Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Building a 3-String Fretless Cigar Box Guitar

This is my first attempt at making a cigar box guitar. In last Sunday’s Austin American-Statesman, there was an article (can’t find it on the site so no link) about 2 guys who make and sell cigar box guitars under the name Bobby Taylor Guitars. They’re based here in Austin, and the article made the guitars sound so cool, I thought about going out to find one. The article also mentioned a few websites with plans for building your own, which sounded like more fun than buying one. Thus building a cigar box ax became my project for the week.

The plan I used was for a simple 3-string fretless guitar that relies more on parts from Radio Shack and Lowe’s than anything from a music store. The plan for this simple guitar is available at Cigar Box Guitars, though I used many ideas and relied on a lot of insights in the forums at Cigar Box Nation, especially for wiring.

I’m a rank amateur when it come to carpentry. My dad is talented in woodworking and though he taught me the “measure twice, cut once” rule, I’m still at the “measure twice, cut twice, screw it up, fix it, and improvise to get it right” level. Because of this, I decided I wasn’t going to worry too much about how it looked and hell, it’s a DIY cigar box ax: if it looks kind of jacked up, then that just makes it look more punk. Fine with me. I just wanted it to work and sound cool.

On Monday, I gathered all the supplies. I got the wood, a 3-foot 1×2 of poplar, and various bolts and nails at Lowe’s. I got the pickup (a piezo transducer) and 1/4 inch output jack at Radio Shack. The tuners and the volume pot came from Strait Music. The cigar box came from the Twin Liquors down the street and seemed to be the only empty cigar box in town. I’d have preferred a deeper one, but in the spirit of use-what-you-got, I took what I could get.

Cutting the neck to fit the box was the trickiest part. I went to my parents’ house to get some help from my dad since I don’t even have a workbench. We experimented with a bandsaw, jigsaw, coping saw and various weapons of sanding. In the end, and for future reference, the jigsaw was fine for most of the cutting, followed by various files and a pocket knife to finish and get the cuts just right.

I read about fretting the neck and understand the principle, but a guitar has around 20 frets and that sounded to me like 20 opportunities to screw up the neck beyond repair and so I decided it would be a fretless ax and moved on to staining the neck.

Once the stain was dry, I put it together. My cuts in the cigar box weren’t perfect and so I nailed the neck to the box lid with small finishing nails (rather than gluing it). Then I strung it up and wrestled with physics, one of the more unforgiving teachers. Here is where I had to go off plan. The first issue was that as I tuned the strings to pitch, they dug into the wood of the tailpiece. As they cut the wood, they lost tension and so I couldn’t tune them. I needed some metal to stick into the string holes.

I went back to Lowe’s and wandered up and down the aisles looking for something that might work. In the plumbing department, I found some little pieces of copper tubing with flared ends. They weren’t as thick as the tailpiece and it looked like the balls on the ends of the strings might not go through them. I bought a few, widened the string holes and glued them in.

That solved the strings cutting the wood problem, but the balls on the ends of the strings could slide up the tubes, so I used this solution, which I saw in a picture on Cigar Box Nation:

You can see holes, where I tried staples, but that didn’t work as well as the nail. This works, though, it does mean that changing even one string will require me to de-tune all three in order to release the tension on the nail.

The other string related issue was the fact that the middle string wanted to be too close to the low string. Because I’m using bolts instead of a “real” (ie: cut) nut and bridge, the strings will slip into the most natural groove, but I needed the middle string moved slightly downward. I remembered the string guides on Stratocasters and figured I could just drive a fat screw in there and perhaps it would work. It did, and now I have a nice ugly DIY-looking headstock:

Believe it or not, it works and the thing stays in tune.

Next up was the wiring. I haven’t soldered anything since 7th grade electronics class so this took some practice. The plans I used say to just hook the piezo transducer to the output jack, but I wanted a volume pot in there so I had to search around, but I found a simple wiring diagram at Cigar Box Nation. I wired it up, but could never get the ground wires soldered onto the back of the volume pot. After reading that real electric guitars use the bridge as the ground, I decided to just run the ground wire out of the back of the box (that black wire in the detail photos above) and wrap it around the bolt I’m using for a bridge. To my surprise, it worked.

Now it was time to tune up. I tried acoustic strings hoping to get more volume since the box is so thin, but they kept breaking. Electric guitar strings, however, work quite well. They’re thinner and require less tension. The source of the breaking turned out to be scale length (the distance between nut and bridge, aka, the 2 bolts). A longer scale equals more tension. I measured the scale length and found it was almost 2 inches longer than the scale length on my other guitars, but shorter than bass scale length. Had I known about this, I would have cut 2 inches off the neck, so that info will get filed away for the next one.

