He was plotting a new instrument during an Aug. 15 phone interview from his home base in Chicago. He bought an old bed warmer for $1 at a junk shop and planned to transform it into a diddley bow - a single-string instrument of African origin.
He figured he'd fit the short-scale strummer into his suitcase to transport it to Saturday's Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival in York.
Kaiser, 60, will headline the fourth annual event. Players from five states as well as local talent round out the lineup.
As a member of Resurrection "Rez" Band, Kaiser pioneered Christian metal through the'70s and '80s.
He grew up on the Elvis records his older siblings spun. He learned that The King's sound was inspired by black music traditions that can be traced back to the days of slavery.
"If you begin to study the stuff, you get history lessons about discrimination and poverty and struggle," Kaiser said.
Some of those themes resonate with people of all races, he added.
Kaiser, born into a white family near Milwaukee, lived the poverty blues. They were on welfare. They shopped at thrift stores. His father worked odd jobs.
Kaiser connected to delta blues and found a desire to preserve the music as it was originally played - on instruments made of nails, wood, wire and sometimes, cigar boxes.
After making about
32 rock albums, he suddenly started to feel like six guitar strings were too many. He built a four-string instrument out of a cookie tin.
"It was for a personal challenge to go deeper into blues roots," he said.
While doing research online, Kaiser found cigar
boxnation.com, a web
community started by York County cigar box guitar guru Shane Speal.
"I think I lurked there for almost two years before I wrote anything," Kaiser said with a laugh. But then he dove in, interacting with other users and checking out their stringed creations.
Now, he speaks the language fluently. He talked about canjos - guitars made out of soda cans - and Dobros - or resophonic guitars - crafted out of old license plates.
"There are no rules," Kaiser said of instrument construction. "There is no end to it - it's a kind of disease, but it's really fun."
Pieces can be made with items lying around the house or in Dumpsters. That makes the music accessible, and Kaiser said he feels more connected to the instruments he builds by hand. They give him a greater appreciation and awareness of the craft.
"I think it's an object lesson," he said. "You have to rethink where the notes (are). What are you going to do with that and your voice to cover or write powerful and emotive music?"
Kaiser added that stripping everything down to the fundamentals has made him a better writer, player and teacher. He shares his know-how during cigar box guitar festivals and workshops that have sprung up around the globe in recent years.
It takes about a minute for Kaiser to show parents and kids the basics of building and playing. He shows people the slide guitar method, which is often used in blues tunes. Since it doesn't require plucking, it's easier on the fingers. He also throws in a history lessons when he can.
"People don't think they can make anything," Kaiser said. "(Cigar box guitars) open up a whole world. You can read it in their faces."
- ERIN McCRACKEN,
Festival recognized in U.S. House of Representatives
The Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival received national recognition July 31 when Rep. Scott Perry (R-York County) spoke from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Here's an excerpt from Perry's speech, which was recorded in The Congressional Record:
"Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize the York Emporium as it hosts it fourth annual Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival in York, Pennsylvania.
The cigar box guitar is a traditional American instrument, with roots running through the Civil War, the Great Depression and the Panic of 1893. It harkens back to a time when folks would make do with musical instruments they had constructed with their own hands, using found objects.
The annual Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival, now in its fourth year, celebrates this homegrown musical style and the ingenuity of its musicians with the largest music festival of its kind. Mr. Speaker, I ask that you join our colleagues in recognizing the uniquely American attributes that this festival celebrates."
Music and biergarten
The Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival will run
10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at The York Emporium, 343 W. Market, St., York.Fourteen acts will play on two stages during the free event. And this year, there will be more events leading up to the festival.
Today: Cigar box guitarist Justin Johnson will perform 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Cherry Lane, behind Central Market in York. At 8 p.m., Glenn Kaiser will perform with Shane Speal at the York Emporium. The concert will be broadcast live on WRCT-TV (Channel 18) and online at www.wrct.tv.
Friday: The festival will host a meet-and-greet 8 p.m. Friday. York Blue Moon restaurant will host a biergarten in the enclosed yard next to the Emporium parking lot. Three brews will be served and proper ID will be required to enter. Cover is
$20 at the door.
For details, visit facebook.com/YorkEmporium. Here is Saturday's lineup:
10:30 a.m.: Pennsylvania Alleycats
11:30 a.m.: Olds Sleeper
12:30 p.m.: David Sutton
1:30 p.m.: Onestring Willie
2:30 p.m.: Killing Aunt Grace
3:30 p.m.: The JC Fisher Band
10 a.m.: Frontier Dentists
11 a.m.: Bluesman D.
Noon: Johnny Stompbox and the Stompers
1 p.m.: 7 Hills Stomp
2 p.m.: The Muckland Crooners
3 p.m.: Shane Speal
4 p.m.: Justin Johnson: The Wizard
5 p.m.: Glenn Kaiser