Recycled Rock and Roll – Carpenter Winthrop’s Instruments Are Throwbacks to Early Country Music – Methow Valley News


Photo by Natalie Johnson
Mel Cooke, of Winthrop, makes these three-string guitars from old cigar boxes.
The design of the guitars is partly based on the
cigar box style.

Johnny Cash called it a Tennessee Flat Top Box. At its heart, an acoustic guitar is just a few strings and a box to make their sound resonate.

Building on a tradition dating back to early American country music, Winthrop resident Mel Cooke has spent the last year learning how to make guitars from real cigar boxes.

He was inspired to start making unique instruments after hearing about them in a Ken Burns documentary on country music.

“The people of the Appalachians had no money and could find old boxes. Some of them are made from cans, ”he said. “There weren’t any rules about it, that was all they could come up with.”

That’s still true today, Cooke said.

He first started with a kit and Google. He found help and materials at resources like, a website that brings together many people with similar interests to Cooke’s.

Now he has his own models and designs each instrument himself. He buys some boxes from websites like Etsy and buys others directly from cigar stores.

The design of the unique instrument begins with the cigar box as a source of inspiration.

“And I’m going to sit down and play with them, where would I put the gills with, or what kind of handle I would like to put with,” he said. “… Some of these boxes are solid wood, others are pressed cardboard. “

All Cooke guitars have three strings and unlike traditional guitars do not have frets – like a violin or a double bass. They are also tuned to an open G chord and the strings are set well above the neck, making them ideal for playing with a glass or metal blade.

Open tunings allow a person to play any major chord the same way – with one finger pressing or inhibiting all six strings between two frets on a standard guitar, or all three strings on Cooke’s guitars.

“It’s a really good guitar for non-guitarists, which is me,” he said. Since learning to make guitars, he has also learned to play them, he said.

The standard tuning for a six- and 12-string guitar is EADGBE, or the key of E.

“If you knew how to play the guitar, you would master it very easily,” he said.

The strings are attached to each end of the wooden neck, running the full length of the guitar at each end of the box.

Cooke said he had dabbled in woodworking for decades and did not consider himself a good luthier. His cigar box guitars are mostly functional crafts or works of art. Of the 16 he completed and put up for sale at Methow Valley Goods in Twisp, some were bought by musicians and others by people looking for a unique local piece of art for their home.

“It doesn’t require a lot of specialized tools; they are mainly hand tools to assemble them, ”he said.

Cooke’s finished products are on sale at Valley Goods in Twisp. For more information, visit

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