Thursday, May 13, 2010

The 'Gitfiddle'

I remember, as a young guy, how fascinated I was with Paul McCartney's Violin Bass Guitar, so I decided to create a little guy from a rat violin I found in a secondhand store.

It's not a cigar box guitar, but so what, there really are no rules when it comes to building small instruments. 

I haggled with the old guy who runs the place until he caved in and sold me the thing for much less than he had it marked.  Nothing like getting a bargain, right? 

After carting my prize home and into the shop, I quickly started ripping it apart.  Off came the strings, fingerboard, bridge, string retainer and chin rest.  Whoa, what next!  Gotta mark the spots where the saw will separate this little devil, and then carve it apart.  All the demolition took about 20 minutes, and I was in business. 

After the parts were separated and on the bench, I chose a nice piece of oak for the neck that would soon connect the tuner curl and the body.  After carefully measuring it for the correct scale length, I commenced to carve and shape the neck to fit the violin pieces remaining.  Once I had all the modifications completed, a really cool veneer laminated to the neck, and the fret slots cut, out came the epoxy and together went the curl, neck, and body.  Modified the string retainer to accommodate guitar strings and a much lower bridge.  Cut an opening in the back so that I could tuck a pickup and output jack in place.  Covered the opening with a specially designed piece, and that was about the end of the tougher stuff.  It wasn't long before the finishing touches were in place and it was ready for finish sanding, seal, paint in strategic places, and final coating with poly.  On with the strings.  Tune it to a fine D-F#-A and C, and I was ready for the blues on my new, well, almost new, 'Gitfiddle'.

Because the violin was made to be a well-resonating acoustic instrument, it makes a great little guitar and sound great without amplification, but when I light it up with the amp, it really sounds great.  

Damn, I like it when a plan comes together!

A Contest Entry

A couple weeks ago, I was invited by Cigar Box Nation to enter a contest which will be judged in June by Fretboard Magazine editors.  The prize is a custom made six-string guitar.  Not that I need another guitar . . . I already have G.A.S. (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) . . , but what the hell, it will be fun to enter.  The only criteria is that the guitar must be created from a cigar box, have two or more necks, and be playable. 

So, I  pondered what to build and came up with the idea of using the ancient Chinese understanding of how things work . . . Yin Yang.


The Yin Yang symbol is an outer circle representing 'everything', while the black and white shapes within the circle represent the interaction of two energies, 'yin' (black), and 'yang' (white), which cause everything to happen, and they cannot exist without each other.

While 'yin' would be dark, passive, downward, cold, and weak, 'yang' would be bright, active, upward, hot, and strong.  The shape of the yin and yang sections of the symbol actually gives the sense of continual movement of the two images, yin to yang, and yang to yin.

I chose Yin Yang as the theme for this guitar, because music, the universal language of the ages, and the guitar with its dark bass and bright treble notes, complimentary opposites, represents perfectly through its music how things work together.

In the photos, you will see how I designed the necks to be similar, but opposite.  One is made of dark oak with a very dark ebony fingerboard, while the other is light oak with a very light monkey pod wood fingerboard, facing each other, with tuners to match.  The three-string neck is accented in black (Yin), and the four-string neck is accented in white (Yang).  This color scheme is carried on down the back of the necks to the tailstocks.  The box is a Saint Luis Rey Churchill, which worked well in that the oval logo was removed to create a sound hole between the necks, which I backed in screen to finish that portion.

Inside, I set up each neck with a transducer pickup which can be activated by a switch when being played, so that only sound from one guitar is amplified at a time.  The bridge is designed to accommodate each neck in one design, which tends to tie the two together visually.  To accentuate the Yin Yang theme, I added small silver plated black and white symbols to neck, tailstock, and bridge, as well as a larger example laminated to the back of the box.

Who knows how this creation will be accepted by the contest judges, but I don't really care, because it was fun to build and it plays very well, so win or lose, I win.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Try It, All You'll Have Is Fun!

Building a cigar box guitar is not difficult, because anything you do is OK.  There are no rules.  It can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish to make it. 

If you do a little research, you'll find that the current interest in cigar box guitars is a re-generation of the creativity and skills developed more than a century ago out of necessity, by folks whose musical opportunity came from the simple instruments they created from cigar boxes, broomsticks, and  discarded wire or string.  Today's creations are often more complex, but the basic concept is the same . . . producing beautiful music with a simple instrument. 

