Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: cigar box guitars

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:


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.

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