Basil Azizoghly, the UAE artisan who can make you a guitar out of anything

Meet the UAE-raised artisan making DIY guitars from discarded cigar boxes, oil cans, jewellery cases, kitchen pots, boardgames and more.

Basil Azizoghly’s creations, made from a variety of recyled items, typically cost between Dh600 and Dh1,500. Sarah Dea / The National
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A Sharjah-raised craftsman who makes guitars from discarded objects is one of the subjects of Quest Arabiya’s Hakawi profiles. Rob Garratt finds out more

Here’s something most cigar smokers don’t know – the boxes they come in, the boxes that you throw away without a thought, make good guitars.

It’s no joke – wooden cigar cases have been used as the sound box in primitive stringed instruments since midway through the 19th century. Those early homemade contraptions were an impoverished artist’s solution to the musical urge, a tradition that continues in less-prosperous parts of the world.

In recent years, however, artists from wealthier countries have fallen under the spell of these quirky one-of-a-kinds, with roots musicians such as Seasick Steve building careers rocking DIY instruments.

Enter stage left: Basil Azizoghly, a UAE-raised artisan who, in addition to using cigar boxes, crafts guitars from discarded oil cans, jewellery cases, kitchen pots, board games and more.

“Cigar boxes are ideal because they vibrate more than standard wood – it’s like a leaf as opposed to a branch,” says the 27-year-old Syrian, who has sold more than 100 handcrafted instruments in the past 18 months.

“But I’ve found that all these other materials each have their own unique feel.”

Azizoghly is sitting on a couch in the centre of his bright, high-ceilinged JBR duplex, sipping a hot coffee. His current stock hangs on the walls – about a dozen four- and six-string instruments of varying shapes, sizes and colours. On the floor, there are two full-sized guitars, in striking orange and blue, as well as a cajón and a mandolin – all homemade.

“They’re getting better,” he says, touching his creations one-by-one. “For me, that’s the most important thing – the playability. It’s an instrument, not a work of art.”

It is a sparsely decorated space. Apart from one framed picture – a retro gig poster advertising The Band – there’s little on display not directly related to Azizoghly’s craft.

In the corner, his Canadian wife Marie-Claude Charron sits at a workshop bench, cluttered with tools and half-built instruments, burning ornate engravings into the body of one work-in-progress.

“There’s a piece of wood right here,” says Azizoghly, pointing at the workshop bench. “Theoretically, you can make a guitar from that in 15 minutes, it’s just all in the finishing.

“It’s not about perfection – unusually, I don’t want my instruments to be perfect. I want some of those imperfections, because that’s what makes a guitar sound human.”

The price of Azizoghly’s creations starts at Dh600 and rises to more than Dh1,500, depending on the materials used and how long it takes to build. A quality guitar can take 80 hours – simpler, less ornate models are knocked up in half that time.

“The materials are not so expensive,” he says. “I’ve done the numbers and these prices are really fair for both me and the customers.”

Raised in Sharjah, Azizoghly lived in Canada from 2006 for seven years, studying for degrees in engineering and philosophy at the University of Ottawa. A guitarist since his teens, it wasn’t until the summer of 2013 that he first encountered cigar-box guitars, which he found on sale at a stall at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

“I’d never seen anything like it, even though I’d been playing guitar for 10 years,” he says.

Shortly after the festival, Azizoghly bought a “make your own” kit for US$69 (Dh250), and learnt the craft without further instruction. After returning to the UAE, early models he made were given to friends. Soon, his fame started to spread by word of mouth.

Working day shifts at Ideal Fibreglass & Plastics, his father’s factory in Sharjah, Azizoghly began staying on late – and taking up increasing warehouse space – to pursue his new hobby.

As demand grew, he founded Howlin’ Rooster Guitars & Such, and in April 2014 hosted his first stall at the weekly artisans market at Dubai’s Times Square.

“I sold five that first day and I remember thinking, ‘wow, that’s money for something I made out of garbage’,” he says.

The Howlin’ Rooster pop-up shop now attracts puzzled crowds at a variety of bespoke markets, including Al Quoz’s Deus Arabia and JBR’s Street Nights. Besides sharing the production process with his wife “MC”, Azizoghly employs one other craftsman, and speaks about his dream of expanding to full-time production, with six or more employees.

Left alone after our interview to try out one the instruments while The National's photographer went to work, it soon became clear that, as a guitar player myself, I was not going to leave this interview empty-handed – I wanted one. I settle on a bare-boned, four-string, 12-fret contraption made from an old steel Arabic kitchen pot. It costs Dh650 and gives a delightfully sharp, banjo-like twang. I'm looking forward to whipping it out on stage, I say half-jokingly. There's a only one problem: this one isn't electric.

The obstacle is quickly overcome. By the time I’ve returned from the ATM, Azizoghly has opened up the pot, inserted a primitive pickup and drilled a jack plug through the side, so I can go electric wherever I desire. Now that’s what you call custom made.