of detail.

A week or so ago, I was asked by my brother to make some drones for him to incorporate into one of his band’s songs. I had been mostly bowing my guitar at that point, but for some reason I decided to try bowing on a cigar box guitar that I had built. The sound was really great. Due to the imperfect nature of a cigar box as a resonator the overtone relationships are very different than a guitar, and for some reason it has a bit of a reedier tone.

My Cigar Box Guitar

After recording some single string drones for my brother I decided to tune the CBG to an open “D” chord and try bowing all four strings together. It sounded really great. The subtle differences in bow placement and velocity changed the sound a lot. For a drone it was very maleable. So I recorded about 12min of bowing, moving the bow from as low as I could go on the neck. all the way up to the nut, fret by fret. The result is somewhat Tambura-like. I think this has something to do with the shape of the cigar box and which overtones it reinforces, and the fact that the nut is a carved piece of soft stone.

I think the end result is very listenable. The changes in the tonal quality and timbre are pretty dramatic throughout, so instead of it seeming like you are listening to one unchanging thing, instead, you are listening to one fundamental thing that takes different forms as it progresses. I like it quite a lot.

I put it on the other day as I was just working on the computer and it struck me that it’d be a good thing to try and play slide guitar along with. Since my CBG was already in open “D” I picked it up and started fooling about. I had so much fun I made a note to record it when I could. I got around to it yesterday. I was going to do a few passes and edit together the best parts, but once I had two and listened to them playing at once, I liked it too much to edit. Instead of making it like a raga with a single main melodic voice, the two tracks play against and off eachother in interesting ways. There are some real cool moments where you could swear it was two people jamming together, but it’s all coincidental.

I find this end result really peaceful and meditative. In fact I actually had a hard time staying awake while working on it. Always a good sign. I think the world needs more music to fall asleep to anyway.

Here are the tracks, both the drone by itself and the fake raga one. I hope you enjoy them.

– Cigar Box Drone
– Cigar Box Raga

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10 Responses to “Cigar box raga”

  1. Iner Souster Says:

    nice work

  2. howsthatsound Says:

    Thank you!

  3. darnay Says:

    i appreciate the shot out…its gonna be a wild last couple weeks, im pretty sure my head is going to explode may 24, itll be pretty sweet

    check this out: the binural recording post, interesting stuff

  4. darnay Says:

    i’m still waiting on the sons to ask me to collabo with them on one of their new joints, im pretty untouchable on the recorder…

    in all seriousness, after reading this i know you would have loved that mini-performance i went to last semester at the red room @ normal’s book store in b-more. it was like 5 or so highly trained musicians playing stuff that, based on your description, sounded like drone. there were 5-10 minute pieces that (to the untrained ear) sounded like no more than 4 note changes. i couldnt really handle it myself, but it sounds like it wouldve been right up your alley

  5. BriAnnAmandAli Says:

    Heyo, we were wondering where you got that cigar box and how you made the guitar and if we could purchase one (for a reasonable price, obvs) Let us know! Thanks.

    and if we can’t buy one, at least tell us where to get the box and how you did it?? shenk you.

  6. howsthatsound Says:

    hi brian, i built the cigar box guitar myself. i got the box from holts cigar company. they have a store near where i live. they sell cigar boxes from the cigars they sell loose for very good prices.
    the one pictured is the only one i have, and i’m not looking to sell it, sorry.
    i can point you to some of the info i used to make mine if you like, i could also give you some tips of my own on my personal construction.
    all in all it is more time consuming than difficult, so if you are patient and careful, you can certainly build one of these yourself fairly easily.
    this is a great place to start:
    you can reach me at this email: (just remove the “#’s”)

  7. BriAnnAmandAli Says:

    Alright. Thanks very much, that’s of great assistance. I’ll contact you when I actually get a box. 😀

  8. Nicotine-free crafts: crafting with cigarette and cigar packaging | MetaFilter Says:

    […] instrument once you’ve finished making things out of all your old cigar boxes, why not make your own guitar, fiddle, kalimba, or cigar box amp. You can also make a cigar box battery for a tube radio. […]

  9. Jake Says:

    Damn you, Ethan! I’m trying to find a copy of The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath and I keep finding this page in every one of my searches. 🙂 Hope life is going well.

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