There’s a lot of music that can be played with just three strings.
This is something Salmon Arm luthier Ken Paterson has learned since building his first three-string box guitar. Now, 76 box guitars later, Paterson has become adept both at playing the box guitar, and at building them for his business, Artist Bench Guitars.
Modeled after the “cigar-box guitar,” but instead constructed with solid, exotic woods, each of Paterson’s guitars are one-of-a-kind works of art, from their sometimes unconventional parts (such as the Guiness can that was used for the bridge on a guitar built for Aquaman/Justice League actor Jason Momoa), to their custom paint jobs.
Paterson had never played a box guitar before building one, but he had his fill with the six-string variety.
“It’s a kind of strange transition – I airbrushed for about 30 years, I’ve done motorcycles and airbrushed lots of things and I always liked playing the guitar,” said Paterson. “I started out with a six-string years and years ago, but I got totally frustrated with chords and music theory and all that stuff.”
About three years ago, Paterson came across a video on Youtube of Justin Johson playing a three-string shovel. When he heard that bluesy sound, Paterson started looking into three-string instruments and decided to make his own.
“The first one I built, it kind of failed because I didn’t make the neck properly,” said Paterson. “And then I started doing more research and started building them and just fell in love with how simple they are to play and the sound they created, especially when you electrify them… They’re super easy to play and you can play pretty well any song on a three string.”
Paterson stressed he doesn’t use cigar boxes for his guitars as they are difficult to find in Canada and the materials used in their construction do not inspire confidence.
“I started making them out of exotic woods like three-quarters-of-an-inch thick walnut,” said Paterson. “There’s some weight to these guitars.”
The necks used on Paterson’s box guitars are the standard 25.5-inch guitar length, and they tend to be tuned to an open G, though he said it’s endless what they can be tuned to.
Tess Corps, Paterson’s partner and six-to-three string convert, said there’s a community of fellow three-string players who share information and music online. One of them, Mark Piper, features one of Paterson’s guitars on his Youtube channel, Uncle Mark’s Cigar Box Guitar Lessons.
Paterson’s guitars are also played by Momoa, who was gifted two of them by stunt people working with him.
“He loves drinking Guinness so I used a Guinness can as part of the bridge, and his tattoo is actually on the surface of it,” said Paterson of one of the guitars.
Speaking of good exposure, Paterson and Corps were also thrilled with the vibes at their Artist Bench Guitars tent at the 2019 Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival.
“The Roots and Blues Festival was just amazing because, that was basically our first kick at the cat to get our name out there,” said Paterson. “There was a lot of guitar players coming around… They’d pick one up and I guarantee you, within five minutes they’ve got it figured out. They were doing chord changes and just having a blast.”
In addition to box guitars, Paterson has built a number of three-string shovel guitars and even a couple of four-string box guitars. He’s also creating a series of Flying-3 guitars (modeled after the iconic Gibson Flying V), including a V designed in tribute to Eddie Van Halen.
“There are no rules with these things; I’ve got free rein,” said Paterson.
Artist Bench Guitars are currently available through the company’s Facebook page, on reverb.com, and they have a display at Solid Urban Studios in Ranchero.