MILLINOCKET, Maine — David Levesque wants to make an electric guitar shaped like a Thompson submachine gun. Once he does that, he might make one that resembles a Harley-Davidson. Maybe a guitar cut like a chain saw will follow those, he says.
“A lot will depend on the themes,” Levesque said Wednesday. “If I come up with a theme of a Harley-Davidson, I might want to do one in the shape of a Harley bike or a motor.”
The 70-year-old retired paper mill machinist has created and sold six handmade cigar box-style guitars since July from his Somerset Street home’s woodshop through his startup company, T-Bone Guitars, he said.
“I worked at this for quite awhile building prototypes,” Levesque said. “I had to throw away the first one.”
Designed in consultation with several musicians, including Millinocket singer-songwriter Mark “Guitar” Miller, Levesque’s guitars are a rather dramatic departure from most cigar box instruments.
With origins traced to the 1840s, cigar box guitars are three- to five-string acoustic guitars that use cardboard or wooden cigar boxes as the body or resonator. They have wooden necks and head stocks, and the more modern derivatives retain the guitar’s short, distinctive box shape, according to a history provided by cigarboxnation.com, a website dedicated to the instrument and its fans.
The cigar box acoustic guitar became especially popular during the Civil War, when soldiers on both sides crafted instruments made from whatever trash or wood scraps that they could find, said Ben Baker, owner-operator of cigarboxnation.com.
T-Bone Guitars are electric and have six strings. Made from hard maple and selling for $495 each, they are part novelty item, suitable for hanging on a wall and laser-etched with themes requested by customers, but very playable.
“Whenever I [play] a concert, I have him bring his instrument along,” Miller said Wednesday of Levesque. “Most cigar box guitars are not made with his kind of quality. The ones made from cigar boxes are kind of neat, but you won’t get from them his quality of sound.”
“Mine plays just like my Fender guitar and you can make it sound from a really nice clean bluesy sound to really hard rock ’n’ roll. It plays wonderfully. I love it,” said Mike Haney, a Kentucky businessman who owns six guitars, including a special edition Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster worth about $1,800 and a Gibson Les Paul model worth about $2,000.
The T-Bone models are sturdy, compact — slightly shorter than most electric guitars — and have a nice sustain, or period of time between a note being struck and fading to inaudibility, Miller said. They probably don’t rival the most expensive electric guitars, which can cost close to $20,000, but they have good action: Their strings run a sliver above their necks and bodies, making them fun to play.
“It’s hard on the fingers when they are not like that,” Miller said.
Baker said he has never seen a T-Bone, but he knows many guitar fans and players who craft homemade electric cigar box models out of old skateboard decks.
“It sounds like what he is doing is in the same spirit of most makers. It is just regular people without necessarily any training realizing that they can make an instrument out of a range of things,” said Baker, a New Hampshire resident whose website has about 13,500 members. “The range of what people can do can accommodate the most basic and primitive style or the most sophisticated high-end style, like he is doing. They are not toy guitars.”
Haney, owner of Hillbilly Stills, a maker of legal distilleries for whiskey, vodka, brandy and gin, has never met Levesque. He became a T-Bone fan after Levesque saw from his company’s website that Haney collected guitars and made one for him as a surprise. The “Hillbilly Blues” model features a laser-etched cartoon of a hillbilly drinking moonshine and a very mellow hound.
“Every time I go out and play it, everybody wants to know all about it. It is an attention grabber,” Haney said. “It’s my favorite.”
Each guitar typically takes about a week to make, Levesque said.
His first three attempts were busts. Levesque feels comfortable now that his basic model and manufacturing procedures are set, but he is always tinkering with his design.
A computer-aided cutting table he will buy within a few months will make it easier. Half paid for by a Katahdin Area Recovery and Expansion Committee grant, the $15,000 table will allow Levesque to cut curved shapes with exactitude.
National Rifle Association members are among those Levesque plans to target. He thinks their fundraisers could make his guitars a hot item. Some have suggested that he build a guitar shaped like an AR-15 rifle, Levesque said.
“The novelty,” Levesque said, “is what sells.”