Memphis-based St. Blues Guitar Workshop has been around since the 1980s, building blues-approved guitars for everyone from Clapton to Gibbons. When I heard they were introducing a line of cigar box guitars handmade in their Memphis shop, I got excited.
Two weeks ago, I got to meet Greg Mitchell and Robert Fisher from St. Blues at the Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival. By the end of the day, I was walking away with their four-string electric Premier model cigar box guitar.
I haven’t put it down since.
The Premier starts with an actual wooden cigar box. In this case, it’s paper-covered wood. (I expect to chew through the paper with my guitar picks; it’s expected with cigar box guitars.) The neck is hard rock maple with a satin poly finish that has been polished to a beautifully smooth “flat U” shape. Unlike many cigar box guitars that have neck-thru “spike fiddle” designs, this neck is actually bolted on internally, connecting with a 1 ¾-inch poplar block at the neck joint and a ¾-inch block at the tailpiece.
The details here are unheard of with cigar box guitars. The pickup is a single-coil Teisco Del Rey Gold Foil replica and looks absolutely beautiful. The Premier includes Grover tuners, a solid shaft 250k CTS pot with a set-screw wooden knob (mounted on top) and a Switchcraft jack. They even use a noiseless cable so it's as quiet as a single coil can be.
But then they also include a door stopper plate as a tailpiece just to keep with the found-object tradition. Hand-cut and shaped bone nut and floating bridge round out the guitar.
The first thing you notice about the St. Blues Premier is the resonance of the cigar box itself. They put this machine together tight…but made sure to let the wood of the box sing out.
The neck is like butter. I’m used to playing the most demonstrative instruments with a heavy hand, so it’s a bit of a surprise to caress the neck of this beauty. It’s so smooth, it’s like you’re running your hand down Angelina Jolie’s leg.
The guitar has four strings and is set up in an Open G tuning (GDGB, low to high… imagine Keef’s 5-string guitar with a broken E string). Since I write and perform in this tuning, I was ready to go as soon as I got it. Everything feels so fast on this neck.
Oh, a very huge note: The frets are finished and polished as if it were one of their $3,000 guitars. Insane!
The one downside is the string spacing, which is a little wider than a normal electric guitar. I often push the low string off the side of the neck when I’m playing it. The more I play it, the more I get used to the feel.
The Premier has an amazing bloom to each note and chord. The secret is in the gloriously trashy Gold Foil pickup placed in the neck position, which brings out the savory. Plugged into my 15-watt Musicvox MVX-15 all-tube amp, the cigar box guitar sounds like it’s playing at 5 on a small Chicago blues club. Compared to my collection of four-string electric cigar box guitars, this one has more soul. It’s a rhythm monster.
When playing leads, this ax makes me want to play slower and let each note sing. Again, it’s all about the bloom.
The phrase “professional cigar box guitar” might seem like an oxymoron, but the guys at St. Blues have introduced a machine that pros will be using on the street and in the studio. This machine is crafted with more attention than just about anyone I’ve ever seen in the homemade instrument realm. They’ve hit this one out of the park.
The St. Blues Premier electric cigar box guitar: $319, saintblues.com. They’re rebuilding the website, so you won’t see the Premier listed. Contact them directly to order.
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.