Do You Know an Inspiring Self-Taught Musician Like Cipriano Vigil?

Cipriano Vigil is a cigar box guitar builder we can all learn from. You can read about him in an article recently published in The Sante Fe New Mexican. There you'll discover that Vigil's New Mexico home is filled with instruments, some collected, and many made by his own hands. More importantly, Vigil is a high school dropout who went on to earn a bachelor's in music education and a doctorate in ethnomusicology (the study of music by the culture that makes it). Even more importantly, Vigil, a self-taught musician, has been awarded a lifetime achievement award from the New Mexico Music Commission for connecting New Mexican youths with cultural and music history through his cigar box guitar-building workshops.

Keep reading to see a rundown of key points you'll find in the article.


From a very young age, Vigil yearned to play music and therefore taught himself to do so. He reports that around eight years of age, he would sneak out of his family's house at night to go dances and watch the performers play their instruments. There, on a pad of paper, he'd record the finger positions the musicians used to play the chords heard in the songs. Armed with those notes, Vigil would then teach himself those same chords on his guitar.

In his teenage years, Vigil was performing music throughout the region in which he lived. During that time, someone presented him with some sheet music to play a particular piece. To his chagrin, Vigil discovered a glaring flaw in his musical self-education: he couldn't read music. So, he set out to learn how to it. That path led him to earn his GED, then a bachelor's, then two master's degrees, and later a doctorate, all in music-related studies.

That progression in Vigil's music studies is particularly inspiring to me. I, too, am a high school dropout. That fact has always made me feel like a weak learner and a lesser person. The story of Vigil's desire and determination to immerse himself in music motivates me to stoke my own recently-sparked musical-flame: learning to read sheet music. In turn, not only am I learning the language of music but because of the effort, I'm also feeling a bit more self-worth. For the rest of the cigar box guitar world, I know that sheet music isn't a hit. It is, however, something I'm leaning into and hope to learn enough about to use in teaching certain songs to the rest of the cigar box guitar community.


Not content with solely learning to play music, Vigil set out to learn about the cultures that created the music he played. With a cassette-recorder in hand, Vigil traveled about his home-state to learn the traditional Spanish folk music he loves from the people who played it. In the article, Vigil is quoted as saying, "I started doing it for my own enjoyment [...] These people are gone, but I captured them."

I can't tell you how much I love Vigil's efforts. His motivation wasn't only to learn how to play the music but to also learn about the music. Who are the people that wrote these songs he loved? Why did these people play them? What circumstances led them to create the tunes and tales and musical folk history he celebrated? That's the kind of stuff that really jibes with my perspective of the cigar box guitar community and my own developing interest in old-time Appalachian mountain music. In turn, I think Vigil is a role model for anyone, including myself, learning music history to inform his or her way in musical self-education. Put differently, what better way for us to learn the songs we enjoy, then to learn about the cultures that wrote the stories to the tunes that so profoundly resonate with us?


That Vigil is a self-taught musician who went on to collect the songs and stories from the cultures that surround his home is uplifting. So is his continuing education that led to a succession of esteemed degrees. But what really makes Vigil a true inspiration is that he turned to his community to share his knowledge through cigar box guitar-building workshops. In so doing, Vigil connected children in his home-state to their cultures and histories. Moreover, he has shown them that playing music is within their grasps, especially on instruments that each of them is capable of building themselves. As Thomas Goodrich, an administrator for the New Mexico Music Commission, is quoted in the article as saying, "His cigar-box guitar-making workshops are the stuff of legend and have impacted the lives of thousands of New Mexico children."

Final Thought

The article linked above is worth the few moments it takes to read it. Because of Vigil's humble roots and his indomitable determination to learn as much about music as possible, Vigil's story is nothing short of inspiring. If cigar box guitars rough-and-ready, DIY nature speaks to you, you'll be motivated by Vigil's story to dig deeper into your own music studies. Who knows? Maybe you'll create an opportunity to pass your knowledge on and to link others to the wonderful world of DIY music.

Who is a self-taught musician and folk collector that inspires you?


  1. My father did not collect folk music but he was self taught. His passion for the guitar was palpable. If he came home and I was plucking away at his guitar he would take the instrument away from me because he wanted to play. If that didn’t make me want to play more nothing did. I have been fortunate to have studied music with many wonderful teachers in my forty-six years and have two degrees in music but hands down the most influential musician in my life was my father. He taught himself some chords and was always on the hunt for a riff or new song. Mr. Watt you share your passion in a similar way that he did. Inspiration is all around us and becomes contagious in the hands of men like you, Vigil, and my father. Thank you gentlemen. - Bryan Killough

    1. Bryan, I'm grateful beyond words for your presence in my life. Much like your father was for you, you, Sir, have been one of the biggest musical influences for me. I'm grateful for all the people who've helped you along your musical journey because they've helped to shape you, the man who continues to help shape me. Even though I didn't meet your father, I have to believe that if he sees you now, and sees the impact you have on countless lives of children and adults alike, that he's beaming with pride. Thanks for being here, Bry. It means a lot to me.


  2. Hi Glenn,
    You might remember me as a music teacher who uses CBG building in sixth grade in Socorro, New Mexico. One of our students has created a fun video about our project this year, and we are looking for some cool CBG instrumental music to use in the background, with the artists' permission(s). If you know of anyone who is willing
    to share about 3 minutes of CBG music, please send them along! Thank you, and thanks for sharing your blog.
    Beth Crowder

    1. Hello, Beth. It's great to hear from you. Thank you for taking the time to stop by this blog and to leave your comment. Thank you also for inquiring about music for one of your student's video projects. I think that's just downright cool. If there isn't an immediate need for that music, I'll put your request out into the CBG community and am certain it'll get a response. When I have a .mp3 file, I'll send it to your school email address.