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Johnny Lowe


The First Annual Cigar Box Guitar Festival in Carrolton welcomes Johnny Lowebow, the world renown inventor and performer in a one man band.

Left: John Lowe, his LoweBow and one-man-band combo Photo courtesy of John Lowe.

Johnny Lowebow is the stage name for John Lowe, musician and bookstore owner from Memphis TN who has become known for his unusual electric cigar box guitars called Lowebows. His live shows have been described as “brutal blues blasts” by fellow cigar box guitarist, Shane Speal. “John has a way of chugging deep and swampy blues from his Lowebow,” says Speal, “and then he builds up this booming backbeat with his foot drums.” Speal continues, “Once he gets going, his whole rhythm sounds like an old Chrysler running on 5 cylinders with sporadic backfires. It’s perfect!”

Johnny Lowebow’s set-up is a mixture of old drum parts, milk crates, guitar amps and his ever present Lowebow.

The Lowebow cigar box guitar is a bizarre instrument made from two oak dowel rods, a wooden cigar box, three guitar strings and a bass string. It is played with a slide in the old blues tradition, but that’s about the only thing traditional about it. Lowe wires each instrument with hand-made pickups so that the Lowebow is broadcast through two amplifiers. The result is a massive wall of sound, one side low and grumbly, the other side screaming like a jet.

There isn’t a style of music Lowe won’t try. His set lists contain everything from Johnny Cash to punk pioneer, Iggy Pop. Lowe regularly sets up on Beale Street, playing for passers-by.

His life reads like an old blues legend: He grew up listening to Shreveport radio stations and picking cotton on his grandfather’s farm. At the age of three, his uncle exposed him to boogie woogie piano and guitar. His childhood was spent moving back and forth from Texarkana and Washington D.C. As he grew, he steadily became more proficient musically and spent much of the 1970’s in various bands and in various places such as Austin and California. Eventually, he relocated to Memphis where he continued the music and worked his own book store, Xanadu Books and Music.

After chance meetings with cigar box guitar artist, Jay Kirgis*, Lowe designed the Lowebow instrument, which in turn was used by another musician, Richard Johnston, to win a major blues competition in Memphis. Since then, Lowe has attained a cult status among blues afficianados and has adopted the Lowebow as his main instrument. He can be seen busking along Beale Street, performing at the Kalamazoo Blues Fest and even the Uno A Go Go One Man Band Fest in Chicago.

Lowebow instruments have made their way into the hands of Lyle Lovett, The North Mississippi Allstars, Jim Dickenson, France’s Thundercrack and Jug Fusion.

editors note: In an e-mail to this site, John Lowe shared the inside scoop on the LoweBow.
My brand of cigar box guitar is known as the LoweBow and I have made them since January of 2000.  I made Stick Guitars before that.  My first major fest was the 1999 Clarksdale Mississippi Blues Fest when I backed up Lane Wilkins on a two string stick.

I first started making pickups for Jay Kirgis (an artist from ol’ Miss who made objects of Diddley Bows as part of his graduate course.  He came into my store, Xanadu Music and Books, expressed a need for a one-string pickup [and] he left one of his one-strings for me to sell.

I have a party once a year and my rock band plays in the parking lot.  I picked his one-string electric up and started to feedback the stacks of Orange [amplifiers].  I liked it.

That’s when I made my feedback stick:  a tuner, hose clamp for a bridge, one inch stick, screw for a nut, copper coupling for a jack chamber and grounding system and my single coil pick up.  I added annother string in dissanate tuning.

I played these for over a year when Richard Johnston came in.  He told me he wanted a three string.  I resisted the cigar box at first out of respect for Jay [because Jay’s diddley bows utilized cigar boxes].  The stick’s biggest flaw was it fatigued your hand holding and playing it at the same time.  I couldn’t get three strings on a stick, so I started using boxes.

[I made them] two ways:  The neck-thru tapered acoustic called “Angelic Acoustic” and the strap on “Helltone” model.  Richard wanted an electric acoustic so his first was a three string we called “Purgutory.”  He fell in love with his and took it everywhere with him.  I had a double-neck Helltone model to feed back two amps at once [a two string guitar neck and one string bass].  Richard saw that and told me to move the necks together so he could play bass and guitar at the same time.  I made one and we called it the “Purgutory Hill Harp.”  I made the first one, and with the addition of a snare drum, bass drum and hi hat with his feet, he won the World Blues Championship the next week!

Richard and I performed on Beale St. and I have started doing my own one-man band.  I played at UNO a Go Go in Chicago.  I play the King Biscuit every year on Chery St. and when it’s nice, I play on Beale in front of the new Daisy.

Thanks for all the info, John.  You rock!
-from the staff at the Cigar Box Guitar’s Rightful Place

Wanna buy a LoweBow?
Click here to e-mail John (he’ll make one for ya!)

Wanna learn more about the LoweBow?
Click here for John’s website.