When Shaun Lee decided to escape a boring job and grad school in Atlanta for his hometown of Johannesburg in 2011, he found a new direction for his life simply by walking down the street. Shortly after he arrived in South Africa, he came upon a busker picking out a tune on a two-stringed guitar fashioned from an old tin oil can and a broomstick.
Lee had always loved the look and feel of guitars — perhaps even more than he loved playing them. “I’d played for 10 years, but I was the kind of guitarist who would just learn the first minute of the song,” he said.
To him, the busker’s two-string was fascinating and a bit revolutionary; it wasn’t honed from fine mahogany or maple that had been polished to a shine, but rigged out of dented metal and splintered wood. “These homeless people had reinvented this instrument and made it so much cooler than it was,” he said. They were making beautiful music out of ugly trash.
Lee said finding use for discarded things rather than creating waste had long been an area of interest. In college, he was the guy who would yell at people who tossed their beer bottles in the trash instead of placing them in recycling bins. Lifecycling was also financially appealing. “I was a grad student with no money,” Lee said. “I wasn’t going to be able to buy expensive materials.”
Lee left Johannesburg and returned to Atlanta with a new obsession: to make his own upcycled six-string. He started scrounging for vintage oil cans at flea markets and online and collected worn-out guitars to salvage anything re-usable, from fingerboards to pickups. He began building guitars from his found materials and put everything together into pieces he hoped would be playable.
At first, they weren’t. Some collapsed under the tension of the strings. Others couldn’t produce the right notes. Over a few years, Lee taught himself the traditional woodworking techniques of a luthier and figured out how to apply them to tin cans. It wasn’t easy — just learning to place a guitar bridge at the sweet spot on the body of the instrument took six months. Eventually though, he got it down to a science and started selling his bright, graphic guitars at weekend craft shows, where amateurs and pros alike picked them up expecting a toy, only to find they were amazingly playable, clean-sounding instruments.
When his tin can guitars started selling out every weekend, Lee decided to make it his full-time career. Lee’s brother Adam joined, using his business acumen to turn his brother’s basement project into a real company.
“When we decided to build our business, upcycling was one of our core values,” Lee said.
Today, Bohemian Guitars offers four guitar models in their Boho Series ($399), plus six models of each of their basses (from $399) and ukuleles ($199.99). The instruments’ rectangular, hollow bodies are made from metal salvaged from the factory floor of a manufacturer of gift box containers and cookie tins, and you can also add a strap made from salvaged seat belts ($14.99). Bohemian Guitars’ original Vintage Series, crafted from the oil cans Lee initially used, are now custom order only; cans in usable condition are so rare now that Lee can’t find enough to keep the guitars affordable. He also builds the occasional custom instrument out of other upcycled materials, like tin lunch boxes.
Lee still likes to tinker and occasionally issues special edition products in small numbers, too, such as speakers built from vintage oil cans ($60 a pair, made to order). A version of the mellow, blue and yellow Surf Wax guitar with a built-in amplifier — to make it a truly portable model — is in the works as well.
Using scrap metal has allowed Bohemian Guitars to stay nimble while other guitar makers scramble in response to new restrictions on materials. This year, for example, protections were issued for hundreds of disappearing species of rosewood, a keystone species in forest ecosystems and a wood traditionally used for guitar backs and sides.
By using unconventional, sustainable materials, Lee said, Boho is proving you don’t need to destroy the environment for good sound. “The pickup for an electric guitar is an electromagnet,” he said. “With metal bodies, we get a really cool tone from the body — not just the strings — that is far more unique and much cooler than we’d get from some rosewood or ebony.”
For the record, Lee said, Bohemian Guitars has used sustainably certified rosewood for its fretboards. To offset any wood it uses, Boho plants 10 trees for every guitar sold through a partnership with Trees for the Future.
Guitarist JP McKenzie, a member of the indie-folk rock band Family and Friends, is among artists who play Boho instruments for their sound and what they stand for. McKenzie plays a custom vintage can — “A red with a bluebird on the front,” he said — and also tours with a Boho Series Motor Oil, which he describes as having a weighty, rock ‘n’ roll sound. He used both on the band’s most recent album, XOXO. You can hear them in the haunting, airy strains that explode into an anthem at the end of the song “Howl,” and in the ecstatic, recurring riff in “Parasites.”
“I turned up the fuzz as much as possible and got as much feedback to layer as much as possible,” McKenzie said, adding that the Motor Oil’s full, “beefy” sound gave the music “a unique bite.”
“The guitar industry from the beginning hasn’t had so many innovations,” McKenzie said. Seeing them onstage gets people talking, and he likes that Bohemian Guitars found a way to build accessible instruments out of materials that would be rusting away. As he said, “Making something great out of stuff like that is really inspiring.”