Sunday, November 20, 2016

Cigar Box Guitars- The most fun you can have with a few bucks!

Cigar box guitars are a tradition that stretches back to the 1830 when cigars first became available in small wooden boxes. Inspired by the African Bajar, the combination of a box, a stick of wood, and strings made a very affordable instrument for people who had little means at their disposal, such as African Americans, Appalachians, and various American rural populations. They were carried by civil war soldiers, and saw resurgence in popularity during the great depression. Many famous players, from Jimi Hendrix to Bo Diddley played cigar box guitars, and some, like BB King, cut their teeth on cbgs! Their most recent popular revival is going on right now, as a part of the DIY culture, and there are clubs, websites, products, and kits dedicated to the instruments.

I am a big fan of the DIY movement. I make these guitars in an effort to keep the tradition alive, as well as provide new generations access to this instrument. I have taught classes in making these, and have distilled the basic traits down to my own recipe based on sound and simplicity.
There are some great tutorials online on how to make these, so I will just go over the basics: The first and probably most difficult part is to shape the neck. I use a piece of 1x2 red oak(3/4 x1 ½ actual). The reason I use a hardwood is there will be a great deal of tension on the neck when it is strung. I cut away 1/8th inch depth for the head-stock, and ¼ inch for the body. I get my fret pattern from free online fret calculators. I use the standard 24.75 scale length (like a Gibson guitar). For my fretless version, I trace out frets with a wood burner, and add markers with a screw put into the end of the wood burner. It is up to you how round you want the back of the neck, but I leave the fretboard nice and flat so it is easy to play with a slide.
When it comes to the box, just about any box will sound pretty good- even the cardboard ones. The best sound seems to come from the all wooden ones, and they look great! Measure out the end dimension of the neck and cut out the space with a small saw and a utility knife. Any paper on the inside where the neck will be glued has to be removed. Cut the body end of the neck to length, clamp, and glue it. I make my tailpiece from 75lb picture hangers, but I have also used old hinges. Since the neck doubles as a brace on the soundboard, mount the tailpiece to it for strength. Use spade bits or hole saws to cut a few sound holes. Hot glue in grommet rings or drain screens for the classic look.
The rest is very simple. . I use threaded rod cut to length as the bridge and the nut of my guitars. Add tuners (any will do) or make your own from a screw eye with a hole cut through. I choose to string mine with 3,4, and 5 of guitar string and tune it to open g. 
Playing an instrument is such a joy. Making a workable and great sounding instrument is fun and easy. Caution: After you make one of these, you may try to tackle other musical instrument DIYs. I highly recommend it!  
This one is electric/acoustic.
This is a matching amp.

This is one of my typical design.

I prefer to have all of my boxes still able to open.

Here are some wonderful guitars that my students in Circle Round the Square made.