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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, April 18, 2014

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In Music

Johnny Washday's cigar box guitars are functional works of art. Even Les Paul owned one. (PHOTO: Robin Bott, Facebook)

In Music

Johnny and one of his guitars. (PHOTO: Robin Bott, Facebook)

Washday's works of musical art are truly Milwaukee-made


The holidays are right around the corner, so it's not too soon to think about the Milwaukee musician with an eye for history and folk art (or rock and roll art, depending on your tastes).

Veteran local musician Johnny Washday (of, yes, streetcorner roots music crew Johnny on Washday) is hosting a cigar box guitar show and sale at Gallery 911, 911 W. National Ave., in Walker's Point.

The sale runs Friday, Dec. 7, from 5 to 10 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 8, 3-10 p.m.

The weekend is a billed as a showing, sharing and selling event, at which interested folks can check out, and try out, Johnny's handcrafted guitars, and, for the right price, take one home.

The guitars sell from about $100 to about $250," Washday says.

"I've made about 200 so far and will have 50-ish at the show. Whenever I've showed one, I've sold one."

Each unique guitar comes with a homemade case and slide. Washday makes them in three-, four- and six-string versions.

"They play themselves," he says. "I put them into open tunings – whatever sounds good to the box. It becomes kind of like a 'mantra' when you sit and strum. I like to say, and it's true, that they help you meditate – bring down blood pressure – and open the spirit to the greatness of the universe.

"It sounds strange, I know, but I believe that have a healing effect. Under each fingerboard, I scribe messages of love, grace, serenity, etc."

Johnny's been making the guitars for about six years now.

"I read in guitar magazines how poor players had to make their first guitars," Washday recalls, "and I had to try."

He said that it was both easy and difficult – at times – to learn to make the guitars, but that it's, in his words, "a true labor of love."

Not long after, Johnny was commissioned to construct one for the late Les Paul. When Paul died, Washday's guitar was sold at his estate sale for $1,000.

He works only in vintage materials and says the hunt for those key pieces is a large part of his process.
Once he's got what he needs, the guitars come fairly quickly.

"About a week," he says, "although sometimes I'll have a few going at a time. I have to wait untill the work 'speaks' to me. Some of these boxes have been waiting years to be 'born.'"

Washday's been working apace to ready himself for the gallery show. This year, some of the guitars will have an even deeper local significance.

"I've been working all year on century-old boxes," he says. "(They're) hand carved – on the full moon no less – necks are re-purposed wood from everywhere, including the Sydney Hih. Much mojo."

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