Potomac man goes extra step building cigar-box musical instruments

POTOMAC — It's easy to miss the road leading to Tony Taylor's workshop — even though it's close to the village of Potomac.

Going south out of town, the road is just past the second part of the S curve soon after you pass over the Middle Fork River, according to his directions.

"You'll have to almost stop on that part of the S curve to turn right on our road. We are at the dead end of that road, and any further you'd be in the river."

No danger of that.

The shop Taylor built, mostly with salvaged materials and with a little help from a couple of friends, would make any motorist stop to take a look.

With its pitched red roof, dormer window and cupola, it resembles a structure from an old storybook or fairy tale, or one you might see in the European countryside.

Taylor built the studio near his family's home for his fledgling business, Ascendent Instruments — handmade cigar box guitars, pie pan banjos and tube amplifiers. He also does repair jobs; one of his most recent was of a vintage Hohner harmonica.

This past spring, Taylor posted at the Cigar Box Nation website photographs of his new workshop, drawing praise from the network users.

"Wow. I saw the inside photos first," wrote one, Uncle John. "Now I have shop envy and admiration. Shop, playhouse, hideout. Wonderful."

Wanting to finish it as soon as possible, after having quit his full-time job Oct. 5, Taylor started building right away, working through the winter, even during snowstorms.

"I don't think I took any time off. I just kept plowing away," he said.

He's devoted the lower level of the structure to a wood and metal shop, while he uses the upstairs for electronics and finishing.

Taking the same approach to his instruments as he did with his shop, Taylor incorporates into them found objects such as yardsticks, old silverware and skeleton keys — for embellishments and mechanical purposes.

He goes further than most other makers of cigar box instruments. He makes neck straps from old belts and suspenders and handcrafts wooden cases for each guitar or banjo. He lines the cases with colorful fabric or paper.

"I make them so you can hang them on the wall. I really wanted a full package," he said.

His instruments and cases are works of art unto themselves. He wants them to look like something you might find in your crafty grandfather's attic; at the same time, he aims for a professional — not novice — look.

Besides looking good, his instruments sound good. Even though most of them have only three or four strings, they produce surprisingly full and resonant sounds.

Mainly a drummer who plays guitar and writes music as well, Taylor became interested in building cigar box guitars after he became annoyed by the snootiness often connected to brand-name guitars. Another impetus: He was intrigued by the sounds Marc Ribot produced on a cigar box banjo on the Tom Waits album, "Real Gone."

So Taylor began surfing the Internet for information. He joined the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution and the cigarboxnation.com/ network, founded by Shane Speal, a musician, historian and instrument maker known as the King of the Cigar Box Guitar.

Taylor gave himself over completely to his new business, quitting his job at Taylor Studios, a museum-exhibit planning, design and fabrication firm in Rantoul once co-owned by his older brother, Joe. The extensive experience Tony had there making museum exhibits and interactive displays, as well as his engineer's mind, have helped him in his new endeavor.

For example, he figured out not only how to make workable, durable cigar box instruments but also how to electrify them.

For the pickups, he uses industrial magnets and bobbins he fabricates from wood. At first, he would wind around each bobbin by hand — 6,000 to 8,000 times per bobbin — thread-size motor wire, which help carry the sound signals. Then he began using vintage Super 8 movie projectors for the labor-intensive job.

Being resourceful and having a wife to help on the home front also have enabled Taylor to become self-employed.

Jennifer Taylor, who like her husband plays guitar, including at the Alvin Church of God, works as the music teacher at Potomac Grade School. The couple has 5-year-old twin sons, Noah and Elijah.

"We live cheap, too," Tony Taylor said. "We don't have bass boats and jet skis or five cars."

For now Taylor, 39, sells his instruments at the Market at the Square farmers' market in Urbana on Saturday mornings and via his Ascendent Instruments Facebook page.

In early August, Vintage Karma in Tuscola will begin stocking his product.

"I'm going to go down there and do a kind of performance and give them a bunch to sell," he said.

Meanwhile, he will attend every farmers' market in Urbana, where his Ascendent Instruments booth draws curious people of all ages.

"People are magnetized to it," he said. "I tell you there's not much break in the day. It's kind of crazy."

On the Web

For a short video of Tony Taylor playing one of his cigar box guitars, visit http://bit.ly/16eshWa on The News-Gazette website.

Topics (2):Music, People

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