String along: Beer can be unique to Modesto man’s handmade guitars

MODESTO — It’s cool enough to Google your avocation and find your name at the top of the search engine heap. It’s even cooler when a major company does it and uses it as the criteria for having you teach America how to build a guitar using a beer can.

Logan Elliott builds cigar box guitars in his shop in the tiny Macoupin County community of Modesto under the name Logan’s Homegrown Cigar Box Guitars.

What started out as a curiosity has turned into a serious pursuit and, most recently, an online gig with Busch Light in which he instructs others on how to build their own guitar using a beer can. An Elliott-made beer can guitar signed by country musician Jordan Davis is a prize in the promotion.

That’s quite a journey from 2015, when Elliott saw the Ghost Town Blues Band in Springfield — and saw his first cigar box guitar. Band members had made their own guitars.

He again saw the band in Springfield and ran into the instruments once more while touring a museum in Mississippi. The Diddley Bow, a single-stringed instrument popular among blues singers in the early 20th century, caught his eye and he decided to build his own.

“It’s a whole different style of playing,” Elliott said. “You play it by strumming it.”

The guitars are meant to be played with a slide, which can be anything from a brass tube to a glass bottleneck or a socket.

Most of the guitars Elliott makes have three strings, but one, two or three strings all work to make open-chord music. Open chords, which must include at least one unfretted open string, also are called “cowboy chords” because they’re among the simplest to play and easiest to learn.

“Someone who can really play guitar can make those sound like they have six strings,” Elliott said.

Oddly, Elliott claims not to be a musician.

“I can’t sing or play, but have taken a few lessons, so I can strum some chords,” Elliott said. “I know when something sounds good, or if it’s in key. If you put a wire between two bolts, you can play a chord.”

His cigar box guitars are what initially gained Elliott public notice, though he also has made guitars out of gourds, cheese boxes and bullet casings, among other things. He now is working past his 600th cigar box guitar but branched out to make canjos — guitars made from aluminum cans — around 2017.

“I saw that a few people would drill a hole in a can and put it on a piece of wood,” Elliott said. “If you can build a guitar with a cigar box, why not with a can? You just take the top off the can, put it on a piece of wood, attach volume and tone knobs and run them through the can.”

Elliott bought a collection of vintage cans, which are easier to use because they have a studied build. Today’s lightweight aluminum beverage cans are harder to use.

“Right now, I’m working on three of them. I am passing 200 on my canjo build,” he said.

His reputation as a canjo builder was enhanced a year ago in Murphysboro, when guitarist Steve Arvey played one of Elliott’s Pabst Blue Ribbon canjos. Arvey improvised a song about PBR with his band. As the crowd came toward the stage, it was shot on video and put on YouTube, which can be seen at bit.ly/3C202kw.

“From that one video, it just grew,” Elliott said.

And that’s why, when Busch Light was looking for someone to teach their customers to recycle cans by building guitars, it found Elliott by Googling, “beer can guitar,” which is another way to say canjo.

Elliott used to build guitars in his spare time but made it more of a full-time gig after his recent retirement.

It takes at least 8 to 10 hours to make one canjo with all the soldering and gluing, but he works on three or four at a time to make it more efficient.

“I had been making a couple a week,” Elliott said. “When I do the canjos, I do about six at a time because it’s more of a process. I’m making more of them now because of some festivals coming up.”

Elliott uses regular guitar strings, which he buys along with tuning knobs and pickups from MGB Guitar Parts and Supply. He occasionally buys the necks from them, too, but Elliot said he has been fortunate to have access to old wood.

“I have a planer and a router to make my own necks. I generally use oak, hickory, walnut and cherry. I don’t have to buy them, so that helps the bottom line,” he said.

Elliott donates a share of his proceeds from guitar-making to charity.

“I went on an Honor Flight in 2014 with my dad. Since then, I’ve wanted to raise money for Honor Flights, so I made a guitar out of an ammo box and we did a raffle,” said Elliott, who has raised more than $12,000 for Land of Lincoln Honor Flights and a host of other charities.

The fifth annual Logan’s Home Grown Cigar Box Day will be from 1 to 5 pm Sept. 11 at Vixen Hill Winery, just west of Palmyra. His instruments will be featured in performances from Steve Arvey, Stumpy Joe and Trene, as well as Unspecific Railroad.

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