Antique Six String Cigar Box Guitar from Illinois
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Discovered at an estate sale just an hour away from Chicago in Somonauk, IL, this six string cigar box guitar is one of the finest examples in the Cigar Box Guitar Museum. Much time was spent carving and building this guitar and it truly looks like it could launch a bluesman's career.
This is a guitar that needs to be copied to research the playability and tones. The instrument features a short 14.5" scale with a full size headstock and bridge, both which were most likely copied from a Stella style acoustic guitar of the 1920's or 1930's.
A closeup of the fretboard shows incorrectly spaced frets made from wire that was carefully inserted into the sides of the neck. Incorrect fret placement is the most common mistake seen in folk instruments like this. Rare is it to find a builder who intentionally places frets outside the common chromatic or diatonic scales.
The width of the neck at the nut is a mere 1.5", quite tight for all six strings to fit, but perhaps made for smaller hands. Unfortunately the nut is missing. It was most likely made of wood and remnants of glue remain where it was originally placed.
The tuners were salvaged from an acoustic guitar. They look similar to economy Stella guitars of the 1920's and 1930's. Note the saw marks in the peghead slots.
The neck widens out to 2.25" at the body. There appears to be no bracing inside the guitar. The soundboard (box top) has sunken more than 0.125" over time.
Five of the original guitar strings remain intact and the sixth has remnants at the tuner and tailpiece. These look to be standard guitar strings.
The tailpiece was fashioned from a piece of metal, possibly roofing flashing. It is held onto the side with a brass bolt. The box might have originally had a paper covering or printed images, but were removed, sanded or worn off over time. The builder may have stained the box and neck, since they both share the same shade of brown patina.
A peek under the tailpiece shows a mixture of bronze and steel strings with some having knotted ends. The builder might have used broken strings from another guitar to use on this one.
A rear shot shows the rounded neck heel that is fixed to the side of the box. A single slotted screw holds the neck from below. (I need to get an endoscope camera for my iPhone to look inside these antiques. That would reveal more construction details!)
Upside-Down Box: This photo also reveals that the lid of the box is on the bottom of the guitar. The builder flipped the box when he built it, possibly to make sure the neck and tailpiece were properly bolted and screwed in place before closing the back panel.
The cigar box itself measures 10 x 5.5 x 2.75".
Here are the specs for the Antique Six String Cigar Box Guitar from the Chicago Area:
Scale length: 14.5"
Wood cigar box
Wood neck, neck heel and bridge
Salvaged guitar tuners from a slot head acoustic guitar
Salvaged guitar strings
Metal tailpiece (roof flashing?)
Dimensions: 23 x 5.5 x 2.75" (58 x 14 x 7cm)
Cigar Box Guitar Museum Catalog # ACB.2020.001
Acquired by Shane Speal Nov 18, 2020
Currently in curation and slated to be shown at the Cigar Box Guitar Museum in New Alexandria PA at a future date.
If I were to build my own version, I would increase the nut width to 1.75". I would also position the frets in the proper placement. I have included the fret measurements below.
If you build a copy, please send photos and videos to firstname.lastname@example.org!