Bluesman Pinecone Fletcher finds joy in re-creating instrument for 21st century
Back when cigars were plentiful and money was not — especially during the Civil War, for example, or the Great Depression — some musicians decided to work with what they had close at hand and built their own cigar-box guitars.The concept was pretty simple: Cobble together a box, a stick and some strings, then tune it up and start playing. The raw, organic sound proved to be much different than what a store-bought instrument would deliver, giving a different twist to blues, country and folk tunes.
As Americana and roots music have undergone a revival in the last 15 years, led by the 2000 film “O Brother Where Are Thou?” and bands like Mumford & Sons, the interest in cigar-box guitars has grown, too. Ambitious do-it-yourselfers still prefer to put together their own, but a few companies have sprung up to fill the need.
One of them, Hobo King Guitars, is a one-man operation that blues musician and producer Pinecone Fletcher runs out of a basement on Binghamton’s West Side. Over the past five years, Fletcher has built hundreds of cigar-box guitars and shipped them to five continents — although he admits that he’s not kept an exact count.
“What’s cooler to me than how many go out is where they go,” he said. “It isn’t like America is buying the bulk of them. It seems like we sell equal amounts here as to people outside of the country. This is a worldwide thing that’s taken over — this thing is all over the place.”
Fletcher’s guitars are built on the principle of keeping things simple. The wood is sourced at nearby Belknap Lumber, where workers have learned how best to cut the birch and mahogany for the guitar’s body and the black walnut for the fretless neck. After that, just three strings, three tuners, an eye bolt for the bridge and a pickup to capture the sound are needed for the finished product.
Each one is laser-etched with the Hobo King logo, and sometimes Fletcher’s fingerprints end up inside when he’s hot-gluing the pieces together.
“It’s just a box and a stick, with a little thing in there to amplify it to make it louder. That’s all we’re doing,” he said. “What is a guitar other than a string with tension on it so it will vibrate? Why are we so caught up in guitars and how fancy they are? Especially fancy red ones.”
Music in the blood
Fletcher’s path to building guitars included many twists and turns, but music always has been at the center of his life. As he grew up in Binghamton, his father played in a band five nights a week and twice on Sundays.
“My earliest memory was my dad auditioning some players,” Fletcher said. “The drummer had this giant kick-drum and I was very little, so I remember wanting to lie in it. I was told I couldn’t!”
|Pinecone Fletcher uses a computer to control a laser imaging machine that imprints his company's label onto Hobo King cigar-box guitars. (Photo: ANDREW THAYER / Staff Photo)|
He got a drum set while in the third grade, and one of his first public gigs happened at a summer block party when he was 10 years old. He wore swim trunks, and a swarm of mosquitoes bit him without mercy throughout his performance.
Like most kids of the 1970s and ‘80s, Fletcher loved what he heard on the radio — pop, rock and beyond — but learning the play the guitar led him to explore other genres. At 16, he joined a funk-rock group called Doctor Manhattan, which got some attention from music executives while playing at clubs and showcases around the country.
“Everybody was interested, and we actually had some response from record labels,” he said. “Then Nirvana came out with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ and every other genre of music went right into the trashcan. Nobody was interested in anything else anymore. We were probably on the verge of getting a really crappy record deal!”
At 19, Fletcher had the chance to audition as the new guitarist for bestselling rock act Red Hot Chili Peppers. The connection came through his time in Doctor Manhattan, and he flew out to audition in Los Angeles with only a few days’ notice. In the meanwhile, the band put an ad for the open slot in the LA Weekly — so when Fletcher arrived, he found himself amid a parking lot full of applicants.
He skipped to the front of the line, plugged in to play for a very promising few minutes and ended up in a room with the Chili Peppers themselves.
“I don’t think there was more than 10 of us who actually got to meet and play with the band,” he said. “It was life-changing, because you start to realize these aren’t just pipe dreams. It’s about working as a musician. You show up, you go places, you do auditions. You just have to show up, and fun things can happen.”
|Pinecone Fletcher has been making cigar-box guitars by hand for the past five years. (Photo: ANDREW THAYER / Staff Photo)|
“Everything is just a natural progression from one thing to the next,” he said. “We often have moments that can be defining in life, but those big moments are few and far between. The most defining parts of our lives are all the things that happen in the middle that we think are insignificant.”
While offstage, Fletcher comes across as an amiable, humble and sometimes deeply philosophical guy who’s happy to share his theories about the resurgence of roots music and why the pinecone has mystical significance. He’s helped to guide acts at his studio, Panda Records, when they need to find a voice to call their own.
Onstage, though, he’s honed and shaped the Pinecone Fletcher persona based on the archetypal mad genius, staying almost mute offstage and then surprising audiences with his low-register singing and wild, energetic guitar style. That act — which puts people off-guard until the right moment to sock it to ‘em — helped to get him into the final round of Guitar Center’s national King of the Blues competition in 2010 and 2011.
