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Duke of Ukes

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Artist
Jan 6th, 2021

At 11 years old, Carlton James Madden was inspired to try his hand as a luthier, and after some trial and error, his whimsical cigar box instruments have found a home with musicians from coast to coast and across the pond.

article by Vanelis Rivera | photography by Kelly Moore Clark

Around 11 years ago, Carlton James Madden read something that inspired him to pursue an offbeat enterprise. “Who knows if this article is even true or not,” he admits, “but there was this article that claimed that Bo Diddley’s first instrument was a cigar box that he attached a broomstick to. And he pulled some strands of wire out of a wire screen door and strung it up. And that was his first guitar.” Diddley, American singer, guitarist, songwriter, and music producer, played a primary role in the transition from blues to rock and roll. Though he got in trouble with his grandmother for destroying the screen door, he was following the humble lineage of the music instrument, one predicated by necessity rather than showiness. Madden was compelled to try his hand as a luthier, and after some trial and error, his whimsical cigar box instruments have found a home with musicians from coast to coast and across the pond.

Madden’s dexterity with building and tinkering stems from his parents. His father was a mechanic, and his mother was a woodworker and painter. “Now, I didn’t do a lot of either one of those things when I was home because I was a very rebellious kid and thought that everything that my parents did was stupid,” he says slyly. It wasn’t until adulthood that he gained respect for his parents’ handiwork. He’s come to rely on his father’s skills, sharing, “And now I have my car [a 1964 Mercury Comet] and I’m constantly fidgeting with the car out there. I have to call him every once in a while. It’s really made our relationship stronger.” Madden’s mother passed away in 1999, but he remembers that she was always enthusiastically supportive of all his “weird” projects. “So, I feel like she’d have dug this,” he says, referring to his masterful ukuleles. 

The first completed cigar box instrument was a guitar, and it had nails for frets. “I had some junk parts laying around that we just cobbled together into a three string cigar box guitar,” he explains. It worked well enough that he ended up giving it to his cousin as a wedding gift.  His nephew “still drags it around the house playing it all the time.” Madden kept the second guitar he built, a pleasant reminder of how far his box and strings have come. The switch from guitar to ukulele was a practical one. “The trouble with cigar box guitars has always been the strength of the box and the tension of the strings,” he says. So he experimented with shorter scale length to reduce the amount of tension. He quickly noticed his modified guitar was really close to ukulele standard size, so he successfully shifted, refining the process with each build, and that’s all that he builds now.

There was a time, however, that Madden tested his skillset by creating stand-up suitcase basses by using humongous 50s-style Samsonite suitcases. He had a showing during a Downtown Gallery Crawl, and when a local musician spotted it, Madden had his first commission piece. His wife, Amy, a skilled graphic designer, ended up painting an original design on the neck of the guitar. “Those were great and I love them. They look fabulous on stage, but they’re not very portable,” he admits. Also a bass player, Amy had been nudging her husband to build her a bass, so he looked into a popular travel guitar developed in 1985 called the Ashbory bass, an 18-inch scale fretless electric bass. Madden remembered that they came with thick silicone strings, which he managed to find though the guitar had been discontinued. “I built a baritone ukulele scale, but I strung it with those big, fat silicone strings, and it remarkably sounded pretty good. It has a really woody stand-up bass kind of sound,” he beams. It wasn’t until after he built a few of those that he discovered a major ukulele company had started making bass ukuleles. “I just think the coincidence is funny,” he says. That production became favorable for Madden, as he was able to buy bass strings for a more reasonable price, and they were more practical to find rather than tracking down the Ashbory strings. Currently, all of his cigar box bass ukes are sold out—the last one travelling all the way to England. 

“I do have one other bass that’s still here,” he says, but it was built from a homemade box instead of a cigar box, as it was his prototype. “That’s the one that Amy’s been playing lately,” he says, referring to a delightful cover of Sam the Sham’s “Lil’ Red Ridin’ Hood” posted on his company’s Youtube page. Madden smiles as he states, “She gets mad because every time I build a really nice one, she says, Well, this one’s gonna be mine.” Unfortunately, every time he completes a piece, someone always makes an offer he can’t refuse. If you are a musician, it is hard to resist the customizable options that Madden is capable of integrating. One of his custom ukes was requested by a woman living in New Zealand. “It was a box that I had already built, but she had some specific requests about the electronics inside,” he says. Madden is happy to modify his pieces, whether it’s turning an acoustic into an acoustic/electric or changing friction tuners to geared tuners. 

Madden makes the building process sound easy, listing modifications that only experienced musicians would be privy to, but he acknowledges the complexities of his work. “I have no idea how long it takes to build one because you can’t just build one all in one sitting,” he says, explaining, “Glue has to dry, and then poly has to dry.” When he is in production-mode, he multitasks between the bits and pieces that are meant to come together in the end. He always begins with the body of the string instrument, using mostly Brickhouse cigar boxes, which are durable, compact, and have hinges already placed. His Brickhouse selections come in either red or black. Using a template, Madden marks where he will cut out sound holes. His configuration is unique to his ukes, four 1 inch holes on the top of the box. From there, he measures where the bridge goes, where the fretboard will overlap the box, and then he starts drilling. The next step is prepping the neck. He buys necks that are rough cut so he can then shape them using a personally developed style. “It’s a complicated thing,” he laughs. By the time that the neck, bridge, and fretboard are aligned and attached, “it’s technically a ukulele.” Before the strings are added, he adds poly in order to protect the decorative paper fringes that line the corners of the box. Madden never seals the boxes, enjoying the quaintness of the ability to open one’s instrument. He states, “I think that’s one of the defining characteristics of a cigar box is that it still remains a box, and then you can open it and put stuff in there.” Though, that does require they do some “extra stiffening” inside where the neck meets the box in order to keep the resonation once it is played.

Though he has gotten the hang of it, each construction is an entirely new labor. Cigar boxes, even if pristinely built, are inconsistent in shape, which means he has to specifically scale each instrument according to the box’s measurements. “The length of the string from the nut to the bridge has to be exact, or you will never get it to intonate correctly,” he explains. Madden’s goal was always for his instruments to be used frequently and with gusto: “This is not something that you’re supposed to take home and hang on a wall and just point to it when your friends come over. This is an instrument that I want you to pick up and play.” Though it can be a struggle, as a music aficionado, he thinks it’s worth it. 

“I’m only barely a musician,” he says, but Madden has graced a few local stages. During the 90s, he was a vocalist in a few bands, later learning guitar as an adult. “I am no guitar player. I wear a guitar on stage, but my guitar playing is very, very rudimentary,” he says, but his YouTube cover songs suggest otherwise. He and Amy have enjoyed finding old songs and recreating them, particularly “old 80s synth-pop songs.” They have close to thirty covers spanning four years, including “Heart Shaped Box” by Nirvana, “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, and “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man” by Prince. Playing around with covers allowed him to realize that what makes a song great isn’t so much the instrument it is played on, as it is the art of the lyrics: “If it’s good, it’ll be good on anything.” 

Cigar box ukuleles may seem like eclectic oddities, made only for off the wall musicians wanting a unique sound, but they’re starting points to something much more grounded. In addition to Bo Diddley, other early musicians have also started with homemade instruments, like Samuel John “Lightning” Hopkins, blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist. If that’s the case, Madden considers that many music genres, including rock and roll, country, and the blues, owe their songwriting to “shade-tree” musicians, “who are out there, who have something to say, and have to build their own tools to say it.” Carltone Cigar Box Ukuleles are just an extension of that!