Legendary American Blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Lightnin’ Hopkins fashioned his own cigar box guitar in the 1920’s. He described his process:
“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, nailed 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.”
The cigar box guitar (cbg) has its roots in primitive Americana musical instrument crafting. Along with the cigar box fiddle (cigfiddle) and the cigar box banjo, these instruments were created as early as the 1840’s.
Many musically inclined rural Southerners didn’t have the means to purchase instruments during The Great Depression. Therefore, homemade was the way to go. They relied on their voices, jugs, washboards and crates/beat boxes to enjoy music and share songs within families and communities. The early versions of cigar box guitars had just one or two strings, but three strings became more popular as the expertise of those making them increased.
The experience of making your own cigar box guitar appeals to different people for different reasons. Some say they enjoy paying homage to America’s blues roots, and enjoy recreating the sounds and twangs like old-time players. The organic experience of using basics like a broomstick, wood slats and a cigar box as a resonator connects players to the instrument and acts as a bridge to the past. Many cigar lovers enjoy utilizing a special stogie box that has a memory or event associated with it. Other enthusiasts enjoy the thrill of the hunt of finding just the right cigar box for the project. Antique wooden cigar boxes, ornate boxes or any number of unique theme boxes are out there for the taking and making.
As revealed by Lightnin’ Hopkins, you don’t need much in the way of materials. The expense is negligible when compared to buying an actual guitar or a fine artisanal cigar box guitar model. Generally, the cost is under fifty dollars. However, the price can be higher if you choose to add gadgets or amplify your ax with a pickup or resonator cone.
Here are the basic materials you’ll need to get it in gear:
- 1 Cigar Box. It’s best to use a larger one, and wood is best.
- Hardwood. Optimum size is 1 by 2 by 32 inches. Red oak, maple, ash or mahogany will add refinement to your guitar.
- Basic tension pins or tuning pegs.
- Some tools like a miter box and saw, tape measure, sandpaper, finishing nails, glue and a drill will be needed.
- Guitar strings. Let’s not forget those.
The resurgence of the cigar box guitar is a real movement. It’s not just the DIY set nowadays that finds the allure of the cigar box guitar too tempting to pass up. The revival of Brit-beat skiffle groups, Ska bands, and jug bands have contributed to the modern revival.
Very famous and respected musicians have utilized them at one point or another. To name a few: The gravelly voiced pop-blues singer and songwriter Tom Waits has used his cigar box banjo on records. PJ Harvey has been known to work her cig fiddle into her performances and records. Blues innovator Bo Diddley and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons have employed their cigar box guitars at various points. Most famously, Paul McCartney played a Baratto cigar box guitar on “Cut Me Some Slack.” The tune, written and performed with the three surviving members of Nirvana, garnered the best rock song Grammy in 2014.
Making your own cigar box guitar is a fun project and a great way to scrape the rust off your imagination. You’ll be showing off and shredding for fellow cigar and music lovers in no time.
So go ahead and get started!
Here are some links to point you in the right direction: