Two things the average human might not know: Paul McCartney played an electric cigar box guitar during a couple of recent Nirvana reunions, which sent shock waves through the cigar box guitar universe; furthermore, there is a cigar box guitar universe.
Peña's guitars—which he makes in Albuquerque and sells in Madrid—are built out of bolts, stove parts, license plates, cabinet handles and hinges, decorative house trim and moulding, rare coins, brass tacks, the odd brass kitchen sink basket strainer and miscellaneous junk he finds in the street. The necks are constructed out of oak, but he would happily employ any suitable hard wood. As a rule, cigar box guitars are amplified by a Piezo pickup, a flat disc that can be found in smoke detectors and electric drums and which is often used to amplify stomp boards. They're cheap at 30 cents each and simple to wire to an input jack. “Where you put it and how you put it determines the sound you're going to get,” says Peña. “Some of them I insulate and some I leave open; some I'll embed it in the wood, and some I'll put two of them in different places and with two volume controls, placing them where the main action is.”
These days, Peña makes a living selling his guitars. He attributes his journey down this path to a miracle: “I got in a pinch, money-wise. I was a wandering musician and I've had the chance to play with some local cats like Zoltan Orkestar, but I broke away, and after my encounter with [the hugging guru] Amma—she whispered in my ear that everything was going to be alright, and after that, everything was alright—that's when things started happening.” Peña started building his guitars, signed up on the Cigar Box Nation website and began networking. When McCartney got on stage with a four-string, fretted cigar box guitar, Peña realized he was riding another wave. The two years since Amma gave him that hug have been years of passion for the humble, homemade cigar box guitar.
“A lot of musicians say 'it's just a toy, there's nothing in there,' but there's a lot in there,” Peña says. He wears brotherly love on his sleeve and wants to share the knowledge and joy that creating and playing these instruments has brought him. To that end, Peña plans to teach a workshop in 2013 to share the know-how he's acquired. His larger goal is fully incorporating the Southwest into the Cigar Box Nation, whose population largely resides on the East Coast. It should be a big year for the cigar box guitar and for the proselytizing Peña, who's just finished recording and plans to perform his jug-music as much as possible this year. “It's history. It's a really nice part of history that I never knew about until I became an adult,” he says. “It can help a lot of people to get back on the horse with their music, because it's not a complicated thing to play [or] build.” Fans of DIY, Americana and fine music should know this is not only the year of the snake. It's also the year of the cigar box guitar, and Burqueños are blessed by the presence of a devout emissary from that nation.