Working for a Living for March 28, 2103

For Weekly SurgeMarch 26, 2013 

Rob Sutton: Thinking Inside the Box

Rob Sutton, 34, arrived on the Grand seven years ago. Originally from Cincinnati, the closest he had been to the general area was Folly Beach. “My wife is from here,” he says. “We met in Ohio and moved back here to be closer to her family.” In fact, Sutton says he and wife Amanda Sutton met in a seedy rock ‘n’ roll bar in Ohio. “It’s one of those things where – if you met someone in there, people would say it wouldn’t last – and we’ve been together for like 15 years.”

In Cincinnati, he played bass with a local garage punk outfit called The Killouts. “I grew up playing guitar or whatever stringed instrument I could get ahold of – banjo, ukulele - mandolin.”

But over time, this fascination with playing such stringed instruments grew into building them as well.

Sutton established a business called Tramp Box Guitars, featuring what the Facebook page says are “handcrafted cigar box guitars made in the pine woods of South Carolina. Each guitar is a one-of-a-kind piece of playable art.” With more than 400 instruments sold by Sutton to date, Weekly Surge was all about discovering more about how all of this works.

“Tramp Box Guitars is [mainly] cigar box guitars, but I also build instruments out of other recycled things as well. I have built cookie tin banjos and have built a resonator out of a mailbox and other random things I think might work as the body of a guitar,” he says, adding that cigar box guitars enjoy a history that goes back to the Civil War era. He cites very early photographs – some with soldiers and others with slaves that feature guitars like this.

“There’s different kinds of ideas on the history there, but a lot of people say that the slaves were trying to replicate an instrument that they played in Africa – so they used whatever was around – and that’s how the blues slide sound was invented. It’s a rich and interesting history.”

What Sutton says he aimed to do was to take that simple, primitive instrument and make it more of a modern, playable guitar. “You have the option if you need fretted, electric or as modernized as you want – or I can make a primitive, classic fretless design. But for the most part, people dig playing one that’s close to the old guitars.”

He has built everything from one string [diddley bows] up to eight-stringed, double octave instruments. “You can do two strings with a kind of cool drone to them. Three [and four] strings are just open tuning – you can also tune those like a banjo.” The tuning options abound depending on the gauges of stings used and how the individual wants to play.

His motivation to begin this odyssey was his father-in-law, Jim Lyons, who was vocalist for The Music Explosion, a band that enjoyed gold record status with its 1967 hit, “Little Bit O’ Soul,” which has since been covered by likes of Tom Petty and the Ramones. “He loved the blues and always wanted to play the guitar, but he had a hard time with six-string guitars. Finally it came down to where I was like, ‘I’m going to build him one of those three-string cigar box guitars and he can learn the basics of how a guitar works.’ That was my premise.” Sadly, before Sutton got his first one built, Lyons passed away unexpectedly from heart failure.

Sutton says he has built everything from mandolins to ukuleles, banjos to dulcimers. “I have probably built any kind of folksy stringed instrument you can think of. They usually sell for between $125-$275 depending on how fancy they are."

He says the process begins by cruising around town picking up boxes. “I try to find the best boxes that I can use for the instruments I am trying to build that week that I’ve got special orders for,” he says, adding that then the messy work begins. “I get back into the shop and there’s a lot of sawdust and cutting metal. It’s kind of a dirty, fun and dangerous job, but it’s pretty rewarding. At the end of the day I have something that I can string up and get sound out of.”

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