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Antique One-String Cigar Box Guitar (Diddley Bow)

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Cigar box guitarists frequently talk about one-string diddley bows as the foundation of many slide blues players. This is the real deal: an authentic diddley bow, crafted from a 1930's Henry George cigar box, dowel rod neck and wood slat fingerboard. It was discovered in Central Illinois by an antique picker.

One of the greatest stories about a one-string cigar box guitar comes comes from Blind Willie Johnson:

Blind Willie Johnson's father made him a one-string cigar box guitar at the age of five. Young Willie learned to play melodies up and down that lonely string using a pocketknife for a slide to fret the notes. This became essential training to his unique style of playing, for later on in life, he would incorporate the single string melodies on his six-string guitar. The best example of this is his phenomenal song “Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)”

This antique cigar box guitar wasn't made by Blind Willie's father, but it's a great example of the early 20th Century cigar box guitar design. Let's see how this unknown builder crafted this still playable instrument.

This is guitar making in a very simple form: Just a stick through a box with one string wired up to it. The guitar measures 22.5" long and the scale is approximately 20". (Because the bridge is missing and no visible marks are left on the body where it could have rested, I can only speculate.)

The neck is a1" dowel rod (possibly a broomstick) that goes through the box, "spike fiddle" style. A 2.75" diameter sound hole was hand cut in the center of the cigar box.

The top of the dowel rod neck was flattened and a wooden slat was added as a fretboard. The slat measures .25 x .875 x14". The fretboard extends over the headstock area where the hand whittled tuner is positioned.

Here's another look at the perfectly whittled tuning peg.

The owner of this guitar was intent on playing and wrote numbers up the neck for slide positions. Some numbers were circled and others were not. The neck reads 4-4-5-5-6-6-7-7 (underlined numbers were written with circles). The first 4 is written right near the tuning peg.

The only repairs needed to the instrument is a crack on the box's side near the neck heel area. This will be repaired soon.


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Here are the specs of the Antique One-String Cigar Box Guitar (Diddley Bow)

Scale length: approx. 20"

Materials used:

  • Wood

  • Hand whittled violin style tuning peg

  • Nails & glue

  • 1" Wooden dowel

  • Wood slat fretboard .25 x .825 x 14"

Dimensions: 22.5 x 3.375 x 2.25" (57 x 14 x 16cm)

Cigar Box Guitar Museum Catalog # ACB.2021.004

Currently in curation and slated to be shown at the Cigar Box Guitar Museum in New Alexandria PA at a future date.

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