The History of Canned Stringed Instruments

The history of stringed musical instruments using metal cans, tins, any and all metal based canisters, including fuel cans, oil cans, cookie tins, metal boxes or barrels, bread boxes, or even all sizes of food storage and beverage cans, regardless of the metal compositions used, dates back to the earliest origins of these items. The first use of metal canisters for food storage began in the mid 1860s during the US Civil War. Their designs and the metal materials they’re now made from have been improved upon and have continued to be as used in various applications ever since. Some of the first foods having been stored in metal boxes or canisters include cakes, crackers, breads, and prepared meats. Many non-food products, including the early metal cigar boxes dating back to the late 19th century, too, have been shipped, stored and sold to consumers from the very earliest history of metal containers, as well.

Historically, the first marketed use of storing and selling beverages in cans began in the year 1932 when the Kruger beer company, as an experiment, introduced their beverage products in them. The idea was obviously an excellent one as the public embraced the concept quickly and, soon, many beer producers shifted from bottling to using metal cans to ship, store, and market their beverages. The Anheuser-Bush company, began canning their Budweiser product in the year 1936. The earlier designs of beverage containers include the cone tops, the flat tops, the crown tops, and in the 1960s, the easy pull tab tops were introduced which have since evolved to those aluminum cans used today that keep the tabs attached. The first company to adapt the use of metal cans for soda beverages was the Coca Cola company in the year 1960. Quickly, other soda beverage companies also adapted the use of cans for their products. The value of canning beverages vs bottling was discovered to be far more economical for the benefit of both the producers and consumers as being safer, cheaper, much easier to store, ship, chill, and they quickly became the most preferred method as use by the consumers. Earlier metal compositions used in making cans included and began with such metals as steel, tin, and, eventually, aluminum.

Upon the very earliest introduction of metal containers, especially of the mid 19th century and early twentieth century, folks immediately realized that they were most suitable to be adapted to use as resonators for stringed musical instruments. There are several examples found of round lard cans, for instance, and dating back to the mid 1800s and as having been used during the US Civil War period, for making banjos. Small metal cigar boxes, also as early as the Civil War period, but especially more commonly used during the US Depression era of the 1920s have been applied to the making of stringed musical instruments, such as for banjos, guitars, and fiddles. Cigar box guitars and other stringed instruments using the more common wood cigar boxes as their resonators became very popular during the US Depression era, and are still the preferred material used for the majority of the modern versions of these mostly home made instruments.

When the CanJoe Company of Blountville, TN officially began in 1994 as a licensed commercial venture of making, marketing, and selling, and at first as being of the original Herschel Brown one-stringed musical instrument design, and as the specific instruments that are based on those classically attributed to and having already been a couple of years prior to and initially introduced to the market, as well as were officially branded by him as the “Can-Joe”, the officially recognized specific instrument’s creator, Herschel Brown. The public use of the similar trade name, the “CanJoe”, and from their first public introduction in 1994, became the official and world recognized brand identity of those corresponding to Herschel’s creations that have also, since, been introduced and sold by the CanJoe Company (by Hershel’s personal permission and full approval). Still, variations and designs of many other various multi-stringed musical instruments using metal cans had long before already existed, but again, were rarely ever identified using the term canjo. Anyone using the term “canjo” as a generic reference to any of these various stringed instruments made from using metal containers as their resonators was not until recently been as common. From the beginnings, when most identifying the instruments made by the folks using metal containers as the instrument resonators and, for instance, might be intended as being specifically a banjo design, it was also referred to by near everyone to be called as just that, a banjo, or if it were a guitar, it was referred to and called as being a guitar, not a “canjo“, regardless. Not until the most recent past few years has the term “canjo” now become more commonly applied as a generic reference to virtually any or all stringed instruments that use any type of metal tins, cans, or containers as part of, or as its specific resonator of these various instruments.

In the year 1996, the curator of artifacts for the Australian Museum in Sydney and who deals more specifically with artifacts of the aboriginal bushmen of Australia, sent an email to the CanJoe Company detailing an artifact in their museum dating to the year of its origin as 1955. It is a guitar-like stringed instrument using a kerosene tin as its resonator. Below is a description from the web site of one expert from Australia on these instruments:

Kerosene Tin Dulcimer

“When John Meredith was collecting folk lore in the Mudgee area, he came across this instrument, made by Cyril Abbott, a local bushman and bush musician. Made from the once ubiquitous four gallon kerosene tin (similar to tins in which olive oil is bought in bulk) and a broomstick. The tin bears no strain and needs only be lightly nailed to the broomstick which has a nail or screw to attach the strings which pass over a bridge at each end and are fixed around crude tuning pegs made from screws and wing-nuts. The strings are Steel Guitar strings and are played like the Hawaiian Guitar, with a ‘steel’ to stop the strings and a plectrum. The strings are tuned with two in unison and the third slightly sharper to give a ‘Tremolo’ effect. Sound holes may be cut into the kerosene-tin, either at the ends or in the surface below the strings.”

There has never been, nor will ever there be any claim by anyone in business as associated with, employed by, or owned by the CanJoe Company, nor likely by anyone associated to Herschel Brown’s legacy as either identifying as, or as having claimed exclusive recognition pertaining to the creation, invention, or making of the first ever historically known stringed musical instruments that have used, or are now using metal cans, boxes, or containers as part of their design function. As this blog post should clearly indicate, there are many other stringed instrument designs and known by factual evidence to have prior existed to the specific one-stringed version as first designed and crafted by, as well as initially introduced to the market by Herschel Brown, and/or of the CanJoe Company, as being, too, the first commercially branded and openly sold to the public item using the name “Can-Joe”, or “CanJoe” to identify them. Any confusion by anyone in the public not affiliated with either Herschel Brown or of the CanJoe Company is due the recent to public wide spread use of the now newly accepted generic term currently referencing any and all stringed musical instruments using metal cans as their resonators.

For all inquiries, price information, or to purchase a genuine CanJoe Company product, please call 423-612-4320.

About CanJoe*John

CanJoe*John began making and marketing the authentic 'canjoe' instruments from their origin. Introduced to them by their creator, Herschel R. Brown, in the early 1990s, John, from the beginning, helped Herschel manufacture them in Herschel's shop. John relocated back to his home state of TN in 1993 and continued, initially with Herschel's direct assistance, to make and market them, establishing the licensed sole proprietorship, the CanJoe Company, in 1994. As a professional musician CanJoe*John became billed as the "world's most unique musician, playing the world's most unique musical instrument, the canjoe" (aka, canjo). Always with his own personal canjoe instrument in hand he was awarded the adult "2007 Male Bluegrass Instrumentalist of the Year" by the North American Country Music Association International (NACMAI), and now having the distinction of being the first and only canjoe picker to ever perform on the Grand Ole Opry, has literally taken the one-stringed thing to the outer limits! CanJoe*John is a master craftsman and artist who designs, creates and crafts these instruments as custom works of musical fine art for those who respect and require the best of the best, truly genuine, original one-stringed musical instruments. He can be reached via email at, or by phone at 423-612-4320.
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