By Doug Hill
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Norman singer/songwriter Kyle Reid is a man of many talents, besides the obvious ones that are pleasing to the ears.
Not only does he play guitar, he has constructed dozens of them from discarded cigar boxes. Reid will conduct a 2014 Jazz in June clinic on the art, craft and philosophy of unconventional instruments at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Santa Fe Depot, 200 S. Jones Ave.
“My parents bought me my first regular guitar when I was 15,” Reid said.
That’s a typical American scenario, and he became obsessed with playing it every day after school. What’s atypical is that Reid wanted to understand his instrument’s mechanics.
“My parents had table and band saws and routers and helped me build an electric guitar,” he said. “We got a book on how to do it, bought the hardware and cut the body out of wood.”
The result was an instrument that played just fine, and his folks still have it.
“I was lucky because my parents have never been afraid to make something if we needed it,” he said. “My dad had a good job, but it was more just a state of mind that if you could build something yourself, you did.”
Reid went to the Oklahoma University and earned an engineering physics degree in 2010. While in school, he also was a performing musician. It came to Reid’s attention that one of his musical heroes, Tom Waits, sometimes played a cigar box guitar. He became interested in the primitive instruments. They were probably first made in 1840s America and later became popular with Civil War soldiers.
“I knew I could make one and that playing it would be something different to catch people’s attention,” Reid said. “I built my first one in 2011 and it sounded pretty good.”
He’s made around 50 so far, selling some and gifting others. Reid sold one to the storied McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif., that has specialized in folkie acoustic instruments since 1958. It didn’t stay in their inventory long before being snagged by a customer.
At a Jazz in June clinic, he’ll describe the instrument’s history and his process for building them. The cigar box guitar’s limitations actually have an appeal for Reid.
“The one I’m using now only has three strings and no frets so I use a slide,” he said. “You have to get creative on how to play the desired melodies and chords.”
The boxes are dense cardboard or even solid wood. He gets them for a few bucks each at Norman’s cigar stores. Reid sometimes installs an electrical pick-up component inside the cigar box resonator so it can be played through an amplifier. The neck is a length of poplar wood from the hardware store.
Celebrated Oklahoma singer/songwriter Samantha Crain observed Reid playing a cigar box guitar at a club date. Later conversations led to her taking him on as a touring member of her band.
“My first gig playing with Samantha was at a sold-out Granada Theater in Dallas opening for Josh Ritter,” Reid said. “It was awesome and the first time I got to hear the cigar box through a really big sound system.”
Subsequently, he was one of the recording musicians on Crain’s latest release, “Kid Face” (Ramseur Records, 2013).
“John Calvin and I got to play on the release tour for that album,” he said.
There’s a prime listen to Reid’s cigar box guitar prowess on his 2012 EP “Sawdust in My Bed” (2012). Track 3 “Hymn” sounds like an Americana Sunday morning at a little chapel in some Appalachian glade. Reid will release a new disc soon titled “Alright, Here We Go …” with his band The Low Swinging Chariots.
The players include guitarist John Calvin, Kevin Stringfellow on trumpet, David Leach on trombone, bassist Johnny Carlton and Steve Boaz on drums. The album was recorded at Boaz’s Breathing Rhythm Studio in Norman.
“We played all the vocals and solos live in the room together,” Reid said. “Steve did some creative stuff with the mixing, and it was all recorded straight to analog tape.”
The result will be pressed both to vinyl and CD. Expect a release party in September.
Reid and his band will perform a full concert June 27 along with the Tequila Songbirds at the Blue Door in Oklahoma City. Reid also plays a regular brunch gig from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sundays at Scratch, 132 W. Main St.
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