The weekend is coming and the wood shop is calling. Let’s build some homemade instruments!
I’ve just edited and re-posted free plans on How to Build a Three-String Cigar Box Guitar over at CigarBoxNation.com.
It’s an easy design based on the type of instrument I’ve been building for more than 20 years. Steal the plans, have fun and make a bunch!
I build cigar box guitars every week, from simple one-string diddley bows to complex instruments with found objects and weird features. (Yes, I do, in fact, sell them on my website, ShaneSpeal.com. Thanks for asking!)
The beauty of these instruments is that there are no rules. Just get an empty wooden box and follow your muse. When Ben Baker at CBGitty.com sent me a box of their cigar box guitar pickups to try out and review, I dove right in, chiseled pickup holes into box tops and made some hot rodded instruments.
Electric Delta 3-Pole Single Coil Pickup: It’s interesting to see a company actively develop pickups for the cigar box guitar market. Whodda-thunk there would be a three-pole pickup with wooden bobbins?
Working with the Electric Delta required me to add reinforcing wood pieces inside the box to deal with the pickup’s height. [See photo 2 in the gallery at the bottom of this story.] The pickup comes pre-wired to a guitar jack (a nice touch for soldering luddites), although I also added a ground wire to the bridge.
I love the looks of the pickup. The wooden bobbin helps retain an old-timey look to the instrument. Tone: Even though I sunk the pickup in the neck position of my latest build, the pickup still delivered a very treble-heavy sound. It’s great for leads with some Tele-like chicken pickin’ tones (even better with distortion!) and has sustain for days. I’m not sure I would use one of these in the bridge position, but it’s a keeper for the neck position. C. B. Gitty Electric Delta, $19.99
Teisco-Style “Gold Foil” Pickup: This is a gloriously cheap magnetic pickup for acoustic guitars that has side clips for soundholes and is pre-wired to an 8-foot-long cord with ¼-inch plug. Using them on cigar box guitars takes a little modding. I removed the clips on the underside, cut the cord and spliced the wires to a ¼-inch guitar jack. The tone is trashy and microphonic like an old Teisco Del Rey. Fans of Hound Dog Taylor and David Lindley will approve. (By the way, these pickups work so-so as acoustic sound hole pickups.
When I ran an open-mic night, I’d keep one in my gig bag for the musicians who showed up with acoustic guitars that weren’t outfitted with electronics. It was better than trying to mic a light-strumming guitarist and dealing with feedback.) C. B. Gitty Gold Foil Pickup, $13.49
Soap Bar Single Coil Pickup: P90 Soapbars carry mythological implications with them that stem from icons like Leslie West and Johnny Thunders. When you sink a P90-style pickup in a cigar box guitar, it grabs the attention of even the most skeptical guitarist. (The guitars sell faster, too.) C. B. Gitty’s Soapbar pickup delivers the snarl you’d expect, but costs only $13. I, like most cigar box guitar builders, am notoriously cheap, and this pickup works great in a poor-man’s homemade axe.
Some modding is required to install these in a cigar box guitar. The pickup comes with extra-long pole pieces that stick out of the bottom. Mounting them in a cigar box guitar requires you to unscrew them and trim about ¼ inch off. Be gentle when you remove and insert them because their low-budget construction causes pole pieces to strip out if you use too much force.
Because Soapbars are traditionally noisy, be sure to ground the pickup. I like to connect a wire from the jack’s ground tab to whatever screw or bolt I use as a floating bridge.
The tone is a little more lo-fi than a super expensive Soapbar, but I kinda like that. It has a great combination of warmth and bite. I sunk one into a cigar box guitar that sports a broomstick neck and six strings. It ended up sounding like Elmore James. I can only attribute this to sorcery or witchcraft of some sort. C. B. Gitty Soapbar Pickup, $12.99
Snake Oil Mini Humbucker: Mini humbuckers are my favorite pickups to use in concert because of their bluesy tone and ability to walk the tightrope between sweet and savory. (Hmm…there’s gotta be a better way to describe it. Maybe “the sound between Ginger and MaryAnn,” perhaps?) Gitty threw a few of their new Snake Oil mini hums my way and I sunk one into a freakish homemade dobro cigar box guitar. The instrument has a 5-inch baking tin sunk into the lid as a makeshift resonator cone and a massive bridge made from Corian scrap discarded by a cabinet maker.
I tried a new style of construction for this guitar that included an internal center block of oak and a bolt on neck. I didn’t have to mod the pickup once I set up the guitar. Again, I mounted everything straight to the jack with no volume or tone.
As you can see in the video below, the tone is unexpectedly clear and clean. Even with a baking pan resonator, the pickup delivers a great sound. C. B. Gitty Snake Oil Mini Humbuckers, $26.99/pair
Final thoughts: There’s no one way to make a cigar box guitar. I prefer simplicity, cheap parts and tones that always have one foot in the dumpster. Trashiness is the key and it’s almost a religion to me…with Hound Dog Taylor as the patron saint. C. B. Gitty’s pickups deliver on all accounts here. They’re cheap, they snarl like pitbulls and are relatively easy to install.
OK, it’s time to get back to the wood shop. Just remember, kiddies: Sawdust is man-glitter!
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.