How we used cigar boxes to build up a business

Contributor - Mick Dickinson

Picture of an electric guitar leaning against an amp

Bristol-based duo Tom Drummond and Pat Hammett are bringing an age-old musical tradition up to date with beautiful, handmade cigar box guitars made in their Easton workshop

The history of the cigar box guitar stretches back to the Deep South of 1840s America. The guitars were a product of hardship and poverty. When money was tight, people would make instruments out of what was to hand – an old cigar box, broom handle and a couple of wires became the building blocks of a new musical movement. A cigar box guitar has provided the backing for many a blues lament.

Now Bristol-based craftsmen Tom Drummond and Pat Hammett have brought the tradition up to date with beautiful, handmade cigar box guitars.

Story of the blues

"We're following a great tradition and we feel part of something important," says Drummond. "Although cigar box guitars have been around for more than 150 years, the instruments are not that well known in the UK. When people see and hear them, they immediately connect with a rich musical history. After all, cigar box guitars are the foundation of blues.

"We're taking a fresh look at a great heritage and bringing our own interpretation to it. If you assemble a guitar, and maybe customise it, you are immediately hooked into that history, and it becomes more personal to you."

Drummond and Hammett started the business with a simple premise - to make a living out of something they enjoyed. "I've been self-employed for a while, mainly doing carpentry work and making pieces of furniture," adds Drummond. "Pat recently graduated from an arts degree and is a musician with excellent carpentry skills. Our personalities are complementary."

When they first started, neither Drummond nor Hammett had a classic business background, so they sought to gain some knowledge. Hammett explains: "I did a four-day intensive course with The Prince's Trust. Each day you focus on one subject, such as bookkeeping, finance or marketing. I was also assigned a business mentor, who's still guiding me."

Maximising appeal

The challenge for most businesses, even those operating in a niche, is to offer products of a quality and price that appeals to as many potential buyers as possible, as Drummond and Hammett realise. "As well as our bespoke models, we sell parts for the self-assembler, which enables us to appeal to beginners and enthusiasts," Hammett explains. "We're trying to make our processes more efficient, so perhaps we can make our guitars even more affordable, but we're not prepared to compromise on quality.

"We get lots of positive feedback from adults and children - and the guitars play beautifully. Customers send in photos showing some amazing customisations.

"Our premium models are priced up to £300, which makes them a more-considered purchase. Most of our sales now are to customers who live in central Europe, although we still sell to people living in the UK, too.

"We know our costs and we looked carefully at the market to see what others charge. Even though we're confident about the quality of our guitars, currently we charge slightly less than our closest competitors, because we're trying to build up our market presence. Our strategy for the first couple of years has been to build our brand and reputation. We believe the profits will come later."

Brizzle kicks

Drummond describes Bristol as a great place to start a business. "There's a lot of creativity here and a 'get-up-and-go' attitude, but you must be prepared to work hard if you want to succeed. Running a business means there's always a lot to do and many decisions to make. You have to juggle many things."

Would they do anything differently, if they could start again? Hammett replies: "Our website was shabby for a while, but we didn't have the money to hire a web-designer. Maybe we should have booked more events early on… Some of the tools we bought were a big mistake, but making mistakes and picking yourself up to go again is all part of the journey. The confidence we now feel is a result of the mistakes we've made previously."

Written by Mick Dickinson, founder of online marketing and PR agency BuzzedUp.

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Mick Dickinson

Mick offers online marketing, content planning and production with social media for UK businesses.

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