Q&A with traveling Bluesman from Australia, Nigel McTrustry - traditional Blues and roots into new territory

"The Blues as we know it came out of the cotton fields of the Deep South of the US. It was born out of a clash of cultures and gave the poor a voice. Suddenly, people who had previously been unheard now had a voice and were singing about everyday things, instead of only about God."

Nigel McTrustry: Blues In The Box

Brisbane-based musician Nigel McTrustry is a traveling Bluesman from Australia and his main weapon of choice is his 3-string slide cigar box guitar. Performing with his band, solo, or duo, the Primal, hypnotic, trance, rhythm and grooves takes Rock ‘n’ Roll and Traditional Blues and roots into new territory. This is original music with the emphasis on "Origin". Stripped back and raw! Hand crafting each of his guitars, Nigel is at the forefront of the cigar box guitar revolution. Nigel McTrustry, originally tracked down the cigar boxes from tobacconists in Australia but as the demand grew, he turned to suppliers in the US and Finland which he assures are "genuine" cigar boxes and not ones that have been reproduced for those making the musical instrument.

Nigel, says: “At McTrustry Cigar Box Guitars, we have been inspired to handcraft individual cigar box guitars, ukeleles and diddley bows from the old Blues musicians of the Deep South who had to make their own instruments to bring their music to their communities and the world. Based in Australia, we source our cigar boxes globally and use a variety of quality pickups and wood. Every one of our cigar box guitars is not only a musical instrument with a unique sound but also a work of art.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The first records I ever bought or received as birthday gifts were by the Beatles. For my 9th birthday in 1974, my parents gave me Dark Horse by George Harrison and its Indian influences and lyrics made a great impression on me. I didn’t really think about it much, but years later I travelled to India as a backpacker several times, experiencing the culture and getting into meditation etc. Back when the Beatles were travelling to India, it was just hippies but they opened the doorway and the backpacker scene soon followed.

Whenever I travel to a new place, it’s always the music that leads me. For example, when I visited Paris in 1987, one of my first stops was Jim Morrison’s grave.  In New York City, it was a trip to CBGBs, exploring the Village and up to Harlem to check out the Apollo. When I travel, music is always part of the journey.

What were the reasons that you started the cigar-box guitar researches? What touched (emotionally) you from slide guitar?

I joined the slide guitar and cigar box guitar ‘train’ after I saw a video of Shane Speal playing a 3-string fretless CBG on YouTube. I immediately loved the raw sound of the instrument, and I decided I had to build one. I then found the Cigar box Nation website that Shane had started in the USA, which really kicked off the worldwide revival of this amazing, almost forgotten, but very important instrument.

I have always loved slide guitar, with George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord probably the first song that made me go, ‘Wow, that guitar sounds great; it’s so different!’ As a kid, I didn’t even realise it was slide, but I could feel the emotion of it. I was fortunate to have some great live venues where I grew up in Wollongong, a city south of Sydney in Australia. By the time I was 18, I’d seen some fantastic slide players and bands, including Kevin Borich, Rose Tattoo, Charlie Owen, Dutch Tilders, Canned Heat, and Johnny Winter! So I had dabbled with slide over the years, but it was discovering fretless cigar box guitars that made me focus on it.

"I hope the pioneers of Blues music continue to be recognized and remembered for the foundation they laid for us and the stories they told." (Photo: Nigel McTrustry)

What was the hardest part of making a cigar-box guitar? What are the secrets of cigar-box's sound (acoustic & electric)?

Sometimes the hardest thing can be finding a nice cigar box at a good price! To build a good cigar box guitar that has a great sound, you have to get the action right, which is the height of the strings.  In terms of electrifying the sound of a CBG, you can use a piezo from a door buzzer, a humbucker or a hand-wound pickup. You can also just build an acoustic, but if you want to jam with other people you really need an amp to be heard. All mine are electric, but I often play them unplugged when I am sitting at home.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Are there any memories from gigs, jams which you’d like to share?

I’d definitely describe my sound as Blues/Rock. Lately, I think I could even go as far as calling it Mississippi Hill Country meets AC/DC. How I play depends on if I’m playing solo, in a duo, or with band. Besides playing my original songs, I like to mix up the covers and always include a couple of blues classics. I love playing the blues classics because it gives me an opportunity to honor those songs as a blues performer.

The jam sessions at Bluesfest, a great 5-day music festival in Byron Bay, Australia, where I had a stall selling my guitars four years running were legendary—and open to anyone who wanted to join!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I hope the pioneers of Blues music continue to be recognized and remembered for the foundation they laid for us and the stories they told.

"I joined the slide guitar and cigar box guitar ‘train’ after I saw a video of Shane Speal playing a 3-string fretless CBG on YouTube. I immediately loved the raw sound of the instrument, and I decided I had to build one. I then found the Cigar box Nation website that Shane had started in the USA, which really kicked off the worldwide revival of this amazing, almost forgotten, but very important instrument."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Artists earning money from their sales. I loved it when vinyl was the latest technology.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Australia. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Chain and Dutch Tilders are a good place to start when looking at Australian Blues. They were the first ones to put an Australian spin on the Blues. For example, Chain’s Black & Blue album epitomizes this particular sound. I’d say currently there is a strong Blues & Roots scene in Australia with a large number of music festivals with a strong focus on blues music and encouraging local talent. Checkout Hat Fitz & Cara Robinson, The Backsliders, Mojo Webb (Brisbane), Blue Shaddy (Western Australia) to name a few

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

The Blues as we know it came out of the cotton fields of the Deep South of the US. It was born out of a clash of cultures and gave the poor a voice. Suddenly, people who had previously been unheard now had a voice and were singing about everyday things, instead of only about God.

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