Shane Speal, also known as the ’King of the Cigar Box Guitar,’ is recording at a Dallastown recording studio and his ’hard blues’
Shane Speal, also known as the 'King of the Cigar Box Guitar,' is recording at a Dallastown recording studio and his 'hard blues' style album is due in May. (Bil Bowden photos)

A York County band that plays mainly homemade instruments and has never held a formal practice recently inked a record deal with a newly formed New Hampshire-based label.

The guitarist plays a cigar box, another band member plays a washboard, the bassist plays a washtub, and rounding out the quartet is a guy who plays the band's only conventional instrument — a harmonica.

But somehow it works, said Shane Speal, guitarist and lead vocalist of the aptly named Shane Speal's Snake Oil Band.

The band started recording its album this week at Equinox Music and Arts in Dallastown with plans to release in May through C.B. Gitty Records, an arm of the homemade instrument parts supplier C.B. Gitty Crafter Supply.

Shane Speal’s cigar box guitar is literally made out of a box with guitar strings stretched along a stick to serve as the guitar’s neck. Learn
Shane Speal's cigar box guitar is literally made out of a box with guitar strings stretched along a stick to serve as the guitar's neck. Learn more about the music at Speal's website, shanespeal.com.

"I never thought in my life I'd be doing this," Speal said.

Open mic: The band came together almost by accident in a dark and smoky York City bar known for its live music.

Speal hosts weekly open mic nights at the First Capital Dispensing Co., 57 N. Pershing Ave., and, one by one, the band members would join in, playing tunes with him.

"These are guys who would show up at the open mics and just hang out," Speal said.

And they could easily have been confused for a bunch of guys looking to clean clothes, not play music. "Farmer" Jon Sprenkle hauled in his electric washtub bass, Ronn Benway came with a washboard and Aaron Lewis brought his harmonica.

The weekly sessions also allow the band to hone their skills and test out new compositions.

Normally the small bar is filled with chatter, even as bands play on. If bar-goers became silent and listen to the music, Speal said, he knows he's onto something.

"If you can make them shut up, it's a winner," he said.

Humble beginnings: Speal said he made his first cigar box guitar more than 20 years ago because it was quickly becoming a "forgotten art" and he didn't want to see that happen.

That led to something he didn't see coming. He taught others to build the guitars, and it spawned a career in music.

A few years back, Speal was laid off from an office gig in marketing and became a stay-at-home dad, allowing him to focus more time on his music when not tending to his two children.

From there, his life in music took off and so did the cigar box guitar craze it seems.

Back to roots: Cigar box guitars are moving out of the background and have become mainstream of late. Paul McCartney played one with remaining members of Nirvana at a concert and on Saturday Night Live recently, Speal said.

"I think the core of what appeals to people is the realization that just about anyone can build themselves a musical instrument that sounds good and is fun to play," Ben Baker, owner of C.B. Gitty Crafter Supply, said via email. "Cigar box guitars take it all back to the most basic roots of what makes a stringed instrument — a stick, some strings, and a box."

Baker touts C.B. Gitty Records as the first major homemade instrument record label.

The album: Speal said songs on the album will feature field hollers, a sometimes wordless rhythm closely related to southern work songs.

The working title of the album — "Jugs not Dead" — is both a tribute to style of the band's music and a homage to an album of a similar name by Scottish punk band The Exploited.

Baker said he sees the album as a way to not only build the label, but also to reach more fans and turn people on to cigar box guitar and other homemade instrument music.

"I think that by showcasing the best and the brightest acts out there who are building and performing on these instruments, it can only help get this whole crazy idea in front of more and more people," he said. "The first time someone who knows nothing about cigar box guitars sees one of Shane's shows, they go from 'Is that a toy?' to 'Holy crap, I can't believe he can make that sort of music on one of those' and often to 'How do I build one of my own?'"

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.