Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Before the blues showed up in the 1920's, there were minstrel shows and Vaudeville theater. Central to many of these shows was a one-string cigar box fiddle.
In Chapter 8 of my book, Making Poor Man's Guitars, I touched on the one-string cigar box "knee fiddle" tradition in Turn-of-the-Century Vaudeville. These instruments were made for comedic effect, with the musician playing it like a cello. The audience would laugh at the absurd instrument at the beginning, but the virtuosity of the performer would win them over.
The gentleman in the photo above is Vaudevillian, Lee Moran. If you look closely to the bottom of his broomstick instruments, you can see remnants of broom bristles that were cut off! Before joining the Three Stooges, Larry Fine would use his classical violin training to perform outrageous pieces on his own one-string cigar box fiddle.
I own several antique one-string "knee fiddles," which are on display at the Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's Tavern. Each instrument is of similar size and construction to the one in the plans below, which were printed in Science and Mechanics Magazine in 1949. The plans serve as a perfect starting point to exploring the one-string Vaudeville tradition.
Before we get into the plans, let's take a minute to watch W. C. Fields attempting to play a cigar box knee fiddle in the 1936 movie, Poppy.
Cigar Box Violin by W. J. Sutherland
AFTER you've smoked the cigars, you can make music with the box they came in. It's an easy job to make a cigar box violin, so let's begin.
A broom handle, 1" diameter
Wood cigar box, standard size
Several small wood screws
A piece of brass 1/16 inch thick, 3/4 inch wide and 3/16 inch high. (This is for the nut. You can also use a bolt, piece of bone or anything else to slightly raise the string at the end of the fretboard.)
A second piece of brass 1-1/2 inches long, 1/2 inch wide and 1/16 inch thick. (You can also use a section of tin, soup can lid or other sturdy piece of metal.)
Violin peg (You can also use a guitar tuner or hand-carve your own tuning peg)
Thin piece of wood for the bridge
Spool of fine white silk thread
First remove lid from cigar box (B in Fig. 4).
Cut out hole 2-1/4 inches in diameter with fret saw or pen knife.
Then cut a piece of broom handle, quar- ter it and cut in lengths the same as depth of cigar box (A in Fig. 4). Next glue quartered pieces in four corners of cigar box. This will re- inforce the box and also improve the tone.s
Sandpaper inside of cigar box and apply two coats of shellac, allowing first coat to dry before put- ting on the second.
Finger board is made from a broom handle 27-1/2 inches long and 1 inch in diameter (C in Fig. 4). On one end cut out a piece 2-1/2inches long halfway through handle.
Then glue finger board (broom handle) to lid (B in Fig. 4) and secure with small woodscrew.
Drill screw hole to prevent splitting.
Put screw in from up through lid into handle.
At other end of finger board (E in Fig. 4) drill 3/8 inch hole 1 inch from end through from top to bottom. This is so string can wind on D (Fig. 4).
Then make a saw cut at edge of hole to set in piece of brass 1/16 inch thick, 3/4 inch wide and 3/16 inch high.
A small notch is cut in brass with edge of file to keep string centered (J in Fig. 4). The piece of brass prevents string from cutting into handle or finger board.
Another hole, 1/4 inch, is drilled at right angles through 3/8 inch hole already drilled. This hole is for peg (D in Fig. 4). Peg is tapered, therefore 1/4 inch hole must also be tapered. This is easily done by wrapping a piece of fine sandpaper once around peg. With a rotating motion sand 1/4 inch hole to taper of peg. Take sandpaper off peg and fit frequently. This is important.
When string is strained peg is pushed into tapered hole and must hold at desired position when tuned.
A supporting bracket is made from a piece of wood 2-1/2 inches long, 1-1/2 inches wide, and 1/2 inch thick (F in Fig. 4) and glued to box and finger board and secured with two small nails. You are now ready to sandpaper box and finger board.
Apply two coats of shellac allowing first coat to dry. Use fine sandpaper again before second coat is applied.
Tail piece is made of brass 1-1/2 inches long, 1/2 inch wide and 1/16 inch thick (G in Fig. 5).
From other end of tail piece drill 1/8 inch hole 1/4 inch from end, and another 1/8 inch hole 3/4 inch higher. These holes are centered.
Tail piece is fastened to end of box, 1/4 inch above surface of box (G and A in Fig. 4). Bend in tail piece should project from box. H in Fig. 5 shows the bridge, made from a piece of hardwood 3/16 inch at the bottom tapered to 1/8 inch at top, 1-3/4 inches wide, and approximately 5/8inch high.
Bridge should hold string 1/8 inch off finger board. Bridge should be half- way between resonance hole and tail piece. Bridge will remain in position when string is tightened or
Bow can be made from wire coat hanger (K in Fig. 3). First straighten and form as shown in diagram. End of wire is soldered to form handle on bow as shown in M in Fig. 3.
Then a spool of fine white silk thread is tied at one end of bow and stranded to other end of bow (L in Fig. 3).
Thread tight enough to keep thread taut.
When ready to use rub thread over a piece of rosin. If you have a regular violin bow, you can, of course, use it instead of making one.
Peg shown (D in Fig. 1) is a regular violin peg.
You'll find that a guitar 3rd string, if you have one, gives best results. And peg, rosin and string can be purchased at a music store in your neighborhood. The cigar box violin is played by holding box between the knees with finger board resting on left shoulder; this allows free use of hands. The bow is held in right hand and drawn over string; left hand index-finger is placed on string. Fin- ger is moved up and down pressing string against finger board to get the desired notes. This violin has a range of two and a half octaves, and should be tuned to G on piano.