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The DIY Musician: Madmen, Outsiders and the Art of the Cigar Box Guitar

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the guitars of Ed Stilley, an untrained luthier in Hogscald Hollow, Arkansas, who made the most outrageous acoustic guitars.

Inside the bodies of each crudely made instrument, Stilley loaded springs, saw blades and other found objects. He feels these metal additions allow the guitar “to better speak the voice of the Lord.”

I knew springs are used in reverb and metal is used in Dobros, so his ideas put a tickle in my brain.

Was he right? I just had to try this concept for myself, so I went to a local junk store and bought every old spring I could find. Door springs, small springs, rusted ones, whatever they had. I also bought hubcaps and other junk in hopes of capturing Stilley’s mojo.

To be honest, I thought Stilley’s ideas of springs and internal resonators were lot of madman jive. But I still had to try them out just to see what would happen. I still had to follow this path out of complete curiosity, because guitar building, even cigar box guitar building, is an art…and sometimes art can be revolutionized by outsiders who never followed convention.

So I built a cigar box guitar with Ed Stilley springs and metal parts. And I realized that Ed was right…

Here’s the process of my Ed Stilley Tribute cigar box guitar (see the photo gallery below) and how it proved that he was on to something amazing.

The guys at C. B. Gitty cigar box guitar parts sent me a prototype Two-Piece Cigar Box Combo Kit Body they developed using two wide Arturo Fuente cigar boxes. (The bottoms of each are nicely cut out using a laser cutter, and two perfect F holes are laser cut from the top.)

All the extra room inside would prove to be the perfect resonating body to try out Stilley’s ideas. Since I didn’t have old saw blades to mount like Stilley, I started by mounting a Buick hubcap inside the bottom portion of the box using four small springs. After crafting the neck, I set it into the box in a spike-fiddle style and then attached a dozen more springs, making sure to that each spring had a twin on the opposite side, just like Stilley. One note: I added extra bracing to the inside of the box to ensure the eye hooks and screws wouldn’t pull out from the tension of the springs.

I set this guitar up with a four-string maple neck and medium-medium fret wire. A jumbo fret serves as a “zero fret” at top, and I woodburned Stilley’s signature “True Faith, True Light. Have Faith in God” up the fretboard in his handwriting that I copied from a photo. I decided on using A, D, G and B strings to go in an open G tuning (G, D, G, B), which would give a nice spectrum of lows and highs to the primitive instrument. I also chose not to molest the instrument with any electronics, thus leaving it 100 percent acoustic.

So how does it sound? The guitar proves Stilley was on a revolutionary path with his designs. The internal springs add a tonal brilliance and brightness not found on other instruments. It also ads a beautiful reverb. You can hear a bit of it in this quick cell phone video I filmed in the wooshop.

I can honestly say this guitar feels and sounds like a living, breathing entity. The natural reverberations inside just make you want to hit short, sharp notes so they can ring out.

Ed was right. (See more photos here.)

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

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