He’s hardly a blues snob, though: “I’ve always loved every genre of music, as long as the person in that genre felt honest to me. I’m a blues player, but I love Slayer and I love the production that Rick Rubin does on those early records. You wouldn’t think a guy like me would love death metal, but I do.
“I love roots music for what it has to say with social commentary. I love that it’s so honest and real. On those early recordings, people screw up and make mistakes on them, and nobody cares because it’s not pretentious. It’s just somebody making music so people can feel better — that’s what it’s supposed to be used for.
“I also love rock ’n’ roll — there’s no feeling like being onstage with an amp turned up so loud that you’re feeling it. And to combine those things is something I’ve always loved doing, and I’m at a point where I’m finally doing a bit of that. We’re rocking enough that I get that satisfaction, but we’re traditional enough that I get that viewpoint that I like.”
After serious health problems sidelined him for a couple of years, Fletcher is ready for the spotlight once again. He and his band the Railbenders — Nobby Pearce on electric bass and Steve O’Connell on drums — will celebrate the release of one of his long-completed albums, “Live from the Glenwood Bakery,” at a show on Wednesday with fellow bluesman Jake Lear at the Spotlight in Endicott.
|Fletcher has been making the cigar-box guitars by hand for the past five years. (Photo: ANDREW THAYER / Staff Photo)|
“We did quite a number of recordings and they’ve all been on the shelf,” Fletcher said. “I just desperately want to get this stuff out because I have new material I want to get out. We just filmed a show at Cooperstown Blues Express, and it came out so well that I can’t wait to get that out. I just want to start tossing stuff out there.”
From Binghamton with love
Like many of the roads traveled during Fletcher’s music career, the idea for Hobo King Guitars presented itself organically as well. He built a cigar-box guitar for himself, played it during shows, and people would ask afterward how they could get one of their own.
So far, his guitars have been shipped all around the United States as well as to Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, Ukraine and Canada. Among the big-name producers who have used them during recording sessions are Pete Anderson (known for his work with Dwight Yoakam, Jackson Browne, k.d. lang and Buck Owens) and David Z (who has recorded with Prince, Etta James, Billy Idol, Buddy Guy and Neneh Cherry).
“I was introduced to Hobo King Guitars through Pinecone when he was a finalist at Guitar Center’s King of the Blues competition,” Anderson said. “I really dug his unique take on the blues with his cigar box. It really stood out among all the guys with their Strats and tube screamers.”
The appeal when recording is obvious, he added: “Nothing else sounds like 'em. The tone of the cigar box and the pickup make a really aggressive sound that stands out in a track. It's a pretty hip instrument.”
Fletcher assembles each Hobo King guitar by hand and plugs it in for a test before it’s packed up and sent off to the customer. The “standard” model retails for $199; he also considered making high- and low-end models when he first started out, but that seemed too complicated for something that’s the epitome of simplicity.
As he’s making the guitars and boxing them up for shipment, does Fletcher ever consider who will be playing his instruments?
“My first thought is, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get this stuff out on time!’ I’m just one guy,” he said with a laugh. “But when someone in Sweden buys one, it’s hard to picture it since I’ve never been there. I don’t know what that person’s daily life is like. How different is it from ours, or how similar is it to ours? I wish more people when they buy them would send in a picture or a video of them playing it, so I could get to know some of these people better.”
Because a cigar-box guitar is played with a slide and has only three strings, learning to play it can be a challenge. That can be fun for new players as well as those who feel their skills have plateaued on a six-string guitar.
|A finished Hobo King cigar-box guitar costs $199 (Photo: ANDREW THAYER / Staff Photo)|
“You could literally pick up and be playing in a day — it’s just to what degree do you want to take your playing,” Fletcher said. “It’s way easier than a regular guitar in that respect, if you just want to do simple stuff like that right out of the box. But if you want to get really crazy with it, you’ve got to dedicate some time. It won’t respond like a regular guitar will respond — it’s really a different instrument.”
Thousands of cigar-box guitar players — many of whom gather online at websites such as Cigar Box Nation — have created their own mini-movement inside the Americana music movement.
“Because there are so few people who are doing something special with the instrument right now — most people are just fumbling around and having fun with it and nobody’s being too serious about it — you have this wonderful community where no one is being pompous and no one is making fun of anyone for not being good at it,” Fletcher said. “Everybody is supportive no matter what they play — nonstop, 24/7, for all these people. That’s insane. You don’t see that anywhere else.”
And just like those folks who made the original cigar-box guitars way back when, freedom of musical expression is what really matters.
“We’re all creative beings. It’s not just the guy with the $3,000 guitar you can’t afford. As long as we realize it comes from the heart, everybody can go back to being an artist. I think instruments like this help remind us of that — that it comes from us, not from the gear, not from the amplifier, not from the pedal board. It comes from within.”
Kocher, Chris. "Binghamton Musician Ships Cigar-box Guitars around the World." Pressconnects. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://www.pressconnects.com/story/entertainment/2016/11/21/three-strings-and-truth-binghamton-musician-ships-cigar-box-guitars-around-world/94022784/.