So you want to build a cigar box guitar?
I’m not quite sure when I had the idea that I should build a cigar box guitar. Having played for the best part of 25 years a good number of guitars have passed through my hands, but I never felt particularly attached to any of them. The first was a red Yamaha strat copy which was easy for a beginner with the thin neck… but the whammy bar was always such a distraction! That went, others came and went also including a Les Paul, a 12 string acoustic and for some reason a four string bass complete with an amp which took two people to shift. That definitely had to go! So left with a couple of acoustics and a nice Telecaster, I have been happily twanging my way through 50s and 60s blues as well as 70s rock and even a sprinkling of punk… but nothing more modern than that. At which point I came across Seasick Steve who plays foot stomping explosive blues on a mixture of homemade and frankly wrecked guitars. Of course open string slide on a three or four string guitar is very different from the complicated picking for a Hendrix solo… but the sound and the look of those guitars/ cigar box guitars was mesmerising,
Our friend Google served up some interesting results and I was soon exploring the whole spectrum of cigar box guitar and DIY guitars. Youtube is also full of videos showing you just how “easy” it is to build and play a cigar box guitar / DIY guitar. And so I was bitten by the guitar building bug! In the end I narrowed my choice down to CB Gitty in the USA for cigar box guitar parts, accessories (like amps etc) and Drummond and Hammett in the UK for the cigar box guitar kits. What I like about the D&H cigar box guitars is that the body, and hence the sound box, is many times larger than a standard cigar box guitar so the resonance and volume is good even in acoustic mode. A real cigar box guitar sounds pretty feeble unless fitted with a snakebite pickup and plugged into a dirty amp. I also wanted to build a six string guitar so I could play all my standard stuff, and maybe later build a simpler 3 string cigar box guitar to learn authentic slide blues.
D&H cigar box guitars don’t do a six string cigar box guitar kit but after a productive exchange of emails I discovered that they could supply the parts for the Especial “Deluxe” which is a real Bo Diddley style axe. So I wasn’t exactly jumping in at the deep end because it was a kit of parts already drilled and machined which “just” needed finishing and assembling. Full of confidence I placed the order and started counting the days. Actually, delivery was in just a couple of weeks, much faster than the six weeks mentioned on the website.
But what to do in the meantime? Well, inspired by the vintage and retro amps shown on the D&H website I tracked down an old wooden 1950s valve radio in a local junkshop for just a few pounds (or Euros in my case!). I ripped out the guts, sanded and varnished the case and fitted a CB Gitty amp kit inside and wired up two speakers. I saved the old valves, cleaned them up and mounted them in holes drilled along the top to give an original look. I plugged in the Telecaster and it worked second time after I tracked down a dry solder joint… such a great fun practice amp with a good crunchy tone and plenty of volume.
The Cigar Box Guitar Kit Arrives
The great day arrived and the cigar box guitar kit was delivered by courier. All the parts were carefully packed inside the yellow oblong custom case so it all arrived in perfect condition. It was an assembly job rather than a construction job because the body was complete but unfinished and the separate neck was already fretted. I wanted a natural finish so I just need to sand the body and apply the varnish. In the end I used a water based satin finish product and carefully brushed on eight coats with sanding in-between.
As for the assembly I was quite worried, but in the end it went well. No special tools were required apart from a steel ruler and a decent set-square. The neck was pre-drilled and fitted perfectly with no movement. Next I assembled the electronics and created the wiring loom. I needed to exchange a few emails with Pat because from the collection of parts it wasn’t immediately apparent which wire was which. Once assembled I tested the pickup by plugging it into the amp and tapping it – no dry solder joints and it all worked. Actually threading the parts and the loom into the guitar body was the most delicate and tricky part of the assembly. In the end I used a bent coat hanger to pull the connection jack socket into place and to align the volume control. It was really like making a ship in a bottle. At this stage I plugged it into the amp to check that everything still functioned, and hey presto it did… looks like I got lucky!
Finally I got to add the strings and play with the floating bridge. Pat had included the exact measurement required to position the bridge so it was up and twanging in just a few minutes. I discovered that the action was way too high for me so I needed to check the best options with Pat. He suggested sanding down the nut and the bridge little by little until I was happy with the action. This took the best part of an afternoon because after each adjustment you have to refit the parts and tune the guitar. Eventually I was happy so I fitted the final corner decorations to the body to complete the job.
And my thoughts at the end, was it all worth it? Of course it was! First of all I understand much more about how a guitar works and so I can tweak and maintain all my guitars better now. But the main thing is that I have ended up with a completely original instrument hand crafted from quality materials which is a dream to play either in acoustic mode or plugged into a Marshall wall of sound!