The thing turns out to be playable. The action is kind of high, so next time, I’ll use a slightly thinner bolt for the nut. Not having frets will take some getting used to; my fingers generally know where to go, but with the longer scale I have to spread them slightly farther than I would on a regular guitar. Fretless guitars are best played with a slide so I’ll learn how to do that.

I initially tuned to E-A-D like on a standard guitar and while that was fun, I think I’ll get more mileage from an open tuning, which is what a lot of the cigar box guitar sites recommend. Right now, I’ve got it tuned to open G (G-D-G) which lends itself to slide playing. Still, it’s a new beast and now that it’s built I get the fun of figuring out how to play it.

Coming out of my amp, it sounds old fashioned: tinny and mid-rangey like an A.M. radio. I like it. The piezo doesn’t pick up a whole lot of vibration since the lid is thicker than an acoustic guitar top and the box is thin. A pre-amp would probably be useful (there are kits to make your own) but I plugged it into an overdrive pedal and that works for now.

In all, this was a wonderful experience. I was telling a friend just last week that wish I knew how to make things. He said, “You make poems.” I nodded and while I love making poems and stories and content, there’s something immensely satisfying about the making of things. Especially things that work. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy. I don’t know how many hours I spent sanding and soldering (and re-soldering) but I really enjoyed the doing of it.

I plan to make more of these. I have a very cool cigar box that I didn’t want to ruin on my first build so I’ll be making it into a guitar one day. I’d also like to build one with proper electric guitar pickups, maybe a nice, growling, dirty humbucker. That will however be a project for cooler weather. One thing I vowed never to do again is build a guitar when it’s 103°F outside. In the shade. Thank goodness for TopoChico.

Now have a listen. The clip is about a minute or so. The 1st 30 seconds are acoustic and the rest is through the amp. The buzzing and crackling you’ll hear is the amp, which needs some work. The slide work is clumsy (you can hear me knocking it against the neck). I’m just guessing at the fingering since I don’t really know how to play a fretless instrument yet. Anyhow, enjoy (if that’s the right word):

 

I’ll be learning to play by watching this guy.

7 Comments

  1. Ha! That box has a good sound. And you’ve got talent, doing that fretless.

  2. Thanks, Peter. The more I play (with) it the more natural it seems.

  3. Dom Alessandro

    July 22, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    I solved the tail piece problem using 1/8×3/4 tension pins or some places call them roll pins. As for the middle string I made the fret board 1/2” longer and sawed a groove into the top of the fret board just below the head piece. There I glued a number 6x 1 1/2 machine screw. It seems to hole the string just fine

  4. I enjoyed reading about your first build as I just completed my first build. We are somewhat opposites in that you admit possessing modest woodworking skills but obviously are a talented guitarist; I am a master carpenter/furniture maker but have no clue about playing a stringed instrument!

    My son plays incredibible guitar (he’ll be 16 in a few weeks) I’m told he has some chops, whatever that means. Two inch thick pork would be real fine with me. Anyhow, I happened to have saved the cigar box that I bought to hand out cigars in the bars to my buddies when he was born. Had it tucked up there in my closet and would see it all the time but never used it for anything. When I was bragging about my son to a new friend of mine he told me about this whole cigar box guitar/amplifier culture and I was intrigued.

    I built my son a cigar box amp using salvaged parts and a circuit from “Guitar Fuel” and gave it to him for Christmas. It was awesome!….but I didn’t use that special box. Right after Christmas I decided to build him a guitar out of that box I held onto for all those years and give it to him for his 16th birthday.

    I was struck by your sense of peace, satisfaction and enjoyment while doing your build. I felt the same thing. Being made in His image we are creative and yearn for an outlet for that creativity. It has been a very peaceful and enjoyable experience.

    Anyway, I am now building a 3 stringer and cb amp for myself and I’m determined to piss my son off and learn to play fretless slide before he does. Your audio clip sounds great and gives an old man something to aspire to. I agree about the fretless decision. Less work and he must already have 10 fretted guitars! He ain’t got one fretless CBG…..yet.

    I have some technigues that I developed on this first build that are unique, if you are interested. It is pretty crazy in that I had no idea what a “nut” was just three months ago but with careful attention to detail and pirating the measurements off of my son’s Les Paul, the thing sounds GREAT. I can’t play it but those who can, have and were amazed.

    Thanks for the opportunity to talk. Even if no one is listening, it was good.

  5. Hey, I was listenin’, Ron!

    I’m gathering random ideas to build a coffee can guitar — I think this would sound a bit different from a cigar box, and well, I have several cool antique coffee cans lying around my junk room, er, shop. There are some good YouTubes of Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) playing a coffee can guitar.

  6. Super! As a guitarist with about twenty too many guitars ( according to my not me) I’m just now getting interested in cigar box versions. So cool and thanks for taking the time and sharing all you know and how you did it. Blessing

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