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The DIY Musician: Fretted or Fretless Cigar Box Guitars — Which Is Better?

The DIY Musician: Fretted or Fretless Cigar Box Guitars — Which Is Better?

Today, I'm answering a question from a reader:

Dear Shane: Is it better to learn on a cigar box guitar that has a fretted neck or one that's played with a slide?

That’s a great question! When I built my first cigar box guitar more than 20 years ago, it had no frets, no fret markers and was played 100 percent with a slide. For me, that was the perfect instrument because I wanted to play the deepest Delta blues possible. I wanted the music to be primitive, creaky and have that slightly out-of-tune sound heard on old Smithsonian recordings.

If you’re looking to capture the really old-timey sound of a traditional cigar box guitar, I suggest you shove a slide on your finger and grind away without frets. There’s nothing like the whining moan of metal against metal going up the neck.

But wait! There’s also magic happening with the modern Cigar Box Guitar Revolution where people are bucking tradition and utilizing these homemade instruments for something new. They’re taking the concept of a homemade instrument and mixing it with the new sounds they have in their heads.

If you’re not looking for the old-time creaky stuff, a fretted cigar box guitar might be the right tool for you. Even a simple three-string fretted cigar box guitar will allow you to play rock power chords, dulcimer-style passages and whatever your fertile brain can imagine.

The lesson here is to simply think about what you want to accomplish and then choose the right tool for the job. The cigar box guitar is an instrument borne from American poverty back in the days even before the Great Depression. The builders and players were searching for a sound they couldn’t afford to purchase, so they made their own. Be like them. Follow the sound.

And if you still can’t decide, build one of each! I've been working with C. B. Gitty Crafter Supply in creating a library of free cigar box guitar lessons. Although we are still in the early stages of this project, you can get a wealth of lessons at its sister site, CigarBoxGuitar.com, In addition, I've posted my easy-to-follow video series at ShaneSpeal.com.

And in case you missed it, check out Guitar World’s How to Build a Cigar Box Guitar for $25.

By the way, when I perform, half of my instruments are fretless and half are fretted. Since my music encompasses a wide range of mutant styles, I need many guitars to perform a three-hour bar gig.

And speaking of mutant styles, here’s a freakish video I filmed last night as I was practicing on sitar sounds with a three-string cigar box guitar. (It’s a warts-and-all video. If I knew how to really play this stuff, I’d be dangerous.)

Photo: Kevin Stiffler

Shane Speal is the "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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