Words: Christopher Hollow - Photo: Vince Caligiuri/Fairfax Media
Jon Free loves making an unholy noise. As a musician with bands such as Penthouse and the Gin Palace, Free had "an aversion to melody". As a guitar maker, he crafts cigar-box instruments whose sounds are wild, idiosyncratic and untamed. So it's amusing that Free's front-door greeting is "Ssshhh". His two young children, Sterling and Phaedra, are taking their afternoon nap. With the workshop directly under the house, it's tools down, and any talk is in hushed tones.
London's most eminent maker of cigar-box "sonic fascinators" has recently uprooted the family from their Georgian house in Stoke Newington, once home of Robinson Crusoe writer Daniel Defoe, to settle in the Blue Dandenong Ranges in Melbourne's outer east. "We're basically starting again," he says. "My wife, Meaghan, grew up around here. It's hard but it's exciting, too. New surrounds mean new ideas." The walls of the home are already lined with an assortment of his unique four-string creations. Sound aside, they make exceptional wall art. "People have often said I'd make more money if I just sold them as a sculpture."
In the past few years, cigar-box guitars have experienced a revival. Johnny Depp is the poster boy for the renaissance – making sure they're featured in his photo shoots and TV appearances. When Paul McCartney fronted a reunited Nirvana at Madison Square Garden in 2012, he did it armed with a cigar box. Pat Rafter has played one – made by Free – in a Bonds ad.
So, what exactly is a cigar-box guitar? It's pretty much exactly what it says – a crude approximation of a guitar often made with a cigar box as a resonating body, usually with four strings. It was invented during the American Civil War era and popular during the Great Depression with performers such as Charlie Christian, Blind Willie Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy and Lightnin' Hopkins. Later players such as Carl Perkins, Jimi Hendrix and George Benson started out on cigar-box instruments. They fell out of favour as guitars became cheaper and more accessible but have undergone a recent resurgence that has been dubbed the "cigar-box guitar revolution". Free's guitars differ in that the sound chamber is usually a vintage biscuit or lolly tin. "The idea was to find a cigar box but I couldn't find any," he says. "Everyone in England drinks tea and eats biscuits, which come in tins. Hence Tin-Tone. I suppose it was fate."
It's a hallmark of the Tin-Tone range that no two are the same. More than 100 instruments have been fashioned from found objects including table legs, banisters, old school lunchboxes and distinctly English items such as Brexton picnic hampers and time-worn Turnwright's toffee tins, which were sent in their thousands to Allied troops along the Western front during World War I.
The inspiration for making cigar-box guitars came from Free's other vocation – mending expensive instruments for London's better-off denizens. "It didn't strike me that these people were having much fun with these really expensive guitars," Free says. "I wanted to get back to it being fun; reduce the experience of playing to its first principles."
What began as a make-do gift for a friend has fast become a flourishing trade, with Free's creations firing the imagination of musicians including New York performance artist Lydia Lunch, UK uber-producer Mark Ronson, the Blues Explosion's Jon Spencer and ex-Birthday Party/Bad Seed Mick Harvey. "Jon's guitars are objects of incredible beauty," says Lydia Lunch, who chose a guitar made from an oriental-themed Blue Bird toffee tin. "Each unique, all very special. I can assure you it is a thing of sheer demented joy. I often cradle the little lovely and twang away like the ghost of a psychotic hillbilly inventing a form of blues I'm not sure I'm ready to spring upon the public yet." Harvey is delighted to hear of Free's relocation to Australia. "I thought of Jon recently but I didn't know where to find him," he says. "I found a fantastic tin in an op-shop in Dromana last summer. "It's great fun playing the Tin-Tone and I love the way the pick-ups are designed for a sonic explosion if you wind them all the way up. [It's like], destroy!"
After 25 years of tinkering over instruments, crafting guitars, pulling them apart, adding his own innovations and ingenuity, there's not much Free doesn't know about making a great-sounding axe. "I've seen many wrongly made, unsalvageable instruments over the years," he says. "For such a conceptually simple instrument, there is mind-bogglingly complex physics going on, and the use of the wrong materials or measurements, clearances, can be catastrophic."
In a nod to his new environment, the guitar Free is currently working on is being built around an old Anzac biscuit tin.
Meanwhile, both children are now up and the house is bleeding with sound. They've discovered a Yamaha electronic keyboard in one of the shipping containers and turned it up full blast – a cacophonous racket punctuated with squeals of delight. "Ah, they're expressing themselves," Free says, laughing. "I don't mind them banging away on the keyboard. I make a lot of noise, they make a lot of noise. I'm comfortable with that."