How to Build a 4-String Cigar Box Guitar
Here's a simple cigar box guitar design I came up with using a shovel handle from Lowes. It's presented here in 'builder's diary' form, giving you an overview of the setup. I encourage you to improve on this design and post your findings!
Historical note: This design is also called a "spike fiddle" design. Many cigar box guitars were made back in the day with a stick-thru-box design like this 1930's Corina one-string (above). This instrument is part of the Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's Tavern in New Alexandria, PA.
In general, this is just a big dowel rod shoved into one side of a cigar box. The end of the stick is held in place by a drywall screw at the other end. The top of the stick has guitar tuners. The bottom has a metal tailpiece to hold the strings. Because it has no flat fretboard, the instrument is played with a guitar slide.
The cigar box guitar can be electrified with a thin, top mounted pickup or it can be left acoustically. You can add soundholes if you want, too. (I didn't put soundholes in this because it was to be played electric.) Just remember, there are no rules to cigar box guitar building. Be creative!
First, a quick demo video before we get started.
Macanudo cigar box
Shovel handle from Lowe's
Four guitar tuners. For this, I used Shane Speal Signature Tuners which are selected for cigar box guitar building, but you can use whatever is on hand. You can even use salvaged tuners from a broken guitar.
ADGB strings from a pack of electric guitar strings
A piece of bent metal for the tailpiece. You can use a spatula, a bent spoon or a store-bought tailpiece such as this trapeze tailpiece
A 4" long x about 5/8" tall piece of hardwood for the floating bridge.
Stove bolt for the nut
Optional: A flat-mount cigar box guitar pickup. I used a 12 Bar Blues pickup from eBay. Other brands include Wickedbucker Pickups from CBGitty.com, Flatpup pickups from Flatpup.com or wind your own using Elmar's free directions here.
I cut the shovel handle into a 33" length. This is long enough to give me a 25" scale, with an extra 4" on each side for headstock and butt. I used a Forstner bit to cut a circular hole in the side of the box and fed the stick through it.
The 12 Bar Blues pickup was top mounted without any routing needed and a hole was cut into the side for the jack. I didn't do any grounding.
On the butt side, I put a drywall screw to hold the stick in place. The drywall screw was then hidden by the trapeze tailpiece.
The floating bridge can be carved from a flat piece of hardwood. Make sure the strings are raised high enough to pass over the pickup (if you use one). For this example, I used a store-bought floating bridge from CBGitty.com . Make sure you position the bridge exactly 25" from the nut. This gives you a 25" scale length.
I used a store-bought trapese tailpiece from CBGitty.com, but you can also use an old piece of metal, such as the one found on this late 1800's tin can banjo. Just cut it to size and drill four holes in it that are small enough to hold the ball end of the guitar strings.
The most unusual part of this guitar is the headstock. As seen in the video above, I simply flattened out the sides of the headstock with my belt sander and drilled for the tuners. Having the tuners on the sides of the neck allows for some great string pull behind the nut (aka bolt).
Here's another view of the headstock. I did put one little tuner screw beside the second string in order to keep it from moving around. Also, to keep the bolt in place as the nut, I used my Dremel to channel a groove so it would sit flat on the stick:
You can glue the bolt into place with some industrial glue or just allow string tension to hold it in place. When I restring this cigar box guitar in between gigs, I always have to string up the high and low strings first to keep the bolt in place!
This tuner layout results in an unusual setup when trying to tune the guitar, with the lower tuning keys being positioned on the right side of the headstock. It's a little weird (and I keep reaching for the wrong tuner), but you eventually get used to it.
One other detail - I scratched fret markers on the side of the neck. To get the locations, I recommend the StewMac free fret calculator.
That's pretty much it. Shove a stick through a box, string it up and wail away. Don't overthink this.
I keep my 4-string cigar box guitar tuned to Open G - G, D, G, B (low to high).