Steve Richard poses in front of a table saw he uses to make his Cigar Box Guitars. Chance Viles / American Journal

On any given day, one can find Steve Richard in his garage in Westbrook, among bins of wood and shelves full of scrap metal bits, its walls lined with old concert flyers and band t-shirts. It’s there that he is combining a love of music with an unorthodox instrument.  

Steve Richard combs through a collection of cigar boxes that will one day be turned into guitars. At this point, Richard has made well over 100 cigar box guitars. Chance Viles / American Journal

Richard makes cigar box guitars, simple instruments with a lot of character, through his venture, Mainely Cigar Box Guitars. And coming up on July 24 at a festival at Frog and Turtle restaurant, Richard will be raffling off some of his instruments – and spreading his love of music. 

Richard, 59, started making cigar box guitars in 2015 as a passion project upon retiring from his job as a mechanical and plant engineer.  He  was never a good musician, he said, just a big music fan, having gone to possibly thousands of concerts since the ’70s. 

He has a very practical reason for building guitars: The craft keeps his creative juices flowing and his brain stimulated. He is hopeful that will help stave off Alzheimer’s disease, for which he may be genetically predisposed. 

“Both of my parents had it, which genetically isn’t cool if both of your parents had it. Worried about that, I wanted to do something creative, build and create to keep the other side of my brain strong, sort of preventative maintenance,” Richard said. 

A 2009 neurological study outlined how learning and mental stimulation can combat the disease. Researchers found that with continual mental stimulation, the effects of Alzheimer’s can be slowed down or halted. 

“It’s a dual thing,” Richard said. “I have this reason for doing it, but I also just love music, love playing and creating.” 

Richard grew up in Maine and has lived in Westbrook for 30 years with his wife and kids. He has since become a fixture in Westbrook, building cigar box guitars for free for nonprofits to raffle off. He has donated his instruments to the Girl Scouts, Westbrook Strong 5k, My PlaceTeen Center and others. 

“Steve has been a long-time friend to us and every year he does these super unique guitars,” My Place Teen Center CEO Donna Dwyer said. “Not only does he use his creative and musical talent, but he is so altruistic that it really benefits charities in the city. We are fortunate that he has chosen us, and believes in our mission.” 

“I never say no to a charity,” Richard said, adding that the upcoming festival “is just a chance to give back in the city.” 

A UNIQUE INSTRUMENT 

Building a traditional cigar box guitar can be straight-forward: Make the body out of an old wooden cigar box. Find whatever you can to make the instrument’s neck, be it a broom handle, baseball bat or a neck recycled from a different guitar. Add an electric pickup to the body that will capture the strings’ vibrations and route them through an amplifier. Add tuning pegs. Voila: A cigar box guitar. 

Richard jams out on a guitar he made out of metal plates, using a guitar amp he made out of an old radio. Richard has taken to playing guitars now, on top of building them, in an effort to continue learning to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which both his parents had. Chance Viles / American Journal

Some of Richard’s guitars have lighthouse scenes painted on them, with a 3D lighthouse as the bridge. He is currently working on a Prince-themed guitar with purple velvet.  

Other guitars are less ornate and more true to the blues roots. 

“It was a blues guitar, you know, the poor man’s guitar, and I want to honor that,” he said. 

The sound is reminiscent of the distinctive Memphis blues twang from the 1940s-1960s, he said. 

The guitars can take anywhere from a few days to a month to make. Richard uses scrap wood from other projects, takes electronics from old phones and other instruments, and makes guitars as cheaply as possible. 

“Sometimes I make them and sell them, other times people come to me with an idea,” he said. 

Word has gotten around about Richard’s craft. Musicians from more than 10 states have reached out to him to get custom instruments of their own. However, Richard said his business doesn’t make money. Rather, the venture is about being creative and bringing happiness to others. 

While his upcoming festival, CBG Madness, aims to make a little money, Richard notes that it is more of a passion project, and if he just makes “enough money to make another guitar,” he’ll “be golden.” 

Richard is now putting together his final preparations for the festival. There, a number of blues, rock and country bands will play using Richard’s guitars before raffling them all off to crowd members. 

“It’ll be a good time. Go, see some music, and maybe walk out with a unique guitar,” he said. 

For more information visit thefrogandturtle.com.

More photos below:

Richard poses with a guitar he is making.

A collection of guitars made from old cigar boxes, scrap metal and tin cans. Chance Viles / American Journal

A cigar box guitar in progress. The piece has a 3D illuminated lighthouse as well as 3D buoys on a painted background. Chance Viles / American Journal

This cigar box guitar was built to benefit the Girl Scouts. Chance Viles / American Journal

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