When Arthur England made a particularly exquisite box guitar for Warren Haynes, complete with a dog dish steel resonator and ornate sound holes, he didn't expect to see it again. But not only did the long-time Allman Brothers Band guitarist and Gov't Mule leader send England photos of him playing the instrument, he also signed it and mailed it back to England's Summerville workshop.
"He said, 'Send me a cigar-box guitar. This one's too pretty,'" says England, the man behind Buddah's Box Guitars. "So he signed it, sent it back to me, and I sent him back a regular three-string cigar-box guitar."
Haynes' six-string, signed guitar lives in a display case now and gets plenty of oohs and aahs at England's stall inside the Ladson Flea Market. It's in good company there along with his other works of art — mainly two or three-string, stunningly crafted cigar-box guitars. But there's also a four-string, wooden stop-sign banjo, cigar-box amps, and even a six-string Milk-Bone-box guitar.
"I can make it out of anything that's made out of a box," England says, as he points to a four-string bass made from a wine box. And he's not joking. If you've got a cheese box, he can give you a guitar. Converse All-Stars box? Not a problem. And one of his best-selling instruments is a six-string Krispy Kreme-box guitar.
England's interest in off-beat instrument design is a relatively recent development. He's been a florist for the past 30 years, a skill he still puts to work at his home floral shop whenever he's not piecing together guitars in his workshop or selling them at the flea market. He's also currently the floral merchandiser for Costco in West Ashley.
Though England has wanted to play an instrument his whole life, it wasn't until he had a motorcycle accident in 2001 that he figured he'd give it a shot. "I was in pretty sad shape in a body cast and a wheelchair, so I couldn't really do a whole lot of things that I always did before," England says. "I decided, as sort of a therapy, I needed to learn how to play an instrument. I needed to move my fingers, so I started trying to learn how to play guitar."
But the guitar lessons didn't go too well — not at first anyway. "I couldn't get it," England admits. "Some people have it, some people don't. I didn't think I did, so then I said, 'Maybe if I understand how the instrument works, then I'll know how to make it work for me.' So I started studying everything I could get my hands on about guitars — how they work, what each piece does, that kind of stuff. And that's when I stumbled into cigar-box guitars."
England dug deeper and became fascinated with the history behind cigar-box guitars. "Old blues guys from the '30s and '40s, that's what they played, you know," England explains. "They were always drunk, so they had no money, so they couldn't go to the music store and buy strings and guitars and stuff like that. They'd just take a box and a stick and put a string on it, and they'd play it."
Once England had a grasp of the guitar, inside and out, the business began. He's built over 500 guitars in the past five years, 350 of which were three-and-four-string guitars. But for England, it's not a numbers game. No matter how a guitar is constructed — be it with dog treats (England commonly uses actual here-you-go-doggy bones to construct nuts and bridges), dog bowls (used occasionally inside a guitar), or candy dishes (the vintage silver kind are apparently great resonators) — the way it sounds is ultimately the most important thing.
One of England's favorite works is a pretty three-string, cedar cigar-box guitar that uses a vintage skeleton key as the bridge. "I call it the key to the music," England says. "You pluck the string, the string vibrates, it vibrates the key, the key vibrates the top: we have sound. So it's the key to the music. If that wasn't there, it wouldn't work."
The construction of an instrument is also dependent on the wood it's made of, and England cuts no corners when it comes to finding the best possible materials. He uses rarities like ebony and buckeye burl, and he recently salvaged a 100-year-old alder door. Milled in the 1800s, the door was torn apart in England's workshop and put to good use improving the tone in many of his guitars.
England also builds ukuleles, violins, mandolins, cellos, and fiddles. And he loves to take apart old guitars and reset them. "That's how you learn the different parts of the luthiery that you have to learn," he says. Now, England can not only look at a new instrument and tell if it's worth a damn, he can also work his magic and make it sing. "You can go to Walmart and get a guitar for like $119, brand new in the box, right? But it doesn't play right because it's not professionally set up," he says. "Now I could take that same Walmart guitar and set it up the way it's supposed to be set up, and it'll play just like a Fender or anybody else's guitar."
England sure knows his stuff, and that's why musicians like Haynes come to England for something extraordinary. Darius Rucker got his USC box guitar from him. Two years ago, England built a guitar for Big Head Todd and the Monsters. And former American Idol contestant Chris Daughtry owns England's second-most-popular build: a guitar crafted from a wooden toilet seat. It's called a "crap-o-caster" or, our personal favorite, a "shitar."
England's craft has taught him a lot about the world of music, mainly that it can all be so endearingly lawless. At Buddah's Box Guitars, guitar picks are punched from milk jugs and glass slides were once wine bottle necks.
"There actually are rules," England says, "but the rules say, it has to play. It has to sound like a guitar. It has to sound like an instrument, you know? It just has to feel right."
You can find Buddah's Box Guitars on Facebook or in Building C every weekend at the Ladson Flea Market (165 Market Road).