Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Building a Better Ax

I get antsy if too much time goes by, and I haven’t made anything tangible. Whether it’s framing a print, making a chapbook or making a guitar, I find I just need to do these things. It’s like exercise for me. If I don’t do it, I slip into a dark funk. I suppose making useful objects is intrinsic to being human and for a long time, it was considered the very thing that separated us from the apes (until, of course, we learned that apes and even some birds also make tools). But, to my knowledge, no other animal makes guitars.

The cigar box guitar I made back in August was the most exciting thing I made last year. Perhaps because in doing so I learned so much about how stringed instruments work, but mainly because I made a thing that worked and did a good job of doing what it was made for. That is an exciting thing.

When my dad saw it, he asked if I’d make him one. I thought it might be a good Christmas present and so the week before Christmas, I set out on my second cigar box guitar build determined to learn from the mistakes I’d made on the first one.

The biggest flaw in my first guitar was that the scale length (distance between bridge and nut) was about 2 inches too long. This made it impossible to string it with acoustic strings because the tension added by those extra 2 inches was more than the acoustic strings could stand. I had to use electric strings on mine and while it works, it just doesn’t sound as nice. So I cut my dad’s guitar to a more reasonable 25.5 inches or so, which allowed me to string it up with light gauge acoustic strings.

Other than that, I did pretty much everything else the same; although, I did use a much nicer cigar box. It’s thicker and made of a more resonant sounding wood. I discovered the differences in wood sounds while sitting in the humidor of a nearby cigar bar thumping on empty boxes. This one sounded sweeter and richer somehow so I bought a few of the same brand and wasn’t disappointed.

I didn’t wire it since my dad doesn’t have an amp so that made it simpler than what I did last summer, and I didn’t fret it because, again, it seemed like a lot of chances to ruin the neck and anyway, I like the fretless feel of it especially when playing with a slide.

It was easier to make this one because I knew the tools and the process and didn’t have to rely on trial and error as I did last summer. It was also not 103F in the shade either. That helped a lot.

In the end, I was quite pleased with how it came out. I still don’t have the carpentry chops to make things that look really artful, but it works, it’s playable and it sounds pretty good, I think.

Have a listen:



  1. that’s amazing! What a brilliant thing to make…

  2. This is a fantastic build and sound. A poem on the subject would be amazing I think – no-one else will have written a poem on such a subject!

  3. Maybe a poem set to music.

    I hope Dad was delighted!

    -from the mother of a guitar picker.

  4. I was, and am, delighted. It is a really wonderful gift. Now if I can only figure out how to play it.

  5. Four people live here, each with his own sense of what the creative impulse leads to. My son makes things; I’m more likely to ask him to make me something, I think, than for me to make anything for anyone. I find satisfaction from making virtual things, but my daughter likes to sew and sculpt. My wife feels satisfied just organizing things! I can’t imagine it.

    Anyway, that’s one lovely piece of art you gave your dad. It feels so American, too, like something I’d find at the Smithsonian.

    • Thanks, Peter. These kinds of guitars are based on the old homemade guitars made by early delta blues musicians. Often just a broomstick, a box and one string. It would be cool to see such a folk music exhibit at the Smithsonian. Perhaps there is one, I don’t know, it’s been over 15 years since I was in D.C.

      I’m more of a virtual maker too, which is why I get such a kick out of making tangible things.

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