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The DIY Musician: The Art of the Cigar Box Guitar and the Beauty of Rust

There’s something magical about building an instrument with a vague history and word-of-mouth origins.

That magic includes a staunch "no rules" ethos among modern cigar box guitar builders, which allows creativity to rule supreme, just like the original makers back in the Depression era.

The idea is to create an instrument with found objects and parts that were never meant for guitars.

I recently completed a cigar box guitar I call “Nails & Screws,” named after the words scrawled into the box lid by its previous owner. Because of the beat-to-hell look of the cigar box, I decided to choose and relic the rest of the parts to match. My secret weapon was Rustoleum dark brown textured spray paint. (It looks just like rust!)

Pickup: I knew I wanted this guitar to be electric with a magnetic pickup because the box top was thick and wouldn't be a good acoustic instrument. I chose a "ThinBucker" humbucker to be the engine. These are hand-wound by Dan Sleep of (I bought 10 of these suckers a while ago. I've been waiting to use them.) I used the rust-colored spray paint to destroy the look of the beautiful metal cover.

Neck/Fretboard: I used a 1x2x3 piece of poplar for the thru-body neck and attached a Lowe's yardstick on top as a fretboard. I stained the yardstick first and distressed it slightly with steel wool to give it an antique look. The fret markers are on the side to give the player a cheating advantage. I also used screws to mark the fret dots on the face of the fretboard.

One note on the neck: I reinforced the neck-thru inside the box by gluing a scrap piece of maple to the underside where I notched out the poplar neck to make room for the box lid. This should stiffen it up and help resist bowing.

Sound Holes: Although the sound holes are very striking visually, they're actually simple to create. I started with a pair of C. B. Gitty Mini Humbucker Wood Pickup Rings ($4.99/pair) and added a small section of metal lattice I picked up at Lowes. (BTW, I painted the lattice with rust colored paint first, of course). The lattice was attached to the pickup rings with hot glue.

I've used these pickup rings before, most notably in my "Peep Show" series of cigar box guitars:

The lattice is sold in the nuts and bolts aisle of Lowe's. I love how it gives a Catholic confessional window look to sound holes. Here's a guitar I built and sold last year that featured the lattice:

Ok...back to the Nails & Screws guitar:

Bridge & cover: The bridge is a C. B. Gitty laser-cut maple bridge ($3.49) that I whittled down to fit the build. The cover is a Black Colonial Box Handle ($4.79/pair) that Gitty sells for cigar box amps. I painted the handle with rust paint and put it over the bridge like a Dobro bridge cover. It completes the look.

Other details:
· Strings: A, D, G, B strings from a pack heavy gauge electric guitar strings
· Tuning: Open G: GDGB
· Fretboard: This is a fretless guitar with medium action, intended for slide playing.

Most importantly, I have been filling my wood shop with random parts and pieces, such as the ones used on this guitar. It's so much fun to walk in there and have a wide array of things to choose from when building. Hit thrift stores, junk shops and the dark corners of the Gitty catalog for unexpected items.

Performance: Here’s a quick one-minute test drive using some slower slide licks. I’m playing through a Roland Micro Cube. (Louder amps make my iPhone mic distort.)

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 Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.