Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Little History

Because the cigar box guitar is a primitive homemade instrument, there is no standard for building it.  Physical dimensions, construction techniques, or string types are limited only by the creator's imagination.

Around 1840, cigar manufacturers started packaging and shipping cigars in small, portable boxes, which were similar to what we are familiar with today.  These boxes were soon to become the vehicle for performing 'blues' music.

The earliest evidence of cigar box instruments dated from 1840 to 1860s.  The illustrated proof of such an instrument is an etching of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle (copyrighted in 1876). The etching, which clearly shows the cigar brand 'Figaro' on the cigar box, was created by illustrator Edwin Forbes, who worked for the Union Army. It was published in Forbes' work 'Life Stories of the Great Army'.

In addition to the etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were published by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, in 1884 as part of 'Christmas Eve with Uncle Enos'.  These plans showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.

Most of the earliest cigar box instruments would be crude and primitive, but this is not the case for all.  Some of the fiddles built in the late 1800s were well constructed and very playable.
Cigar box guitars and fiddles were also important in the rise of jug bands and blues music.  As most of the performers were Black Americans living in southern poverty, many could not afford a 'real' instrument.  Using these, along with jugs, washboards, and harmonicas, Black musicians performed blues music during gatherings.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a resurgence of homemade musical instruments.  Times were hard in the American south and a popular pastime was to sit on the porch playing and singing the blues away.  Musical instruments were beyond the means of everybody, but with an old cigar box, a stick, a couple discarded wires, and a guitar came to life.  The sound coming from these crude instruments was raw and gritty, much like the lives of the people playing them, but it is a sound that is as much of our life today as it was back then.

Due to interest in jug bands and the 'do-it-yourself' culture, a modern revival of these instruments has been gathering momentum.  Modern-day cigar box guitar builder and performer interest has fueled the fire, as cigar boxes, strings, and other necessary hardware is relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire.  The creation of the modern cigar box guitar can be seen as a means for an amateur to become a luthier, and implementation of many personal touches, such as the addition of tuning machines, electronic pickups, metal resonator cones, to say nothing about 'design' of the instruments, is their stage for creation.

And, the desire of many musician's for a more primal sound is another factor supporting the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution.  Blues guitarists, in particular, have taken to the cigar box guitar in an attempt to play Delta Blues in its purest form.  The instruments can be fretted or fretless, and can be played with a bottleneck slide or 'picked'.  Either way, the sound is unique to this instrument, and it has an 'earthy' quality that takes the player and listener back in time.

It is said that Lightnin' Hopkins was one of the first performers to play a cigar box guitar, and he had this to say about it . . . "So I went ahead and made me a guitar.  I got me a cigar box, I cut me a round hole in the middle of it, take me a little piece of plank, mailed it onto that cigar box, and I got me some screen wire, and I made me a bridge back there and raised it up high enough that it would sound inside that little box, and got me a tune out of it.  I kept my tune and I played from then on."

Reference: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sunday, September 19, 2010

'The Revelator'

My friend Wichita Sam, whom I met on the site, encouraged me to build a resonator guitar and after he shared some crucial thoughts with me, I set out to craft what turned out to be a nice instrument.  The box is a basic Chateau Fuente QueenB cigar box with an oak neck and poplar fretboard, modified to accept hardware store drain covers for the sound holes and a resonator made of a paint can lid.  The bridge biscuit is my creation, which includes a piezo transducer pickup sandwiched between spanish cedar and balsa woods wired to an output jack to amplify sound.  The backside art is a pic of an old bluesman bangin' on a real resonator guitar.  Sam was right, this simple design really does work, and the accoustic sound is amazing, but when I light it up throug the amp and lay on a slide, it really comes alive with a gritty delta blues twang that vibrates to my toes.  Thanks, Sam for showing me the way!

'Blackeyed Susan'

Blackeyed Susan is the result of a knawing desire to incorporate a little art with guitar building.  I have always liked the effect one gets from burning designs in wood, and a recent trip to a crafters meet at the local fairgrounds set the fire off inside me.  After searching the web for the best deal on an adjustable burner (from, and waiting for delivery, I commenced to design the neck and body of 'Susan'.  The burner arrived and I made the leap into pyro design with a little help from my granddaughter Maggie, who thought a blackeyed susan flower arrangement from a coloring book was the only choice. That design went on the back.  The front design is my creation allowing for two of the leaves to act as sound hole cutouts, and the other two for balanced decoration. This basic design leads to the vine growing up the neck.  Note the flowers at the critical fret locations.  It is setup with a piezo transducer for amped sound, but it sounds great accoustically.  Another fun project with a little creativity thrown in for grins.

Friday, September 10, 2010


It has been my goal during the months of building cigar box guitars to create a six-string CBG using a Tatuaje cigar box as a body, because the Tatuaje is a large box just waiting to become an electric guitar.  My first thought was to create my own neck, but that suddenly changed, when I discovered that my tool shed didn't have the necessary gear, and I was not about to make the investment at this time, I'm too much of a novice for that leap. 

So, the time came a couple weeks ago while searching the web for various parts to enhance my hobby.  I ran across a used Fender Squier neck and various other items taken from used or discarded guitars. 

I couldn't resist the temptation so I bought, at greatly reduced prices, what I needed to fulfill my goal.  Take a look and let me know what you think.

The tricky part about creating this creature was fabricating the various pieces into a playable instrument.

First I layed the neck and bridge on top of the box to get a sense of where it should be placed to allow for proper scale length, while maintaining a comfortable playing surface and balance.  I carefully measured and marked the surface for future positioning, while keeping in mind that the box must be cut and reinforced to establish the integrity necessary in a payable guitar, and at the same time planning where the pickup, volume pot and output jack were to be located.

So, using a little Montana 'Injunuity' (my heritage had to come into play) and a bit of Kentucky windage, I measured twice, so I could manage to cut once.   Out came the tools.  Apart came the box.  Oak pieces were cut and glued where necessary to the inside of the box.  Cuts were made in the proper places.  A variety of files were used to finish the parts fitting process.  Once all the pieces were finally fitted and assembled (several times to satisfy my anal expectation), I made up the wiring harness, soldered wires, and bench tested the creation.  Everything worked, and it fit together nicely.  So, the only thing left was to add a nice finish to the box and to do the final assembly.

I couldn't wait to light this thing up and to hear how it sounded, and I was not disappointed.  It sounds great.  Deep bass and rich treble tones were emitting from my amp, and I was about to wet my pants.  I had just built my allmostafenderplank six-string guitar out of a cigar box and a bunch of discarded parts.

Damn, I love it when a plan comes together!

I think I'll do this again, just for grins.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Punch II

I've been more involved than I like in school photography recently, so my luthier hobby has slowed down.  But, I have found time to create a couple interesting instruments.

Punch II is the result of a web search where I stumbled across a very nice looking black box that I thought would make a nifty cigar box guitar.  An oak neck, poplar fingerboard, tuners, frets, strings, a simple bridge, a piezo pickup, and voila, I got myself a rockin' CBG.  The sound hole is a little different, but it allows this little critter to crank out a nice mellow acoustic sustain, and when it's plugged in it'll blow the windows out.