Johnny Lowe of Memphis, Tennessee, makes guitars out of cigar boxes, furniture, and other recycled objects. These humble-looking instruments, known as Lowebows, have taken the stage with Kid Rock, Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars, and Timbuk 3’s Pat MacDonald, who named his latest band, Purgatory Hill, after a Lowe cigar box guitar called the Purgatory Hill Harp.
“Slide guitar evolved from the diddley bow.”
The Flying-V-style guitar (above, right) is Lowe’s King Louie model, made as a tribute to Louie Bankston, a legendary one-man band from Louisiana. He also made a model for the musician to use. The three natural-finish-body instruments in the middle are some of Lowe’s newest models. “I’ve made a lot of guitars where I end up using the extra cutoff piece to create a new design,” he says “I might be building one thing but I’m actually building something else at the same time. Double tasking. I don’t like to waste materials so if I have an extra piece of wood, I’m going to figure out a design from it.”
One of Lowe’s first customers was Memphis musician Richard Johnston. “I’d been making some three-string Lowebows with one pickup,” recalls Lowe, “then Richard wanted to add a bass string to his. He ended up winning a blues contest with that bass-guitar combo.” Johnston’s Lowebow (above) was recently retrofitted with an arm rest repurposed from a chair.
Lowe used to get his cigar boxes from cigar shops, but since 2008, he says, the quality of the boxes has declined, so these days the best boxes are in thrift stores. Lowe also makes guitar bodies out of salvaged pieces of mahogany and masonite. “I found a nice piece of vintage masonite today,” says Lowe. “It looks like it’s fine rosewood but it’s really pressboard from the 1950s that was been painted to look like wood. Masonite has a really good sound. It was something they used in the ’50s just to cut corners, but it has its own sonic vibe.”
This model has has a cigar-box body, two oak dowels for the neck, three pickups, and four strings. The combination of one bass string, three regular guitar strings, and a foot-powered drum kit turns a musician like Lowe into a three-piece band. “A lot of two-person and one-man bands like my instruments because they can play two parts,” Lowe says. “It makes the bands more efficient.” Note the bottle caps at the bottom of the guitar’s neck.
Lowe’s one-string Cat Head Lowebow has resonators on the body made from the bottoms of energy-drink cans (see detail, above right). “One-string ‘diddley bows’ were originally made as toys,” Lowe says, “a way to keep the children occupied while the adults were working on the farm. It was the Nintendo of the 1910s, I guess. All the blues greats started out that way. The father of jazz guitar, Charlie Christian, was the first person to play single-note leads on a guitar. Before Christian, the guitar was considered a rhythm instrument. People would ask him how he figured out how to play single-note strings on the guitar and he said that when he learned, that’s all he did. Slide guitar also evolved from the diddley bow.”
Lowe makes all the pickups for his guitars himself, although he won’t reveal the recipe. “I don’t like to talk too much about the details of the pickups,” says Lowe. “They’re all hand wound. Danelectro made their pickups out of thousands of Art Deco lipstick covers. As a builder, it’s hard to set up your own manufacturing facility. It’s a lot easier to just use found objects.”
Lowe’s day-to-day Lowebow is the Johnny Lowebow Personal, which features a masonite body and a titanium underslide on the oak-dowel neck. It usually takes Lowe anywhere from two hours to three days to make a Lowebow. “The longest one took me 28 years,” he admits. “I started it in about 1982 and finished it a couple years ago. I made it out of one plank of red oak. I didn’t realize when I made it that guitar necks were supposed to tilt back a little bit, so I couldn’t figure out how to make it into a guitar until somebody gave me a pool cue to use. The pool cue had enough of a tilt to it for me to string it up as a guitar.”
Musician and guitar-maker Johnny Lowe, his wife, Beverly, and their cat, Dash, in his workshop behind Xanadu Music & Books, 2200 Central Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee.
(You can reach Lowe at 888-838-9885, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via his Facebook page)