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The DIY Musician: The Art of the Cigar Box Guitar and the Absence of Rules

The DIY Musician: The Art of the Cigar Box Guitar and the Absence of Rules

Claude Monet had his “Blue Period,” and I seem to be having my “Rust Period.”

Every cigar box guitar I build has rusty found objects (or ones I painted with Rustoleum dark brown textured paint). It’s a weathered look that’s akin to relic'd Strats and Teles, I guess.

Either way, adding rusty things to stringed instruments is putting a smile on my face in the woodshop.

This is my latest, and I feel like a proud papa when I play it. It’s four-string acoustic/electric cigar box guitar I call Autumn Rust because of the rusty tin maple leaf attached to the headstock. (It's still for sale at shanespeal.com.)

The neck is made of poplar, a choice of wood I have used for more than 20 years for its availability in most Lowe’s and Home Depot stores. The guitar is fretless (the frets are hand-woodburned on) and is played with a slide, which means any minor warping from the poplar is inconsequential. Medium to high action is actually great for slide playing.

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In the modern cigar box guitar movement, there's a loud mantra chanted by many builders: NO RULES! It’s an ideology that allows the freedom to create, modify and push the limits of cigar box guitar building. The internal rod pickup and pre-amp with four-band EQ that I loaded in this axe certainly screams “no rules.” For an instrument that has roots in poverty and is made from discarded packaging material, Autumn Rust sounds full bodied and professional when plugged straight into an amp.

The pickup only cost me $17 at C. B. Gitty, but it added that extra touch of artistic absurdity that you discover when making these instruments. A poverty instrument? Let’s throw a preamp in it because…why not?!

The No Rules ideology steers all of my instruments. If I get an idea for something, I just build it. Being simpler instruments than normal guitars, I can try out the craziest combinations of parts and features with little consequence. The Minstrel cigar box guitar is a good example.

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I had been wondering what it would be like to add a half-string on a slide guitar, similar to a banjo. One evening, I went out to the shed and found out. I created this mutant two-and-a-half string thing I call The Minstrel.

With The Minstrel, you slide up and down on the two longer strings and allow the half string to be a drone, like a banjo. The biggest eye-opener for me was the varied modal tunings that lend themselves to this design. I think I have it tuned eEA in this video, which allows for a banjo-like style of playing.

Every once in a while, somebody will get on Facebook or Cigar Box Nation and declare a certain cigar box guitar style to be “the only true cigar box guitar” and proceed to bash a builder who might use store-bought parts or whatever. I will always rally the troops to start chanting “NO RULES!” over and over in the comments. Why? Because the moment somebody creates the rules, ingenuity and inventiveness get squashed.

Free your mind and go build a cigar box guitar this weekend. Here’s a link to some free plans.

Shane Speal is "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at ShaneSpeal.com. Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.

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