The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Monday, October 20, 2014

The Bo Diddley style cigar box guitar project: Part One

I'm sure that anybody who has listened to the blues for any length of time has heard the old stories about how some of the early blues legends built their own guitars out of various materials like chicken wire, tin cans, and various types of containers for the body such as the cigar boxes.

I have to admit I'm not so sure about cigar boxes, because unless they found one lying around that would normally require the purchase of a box of cigars which may or may not have been within the reach of the average blues musician back in the 20s.

It is a historical fact that various objects were used and recorded in blues music such as wash pans as the basis for basses, washboards as part of the rhythm section and of course spoons.

In some of the earliest African guitar music, the rhythm was often provided by tapping a Coke bottle with some sort of metal object.

Getting back to cigarbox guitars, like I said before I'm not sure those were that common as a blues instrument, I'd have to look that up on Google or something.

One thing that is certain is it does have a definite cult audience these days, and quite a few of them are used to create blues music at least on YouTube.

I recently obtained a cigarbox banjo, or what was called one. It does have a 20s banjo neck and an old harmony tailpiece and it has a pretty nice looking cigarbox as the body and appears to be well braced. 

Even though It didn't even remotely sound like a banjo, I went ahead and bought it anyway. The price was right.

The main reason I got it was that it looked like I could possibly turn into a Bo Diddley style cigarbox guitar, which was one of the coolest guitar shapes in blues history.

So one thing I should make clear, is that the cigarbox guitar has not been built from scratch. It's one that I purchased and intend to modify.

I should also add that if I decide to that project is impractical then I'm simply going to restring it and use it as a ukulele.

It hasn't come to that yet of course, we're just getting started.

The picture you'll see below is what the guitar looked like at the time of purchase, 
and I've already made one modification.

The original bridge was a thin rectangle of wood with a bolt sitting on it loose being held in place by the strings. That little piece of wood is looks like a soft wood and the only contact the strings have to the body is the threads of the bolt, which is a sure fire tone killer.

In fact considering that the body is a cigar box, the guitar sounded unusually dead or muffled in tone.

The first modification I made was to remove that bridge and temporarily put a banjo bridge on it, so that the vibration from the strings would be transmitted directly to the cigarbox in proper fashion.

That's only a temporary measure, I mainly put it on to see if the tone of the thing was good enough to invest the time to modify it. Using the banjo bridge clearly increased the volume considerably.

The volume level and resonance of the cigarbox is important, in case I decide to leave it acoustic or convert it to a ukulele-like instrument.

The 20s banjo neck, like most banjo necks of that era is pretty thick given that the things didn't have truss rods, and the pegs appear to be able to stay in tune.

Many of the cigarbox guitars I've seen are three stringed instruments, but since this one has four, my early thought is to proceed along the lines of making it a tenor style guitar.

Also I'll be looking to mount pick ups on it, otherwise as an acoustic instrument I would prefer it to be a ukulele.

I'll be working on this project as I have time, and as I find the correct hardware for it at a good price. So the installments on the blog won't be consecutive.

Other than changing out the bridge my real first step is to think about it for a bit and visualize what I'd like it to look like.

The person who made the instrument glued the top shut, but fortunately left the hinges of the box unglued so it should be fairly easy to remove the top.

I'll want to see the bracing inside if for no other reason to see where I can put the various electronics such as the volume knobs that'll be necessary, etc.

I can understand the reason for using the top of the cigarbox as it has the logo and looks cooler but if I were building a cigar box guitar, I would definitely do it upside down so that the box could open from the bottom to make it easier to install the electronics. After all I don't want to start drilling holes and find myself going right into the bracing.

So, i'll spend a little time visualizing what it will look like, and begin a search for a trashed old 60s guitar that has surface mounted pick ups (I would never buy an intact guitar just to take the pick ups off it, an old vintage guitar, the matter how cheap, deserves to stay intact if it's in playable condition).

I'll write a part two when I've begun work on the new Bo Diddley cigar box guitar.