Mark “The Harp” LeClaire can make guitars from almost anything, including old hubcaps, Jell-O molds, cat food bowls, candy and cigar boxes.
“I’m a gizmo man,” he said. “I just see stuff on the Internet and just put stuff together.”
LeClaire, 59, who lives near Stanton, has been making instruments for several years. He said it gives him something to do with his hands since he quit smoking.
“My wife talked me into getting the Android phone,” he said. “I ran across Devon Allman, Greg Allman’s son, on the Internet. I played with Gabriel Strange, Devin Allman’s drummer. I wanted to see where (Strange) was playing, and when I pulled up Devon Allman’s page there was a cigar box guitar on it. I read a little bit about it and Googled cigar box guitars and all this stuff came up.”
One instrument is made from a Chevrolet hubcap and it has a Jell-O mold on the inside for resonance. A couple of others are made from cigar boxes and one is made from a Cadbury chocolate candy tin with a skull design that LeClaire said is a popular tattoo in Australia.
“I make up my own crap,” he said.
All of LeClaire’s instruments are electric. He makes all the necks for them by hand out of oak and uses finishing nails for the frets.
He buys the wood for the necks at Lowe’s, he said, but someone cutting timber gave him some raw wood that he will try to use. He even put together a special table saw out of different “gadgets” to make the necks.
“I got this stuff out of the trash,” he said about the things he used to fashion his special table saw. “I collect all kinds of crap. I just can’t throw (stuff) away.”
Each instrument takes about 20 to 30 hours to make, he said.
LeClaire drives for a local trucking company and takes his tools with him to work on his craft during down time.
“I sit there and clip off nails and work on my stuff,” he said. “I quit smoking so I have to have something to do with my hands. I’m OCD a little bit because once I get into something I really get into it.”
LeClaire doesn’t advertise his instruments to sell, but has been commissioned to make a few for friends. He also donates them to silent auctions and other fundraising events to raise money for different causes.
“I donated one (recently) and it brought $200 for cancer,” he said. “I made one for a handicapped friend and now he’s on the Internet playing a cigar box guitar. I didn’t know it was going to (be so popular). I have a ball with this stuff.”
Although LeClaire loves the cigar box instruments and loves playing them, he said his “claim to fame” is harmonicas, of which he has a case full. He started playing them when he was about 6 years old. His dad played instruments and got his sister a harmonica.
“He got her one, but he didn’t get me one,” he said. “My sister didn’t care about it, but I wanted to show them that I could play it too.”
LeClaire has a large box of harmonicas, which come in different keys for different songs.
“It’s really just a big box of whistles,” he said. “You know, you got all these guitar players, and then here comes this harmonica player and everything matches and everything is so cool. You got these guys playing guitars for 20 years, but when I get done (playing the harmonica) everybody goes nuts. I mean you got to know what you’re doing, but it’s not like having to know all these chords and stuff on a guitar. I pick up a box of whistles and everybody says I’m really good at it. I don’t think about it, I just play it.”
LeClaire said he has never had a music lesson, he just plays everything by ear.
Although he has been playing most of his life, he only starting performing for audiences about 10 years ago.
“I finally got out of the basement,” he said. “I just didn’t think I was good enough to play (in a band).”
Quitting smoking has saved LeClaire enough money to buy a harmonica a week, he said. He sometimes will have to buy a new one after a perfomance.
LeClaire has played with some local bands, and even some people who are well known, both locally and nationally.
He has played with local (mostly blues) bands Victim of Circumstance, Sonic Tonic, Jeremiah Johnson, George Potsos and the late Jimmy Lee Kennett.
“I just sit in with most of these guys,” he said.
LeClaire sometimes will take his cigar box instruments to play as well. He said they are becoming increasingly popular, and they almost have a cult-like following.
“There are cigar box festivals,” he said. “There’s the Roadhouse 61 festival in St. Louis and it’s become a big deal (since it started four years ago). I was at the first one and there were about 60 people there. The next year there were like 150 people, and last year there were about 600 people. This is a big movement.”