Ben Gitty Presents the Hobo Fiddle #17 "Swisher '38" - Signed and Numbered One-of-a-Kind Instrument
Brother, have you heard the roar of the fast express? Have you seen starlight on the rails?"
- Thomas Wolfe, “Of Time and the River”
Ben "Gitty" Baker writes: The Hobo Fiddle is a handmade instrument built from might-have-been's and used-to-be's. It is my attempt to capture the spirit of the American hobo of old, those hardy, often troubled men (and a few women) who rode the freights moving from place to place. Many of them traveled looking for work - they helped to settle the American West, building the roads, railroads, bridges, tunnels and mines; felling the timber, gathering in the harvests, doing the work there was no one else to do. Some traveled to run away from something. Some moved because their spirits would not allow them to be still. Some of them were musicians. I know in my heart that some of them would have made their own musical instruments. This little Hobo Fiddle is my attempt to create what they might have made, out there on the road.
This is a short-scale instrument (17 inches nut to bridge, about 24 inches total length), strung with 3 nylon strings. It is tuned Open G, "GDG", the standard 3-string cigar box guitar tuning. The woods and cigar boxes used on these vary based on how I was feeling when I built it - see the details of this particular instrument below. Each one has an authentic steel "number nail" set into the headstock - these were pounded into railroad ties to mark the year they were installed, and are a part of railroad history. This Hobo Fiddle has a number nail from the year 1939, when tens of thousands of hoboes were riding the rails to search for work and a better life - though few found either.
Each Hobo Fiddle also has a piezo pickup in it (making it acoustic-electric) and a leather thong strap. I am proud to put my name on these instruments - I sign and number each one on the back. Along with the instrument itself I include a signed copy of my book "The Legend of the Hobo Fiddle." This 60-page work is part songbook, with 20 train and hobo-related songs, including a couple of originals by me. It is also part history book, as I share snippets about the hoboes and their culture, as well as some other historical information. It is also part memoir, containing my own memories and stories that relate to trains, freight-hopping and such. And finally it is part how-to, telling some details about how I build these instruments... though it is not a full how-to manual by any stretch. I also include a set of two 12x18-inch posters of secret hobo signs that I designed, which are printed here at C. B. Gitty. Rounding out the pack is a signed letter with handwritten note from me, a certificate of authenticity, a spare set of strings, and some picks. As an extra bonus, I also include a free copy of our "Essential Chords for 3-String GDG Cigar Box Guitars" poster.
This is a one-of-a-kind hand-made piece of musical art, with a rich acoustic sound. Whether you intend to play it or hang it on your wall as decoration, I want you to be proud to call it your own.
Here are some of the detailed specs on the particular Hobo Fiddle this listing is for:
- Build #: 16
- Number Nail Date: 1938
- Build Year: 2021
- Scale Length: 17 Inches (same as a tenor uke)
- Tuning: Open G GDG
- Cigar Box Style/History: Vintage cardboard "Swisher Sweets" box
- Fretboard Style: Red Oak with hobo glyph fret position markers
- Neck Wood: Black Walnut
About this cigar box: this old cigar box is part of a large batch I bought from an old man in the tiny town of Emporium, Pennsylvania. he had found them in the attic of the town's VFW hall, where they had been stored since he 1950's and 60's. They used them to store the cash register receipts from the bar... they would sell the cigars in the bar, then use the boxes to store the tapes. Many of them still have a paper note taped to the front telling what tapes they held, with dates. Even though I didn't have a use for them at the time, I bought all of them from him several years back and when I started coming up with the idea of the hobo fiddle, these boxes just seemed perfect. I have done my best to leave them "as found", including leaving the little notes taped to the front, because I think this adds to their charm. This is just the sort of thing a Hobo would have found in a trash bin and used to make their own guitar. - Ben Gitty
Please Note: "Hobo Fiddle" is a registered trademark owned personally by Ben Baker.