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How to Make Your First Cigar Box Guitar

Strolling Tone —  May 15, 2011

So you've decided that you want to make yourself a cigar box guitar but you don't know where to start. Here are just a few pointers that I hope will get you going.

  1. The first thing is....  KISS = Keep it Super Simple. If this is your first cigar box guitar build and maybe you haven't worked with wood before, or you haven't done any woodwork since your school days, then don't make life difficult for yourself by choosing a complicated design. Stick to a very simple, tried and tested design. One of the most simple is what is called a 'through neck design' which basically means that the piece of wood that you use for the neck passes all the way through the cigar box body and the strings are fixed at one end and tuned (tensioned) at the other. Simple. There are some cool plans over at Cigar Box Nation which you will find useful and inspiring. Here are some additional links that you may find useful:
  2. Gather all the parts that you will need. There is nothing more frustrating than getting part-way into a build only to find that you don't have the pieces for the next stage. Here is a basic parts list for a really simple CBG:
    • Cigar box or something similar. Finding good cigar boxes can be hard work so look out for good alternatives such as old cutlery boxes, art boxes or 35mm slide boxes (one of my favourites). EBay is a great source for these.
    • A nice piece of straight hardwood for the neck. Oak is a popular choice along with Walnut, Sapele or whatever you can find. I like to visit my local wood merchant's store and rummage through their offcuts. I always find something useful.
    • Guitar tuners or eyebolts to use as tuners. You can find some very cheap guitar tuners which make tuning your instrument easier than eyebolts.
    • Something that will make a good bridge. Bolts are commonly used along with keys, pieces of bone or even glass.
    • Something that will work as a 'nut'. The nut is generally glued to the neck at the head-stock end and it acts as a string guide, holding the strings above the fretboard. Bolts and pieces of bone are often used for this component.
    • If you want to make your instrument electric then you will need a pickup. The simplest and cheapest form of pickup is a little piezzo transducer that you can pick up from the likes of Maplin for very little. These are normally used as buzzers but work well as pickups.
    • And you will need to connect your pickup to an amplifier so you will need a standard quarter inch jack socket.
    • And of course you will need some strings...
  3. Take a look at a few simple CBG designs and decide how many strings you're going to use. I recommend starting with a 3-string build.
  4. For a first build I don't recommend that you add a fretboard or frets. Your build will be finished far more quickly if you don't bother with fretting and you will be surprised at how playable a non-fretted instrument is.
  5. Decide on your scale length. This is the distance between the nut and the bridge. Typically this is between about 22 inches and 25.5 inches on most guitars, longer on bass instruments.
  6. Lay all your parts out in front of you and make sure that you haven't overlooked anything.
  7. Mark up your neck where the nut will be positioned, where it will meet the cigar box body, where it will exit the body, where the strings will go through (the tailpiece) and where each of your tuners will go. Then re-check everything before cutting and drilling the neck.
  8. Mark your cigar box where you will make the necessary cut-outs for the neck then re-check these positions before cutting the box.
  9. Position your neck in the box and check that the box still closes and that everything is a snug fit.
  10. Mount your jack socket in a suitable position on the cigar box and connect it to your piezzo transducer.
  11. Attach the piezzo transducer to your cigar box lid somewhere close to the position of the bridge. This can be successfully carried out with a little double sided tape which allows you to move the transducer if you run into feedback problems (piezzos can be very prone to feedback).
  12. Fit your tuners or eyebolts along with whatever you've chosen to use as a nut.
  13. With the neck fitted in your box, close the box and attach just one string. Pass the string over your bridge, up the neck, over the nut and attach it to your tuner or eyebolt.
  14. Tighten the string and listen to the sound as you do so.
  15. Plug your cbg into an amp and confirm that you can hear it when you twang your string.
  16. If all is working as expected you can now fix your neck in place and maybe glue the box lid closed if you think it necessary.
  17. Fit the strings (I like to use a 5th, 4th and 3rd from a set of guitar strings) and tune up.
  18. Plug in and you are ready to rock!
  19. You will probably want to mark at least some of the fret positions on the neck. Pop over to the Stewmac Fret Position calculator and enter your scale length. It will tell you where each fret should go on your neck. Use a magic marker or something similar to mark your fret positions.

The final thing to keep in mind when building these instruments is that there are no rules. Anything goes!
Here's the first CBG I built in action - notice the fretless neck (it has some marks on the side), bolts for the nut and bridge and a piezzo pickup. Total cost was less than three pounds:

Strolling Tone

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