With nothing more than empty boxes, sticks and a bunch of wires, Civil War soldiers figured out how to make music.

The instruments later became popular among Americans too poor to afford professional instruments. Now, locals say York is at the center of the cigar box guitar's revival.

As the Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival enters its fifth year, York City is looking to make the day packed with entertainment and vendors larger than any similar celebration in the country. That means overtaking a similar festival held in Hunstville, Ala., which features more performers and has existed longer.

(Photos by Randy Flaum)

On Aug. 23, the Cigar Box Guitar Festival will return with 14 free performances by professional bands and exceptional amateurs from around the region, including a 14-year-old who was discovered while playing a cigar box guitar in the parking lot at last year's festival.

Mayor Kim Bracey formally announced the festival on Thursday. This year's celebration will feature similar vendors and seminars as last year, but organizers say this year's festival will bring larger crowds and a new DIY (do-it-yourself) focus.

Joining Forces: They anticipate between 3,000 and 4,000 people will attend the festival, counting on additional promotion by York City to bolster crowds.

York City first got involved with the Cigar Box Guitar Festival last year, when officials realized the event's potential to raise the profile and scale of its annual Yorkfest Arts Festival.

The two events will again fall on the same weekend. Yorkfest will be celebrating its 16th year.

Carla Christopher, the city's arts and cultural community liaison, said she was particularly intrigued by the guitar's distinctly American history, and the way it brings struggling people together.

(Randy Flaum photo)

"For a lot of other festivals or concerts, you go and enjoy it, and then you walk away and all you have is the memory," Christopher said. "With cigar box guitars, and with this festival in particular, you have the opportunity to take it home with you, to have it be the start of something you can share with your family and friends."

"You can hear the struggle in the music, but also the celebration, the joy, the indomitable will of people without resources," she added. "And I think that appeal resonates now, because how many of us are trying to make a lot happen with not a lot."

Do-it-Yourself: Attendees at this year's event will not only get to listen to the music of the cigar box guitar, but also make the low-cost instruments themselves.

The performances will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., followed by a concert featuring Shane Speal, "King of the Cigar Box Guitar," and his Snake Oil Band. He promised the concert will include costumes, confetti cannons and rubber chickens launched into the audience.

Speal made his first cigar box guitar in 1993, and he now makes a living off the eclectic instrument. He says other cigar box guitar festivals might have more performers, but none draw such large crowds. And he hopes making the event more interactive will help the community continue to grow.

"We're not just going to perform and sell you a guitar," Speal said. "So for the 2015 annual Cigar Box Guitar Festival, we're going to have hundreds or thousands of people showing up with their own instruments that they've built. So more than just entertaining, we are going to bring people into this movement and show people how."

Bracey said she's looking forward to attending.

"This is on my calendar this year; I'm going to learn how to make a guitar, even," Bracey said. "I'm not going to dance onstage and I'm not going to play, but I'm going to learn how to make one."

Spreading the Music: The festival will center around The York Emporium on West Market Street, which hosts the festival each year. While most of the festival is outdoors, many of the workshops and demonstrations happen inside the shop.

Jim Lewin, co-owner of The York Emporium, says it's a long day and lots of logistics to manage, but he considers spreading the "home-grown feel" of cigar box guitar to broader audiences is an important undertaking. And he believes it's working.

"A lot of the big-name rock-and-rollers are showing up with cigar box guitars," Lewin said. "It's more than just a fad, it's a different kind of feel to it. It's more relaxed, you can get closer somehow to the music, and somehow the music gets into you a little more. And that's the whole idea behind this festival. We want to bring the music of the cigar box guitar to the masses."