I'm a relative 'newby' at CBG building, but I've developed a few nice and playable instruments following  a few basic steps, which I will share with you.  So, let's get started.

CBG Building Steps

  1. Determine the basic design and style of the guitar you wish to build (3- or 4-string).

  2. Choose the cigar box you will use (check out your local smoke shop or go to eBay).

  3. Determine tuners that will best fit your needs (available at your local music store or on eBay).

  4. Craft the headstock, neck, and tailstock to fit your design (take a look at what others have created, for ideas.  I generally use 1x2 inch oak available at Lowes).

  5. Determine design of string retainers on the tailstock (holes drilled in the tailstock, or an attachment which will retain the strings.)

  6. Determine tuner positions and drill holes in the headstock.

  7. Finish (shape and sand) the neck.

  8. Stain or paint the neck if that is your intention.

  9. Cut the fingerboard to length (determined by the type instrument you're building).

  10. Mark the location of the fingerboard on the neck, allowing for the headstock and 'nut' (the thingy that elevates the strings off the fingerboard and spaces them properly).

  11. Locate and mark fret positions (measure any commercial guitar, or go online for a guide).

  12. Cut fret slots with a narrow saw (I use a coping saw and a small mitre box, or you can use finish nails or even toothpicks).

  13. Stain the fingerboard, if that is your desire.

  14. Laminate the fingerboard to the neck in the predetermined position . . . see #10 ( I use Titebond glue and clamp in place).

  15. Cut small openings in the cigar box to accommodate the neck (this may require some careful forethought and planning depending on the box you're using).

  16. Fit the neck to the box and measure the 'bridge' location on the box (24-1/2" to 25-1/2" from the nut).

  17. Locate and cut sound holes in the box (again there are no rules, so be as creative as you wish).

  18. Finish the sound holes appropriately.

  19. Finish the box (stain, paint, decorate, or leave as it is . . . again, no rules).

  20. Locate 'key' fret positions on the fingerboard or leading edge of the neck and mark as you wish (inlays, cutouts, drilled markers, etc. . . these are the 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, and 15 positions).

  21. Laminate the neck in position to the box (I use Titebond for this, too).

  22. Create the 'nut' and 'bridge' and attach in position (I use super glue).

  23. Attach frets to the fingerboard (cut and file to fit . . . this can be tedious, so take your time so as to not screwup the edges of the fingerboard).

  24. Locate a strap button on the back of the box.

  25. Drill a hole in the back of the box for an output jack, if you are going to amplify the sound electronically.

  26. Design a plate to hold the jack securely to the box, if the material is too thick to accommodate direct attachment.

  27. Varnish or paint the finished guitar.
  28. For amplified sound, I use a Piezo transducer (available at Radio Shack) for a sound 'pickup'.
  29. Remove the metal transducer wafer from the plastic housing (carefully using a pliers to break the housing edges) and sandwich the wafer between two pieces of balsa using small droplets of CA (cyanoacrylate) glue (better known as super glue) on the corners of the balsa pieces.  Be careful not to get glue on the transducer, and to not damage the wires in the process.  Mark the outside of the balsa enclosure to denote the side of the wafer that has the circular white ceramic conductor.
  30. Attach (solder) the transducer (pickup) to the output jack (you may need to add wire for the proper length).
  31. Locate the pickup position on the inside of the box lid, left of the bass string and slightly forward of the bridge location.
  32. Glue the 'marked' balsa side to the inside of the lid in the position described in #31 above. I use CA glue for this.
  33. Attach tuners to the headstock.
  34. Attach strings to the tailstock string retainer and to the tuners; tighten the strings (I use inexpensive medium gauge acoustic strings, #5-4-3 for my 3-string guitars, and #5-4-3-2 for my 4-string guitars).
  35. Tune to your desire (I tune 3-string guitars G-D-G for a nice 'bluesy sound; and 4-strings D-F#-A-C; but, you can tune your 3-string to A-E-A; A-E-G; E-B-E; E-G-E; or you can simplify the process by using Knott Lenny's method -- tune to "say, you, see" -- sing the National Anthem, 'oh, say can you see, and you have a very playable tuned instrument). 
If you have questions about any details listed hereon, or if you need guidance, please email me a note and I will do my best to assist.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

2-day Cigar Box Guitar Festival, August 27 & 28, 2010, hosted by Shane Speal's Cigar Box Nation at York, PA.  for more information, go to