Crafting your own musical instrument is a tradition borne in hard times — because good music can help people endure those hard times.
People in the Mississippi Delta were known for building their own musical instruments, including cigar box guitars, out of available resources, and people in Appalachia often made stringed instruments from gourds.
Because they were homemade, one guitar was rarely the same as the next, and sometimes they looked pretty rough — but, hey, they made music and they didn’t cost much to build.
Jonesborough’s Travis Woodall is continuing that tradition, building his own line of custom SlackJack Guitars out of wooden cigar boxes. The self-taught musician, a talented guitarist who started out as a drummer, has found a serious hobby that’s turned into a side business.
“Every one is different. Sometimes they have a few of the same pieces, but even if I use the same box, the guitar is never the same,” he said. “There’s a novelty factor, but then you realize you can play these.
“And they’re very easy to play. A six-string guitar may be intimidating to people. It’s still intimidating to me. But if someone wanted an instrument that’s easy to play, this is a good instrument.”
Since building his first one in 2009, Woodall has honed his craft and sold about 60 SlackJacks. He’s made a variety of stringed instruments, including a ukelele, a two-string bass and a tin-can resonator. He’s made instruments with two, three, four and six strings.
There’s a SlackStick, which is fretted like a dulcimer, and a Womp Box, a stomp box made from a wooden cigar box (with electronic pickups) that can be tapped or stomped with your foot to accompany the guitar.
One of his double-neck six-string guitars now belongs to Devon Allman, leader of the band Devon Allman’s Honeytribe and the son of Gregg Allman. Devon, who’s become a good friend of Woodall’s, regularly performs with the SlackJack and recently played a show at the new Spring Street Music Hall in Johnson City.
Woodall also sells kits for people who want to construct their own guitar, at $89 each. He said he’s now got more guitar work than he can do, but, as long as he’s got time to make them, he loves the work.
“When you can build something, and then get to make music on it, it’s rewarding, it’s a unique feeling,” he said.
Woodall and his wife, Brandi, own Positive Approach, an event planning business, and they run Venue, the new downtown Johnson City event space on the second floor of the King Centre that’s home to dinners, parties, weddings, concerts, music jam sessions, arts events and various other activities.
Those are the Woodalls’ main business priorities. Unlike the people of the Delta or his Appalachian forebears, Travis didn’t turn to guitar making because of hard times. Instead, he was fascinated by handmade instruments and admired the ingenuity of those who made them.
He went to the Washington County-Jonesborough Library and found a book that featured handmade instruments from this region, which piqued his interest. He got a good plan off the Internet for building a 1920 cigar box guitar, visited a local home improvement store for the materials and went to work over the weekend making his first one.
“And it was really cruddy, it was horrible,” Woodall said. “So I made notes on all the flaws and how I could improve it. I’m very competitive. And the next one was a little bit better. I didn’t have the right tools so I was doing things like cutting the fret slots with a hack saw.
“But I started really getting into it and by about the fourth or fifth one I was getting the intonation right and I was able to make one I was really proud of.”
Woodall uses only wooden cigar boxes, not cardboard, and most are made of Spanish cedar: “It’s very aromatic for the cigars but it’s also wood that’s able to produce a great tone,” he said, adding that his favorite brand is Arturo Fuente.
And the sound is distinctive.
“They have a primitive sound, it’s simplified,” Woodall said. “The neat thing is you can tune them any way you want. The sound is bluesy and it makes a great slide instrument. It has a dirty, muddy sound to it. I don’t know what it is but these things have mojo.”
Every guitar is custom made, either by specifications from the customer or through Woodall’s imagination. He said he trusts his creative instincts and, in a way, lets the guitar itself tell him what to do during the building process.
Woodall shapes the wooden guitar neck and makes his own pickups. He’s used various materials, including bolts, hinges, a sink drain, chicken bones and even candleholder inserts. He likes to rub in olive oil for the wood finish and does a lot of sanding. Among his tools: a router, a table saw, a band saw, a bevel file and soldering iron.
Everything is done by hand and a guitar can take up to 85 hours to build, although the simpler ones are closer to 20.
“But now I’m at the point where I want to challenge myself and use different techniques, and that takes longer,” he said. “I’ll pretty much try anything and then evaluate to see what works. And if it didn’t work, then why not?
“The fretwork was the hardest thing for me to get down. It requires tools that are hard to find and it took a lot of practice.”
The guitars sell for about $100 a string. He started out selling some on e-Bay — “And I’d be happy to get a hundred bucks,” he said — but as his instruments improved and demand increased, he priced them up a little.
“I’ve invested all the money I’ve made on these back into better equipment so I can make better guitars,” he added.
Woodall said he’s always had basic woodworking skills. He worked sales and marketing for a flooring company in Richmond, Va., and met Brandi at Bristol Motor Speedway while each was there on a business visit. They lived in Richmond before moving to East Tennessee in 2006, where she has roots.
Brandi also serves as a Blue Plum Festival volunteer and she came up with the idea of giving away a SlackJack Guitar as a promotion during the festival last year. That helped draw some attention to what Travis was doing, and he also made some fans and customers when he took his instruments to a blues festival near Winchester, Va. Now SlackJack has a Web presence and a budding reputation.
His connection to Devon Allman is through a friend in Knoxville who knew Allman, bought a couple of SlackJacks and gave one to Allman as a gift. Woodall and Allman met at a Knoxville show and they hit it off as friends, sharing a lot of interests, and Devon asked Travis to build him the double-neck model he uses to perform a song he wrote for his girlfriend, “Yadira’s Lullaby.” There’s a Youtube video for it.
It typifies why Travis enjoys this hobby.
“Building these guitars has been fun,” he said, “because I’ve met a lot of people and made a lot of good friends.”
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