England, Birningham, 23-07-16 Birmingham and Solihull Jazz and Blues Festival. Brooks Williams at the Central Library in West Bromwich. © Photo Merlin Daleman

Photo: Merlin Daleman

Brooks Williams is an outstanding, finger-picking, rootsy blues guitar man from Statesboro, Georgia. He is a regular and extremely popular performer at the Birmingham, Sandwell & Westside Jazz Festival where he has built an impressive following, singing the blues to his own backing on acoustic and resonator guitars.

To my surprise and delight, some years ago now, he finished his set with three songs where he played a cigar box guitar, not a common sight.

Offstage, we talked about his cigar box guitar, and I said that I thought it brilliant, that some tiny American company is still producing these primitive blues guitars. This seemed to amuse Brooks, who told me that actually, it was made in Smethwick, Birmingham.

I made contact with the man concerned, a certain Chickenbone John, and we have now worked together for some years. John doesn’t just make these mini-masterpieces, he is also a tremendous blues singer and cigar box guitarist who has become a strong draw at Henry’s Blueshouse and a regular at the Jazz Festival.

John always did have a passion for building guitars. He built his first when he was just 14, and for a while spent his time buying old timey guitars, repairing and selling them. Then he read somewhere that B.B. King and Lightnin’ Hopkins had both made their own first guitars out of a cigar box and a broom handle, which got John thinking.

He did a little research and made himself a 3 string fretless cigar box guitar. He says that to his amazement, it worked and was actually playable and particularly suited to a slide player like himself. 

His next step was to take his home-made guitar to open mics and jam sessions, then he built another, sold it and repeated the process until he suddenly found himself organising a Cigar Box Festival, Boxstock, at the centre of a whole new home-grown phenomenon, starring in an acclaimed BBC film Cigar Box Blues and now referred to as The Godfather of The Cigar Box Guitar.

John is now building resonator and oil can guitars alongside the cigar boxes, teaching people how to make and play them, and playing gigs as a solo, in a duo with Harmonica Dave and with his band, Chickenbone Blues.

Find info on upcoming gigs by both Brooks and Chickenbone at Henry’s Blueshouse over on our upcoming gigs page