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The DIY Musician: The Art of the Cigar Box Guitar and the Essence of the Blues

The DIY Musician: The Art of the Cigar Box Guitar and the Essence of the Blues

Last week, I stepped into my wood shop with the goal of capturing struggle, poverty and the blues within the artistic side of cigar box guitar building.

I put a CD of Crying Sam Collins & His Gitfiddle in the stereo and started scanning my parts bins for mean and deadly looking parts.

This guitar would be built with a large wooden Punch Cigars box. The bigger the box, the better the sound—and I wanted this one to be a good-sounding guitar. The neck would be poplar, a poor-man’s alternative to maple, but always a great choice for a slide guitar since warping isn’t a factor.

photo 1 skull.jpg

I needed parts, and my wood shop is filled from top to bottom with random parts. The first thing to jump out at me were these skull soundhole covers I bought from C. B. Gitty guitar parts for six bucks. The original covers featured lightly burned lines in the artwork, created by a CNC laser machine. I pulled out my wood-burning pen and darkened all the lines, giving it a truly deathly look.

OK, so this guitar would have death as a theme. But those Crying Sam Collins songs were demanding something more. Something creaky, out-of-tune (as often was his guitar) and poverty-stricken. This instrument needed to be 100 percent lo-fi and trashy.

photo 2 parts.jpg

On the shelf in my wood shop, I have a stack of 5-inch mini baking pans from the 1950s. These little metal pieces make wonderful cigar box dobro cones. I had found my first set in a thrift store and now I scour eBay for them every day. (No, I won’t divulge the brand name or product number. They’re hard enough to find already!) After cutting the huge hole in the box, I installed it with some tiny guitar tuner peg screws.

photo 3 pickup.jpg

With a rusted baking pan as a resonator and skulls for soundholes, I needed the right pickup to make it electric. I chose the $14 Gitty Gold Foil acoustic soundhole pickup that I've featured in many of these GuitarWorld.com articles, not just because I knew it would give me a snarling sound, but also because its low profile would fit right on the pan without any extra routing.

How to Mod a Gitty Gold Foil Acoustic Pickup to become a top-mounted electric pickup:

1. (Optional) Remove the cover paint it. I used Rustoleum dark brown textured paint for a rust look.
2. Remove the bottom mounting tabs by grinding them off on a belt sander and cut the side tabs down with tin snips. Leave enough metal on the sides to become mounting tabs.
3. Drill screw holes in the new mounting tabs
4. Cut the pre-wired cord and solder the wires to a 1/4-inch guitar jack. (BTW, the yellow wire is ground and the red wire is lead.)

The neck was the last piece of the puzzle in this desperation blues guitar. I wanted to wood burn a phrase, saying or several words that captured the essence of the blues. Absolutely no blues clichés about voodoo or mojo. Bullshit like that is way overused. And then I heard something coming from the stereo…

‘Cus I ain’t got no lovin’ baby now.
I’d rather see my coffin come rollin’ in my door.
Hear my woman say, that she don’t want me no more, Lord.
I ain’t got no lovin’ baby now.

Crying Sam was singing "Graveyard Digger’s Blues," sorrowful and resigned. Between the Jim Crow laws at the time, utter poverty and, like this song, suffering the loss of a woman, these bluesmen were living the phrase, "damned if I do, damned if I don’t." Ol’ Crying Sam would rather see his own coffin than to hear a woman tell them she didn’t want him anymore. Whoa.

And that was it. I pulled out the woodburning pen and burned “Damned if I do…” up the neck. The essence of desperation blues.

photo 4 neck.jpg

The neck got several coats of polyurethane, tuners were added and the instrument was assembled. When I plugged it into the small Kustom practice amp in my shop, I got goosebumps. The tone was a gumbo of metallic creaking, electric snarl and graveyard moan.

photo 5 completed guitar.jpg

I never did get to make a demo video. It sold the very next morning when I posted it on my website.

So instead of ending this wood shop diary with a video of the guitar, I’ll just leave you with Crying Sam Collins, "Graveyard Digger’s Blues."

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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