Cigar Box Guitars are traditionally made from a Cuban Cigar Box, although when they were first made by the blues players of the Mississippi delta, they used an old oil can and a broom stick with a length of fencing wire! How times have changed. However, builders today use a little imagination and use all kinds of material such as biscuit tins or wooden boxes with car number plate lids or other metal, plastic or wooden lids or anything else you might find rummaging around an old shed or antique shop.
The box of the guitar is usually 9-12” long, 6-8” wide and around 3” deep. I started making my first guitar bodies using 6mm ply to create a resonation chamber and holes were strategically placed and drilled into the lid to obtain the right sound. Today, I use mostly recycled Tasmanian timbers; Tasmanian Oak, Blackwood and of course the very beautiful Black Heart Sassafras.
The neck of the guitar is normally built in two pieces – a hardwood neck to which is glued a fretboard. The hardwood is either Blackwood, Jarrah or Tassie Oak. I once managed to source a piece of River Red Gum 100 years old from Echuca on the Murray River – it weighed a ton!
The fretboard is usually something special, and again very strong hardwood. Hardwood is always used because of its strength; it doesn’t warp or bend. I was lucky enough to source some extremely special and colourful woods from a woodworker show in Canberra recently. I bought some Brazilian Purple Heart, African Wenge, South American Bloodwood, African Zebrawood and of course Australian Jarrah.
The finished neck and fretboard is around 1 ½” wide and ¾” thick and has anywhere between 17 and 22 frets, spaced for either a 23, 25 or 25 ½ inch scale length. In my most recent builds I have been using a 24 ¾ inch scale, commonly referred to as a Gibson scale for its bluesey sound. Sometimes the neck has no frets, only side inlays to indicate the note positions. This is usually the case as Cigar Box Guitars are normally played with a slide, therefore fretwire is not needed.
The guitar has normally three strings, sometimes four with standard guitar tuners or machine heads. I use either phosphor bronze wound acoustic strings tuned to an open G (string sizes are .042″, .030″ and 022″) or nickel wound electric strings, again tuned to an open G (.046″, .036″ and .026″). If a fourth string is added, it will be a .017″. So, the strings on my 3-string guitars are tuned to G-D-G and if a fourth string is added, it is tuned to a B note.
The nut is the piece at the top of the fretboard that holds the strings up at the right height. I have found that a stainless-steel threaded rod 1/4″ thick with rounded nuts at each end does the trick. On the bottom end is placed the bridge and again I sometimes use a 5/16″ threated rod or if I’m feeling artistic, I have a number of old keys. You know the type that open 100-year-old padlocks or similar? The bottom line is, you can use anything from ‘proper’ guitar bridges to metal, bone, plastic, you name it, whatever feels right.
All my guitars are electrified, having the minimum of a simple piezo pickup located under the lid near the bridge and an output jack so it can be plugged into an amplifier.
The full-blown ‘stage version’ of my guitars have extra special electronics – a Humbucker or Mini-Humbucker pickup/s, single coil/s with volume and tone controls with top-shelf resistors and capacitors wired in such a way to make the instrument scream the blues!
Getting back to the body of the guitar itself, I am currently using various grades and colours of Blackwood and Tassie Oak glued together to create a unique box. The wood is sanded to a fine finish and polished using a special carborundum and orange oil furniture polish. The wood is sometimes treated and stained using Tung Oil and natural wood stains.
I have also used a Lichtenberg Device to burn fractal images into the wood (looks like branches of a tree or a lightning strike). So there is nothing I can’t do to make a unique cigar box guitar – it’s just up to your imagination!
My Cigar Box Guitars are not mass-produced. They are all individually hand made using traditional tools and lots of elbow-grease and love! It normally takes me up to three weeks to make a guitar, working a couple of hours a day, waiting for glue to dry overnight, hours of fine sanding, oiling, painting, gluing, sitting back and visualising the next steps in the build, etc, etc.
So, if you want a special build, be prepared to wait a little while whilst the magic happens! Oh, if you want some special enchantment inserted into the guitar; did I mention I’m also a wizard. That type of magick costs a little more!