The cigar box guitar is a simple yet cool, sexy and feral hand-made chordophone with atavistic traits that are throwbacks to stringed ancestral types. Contrary to popular expectations, the onset of “better quality” instruments and CAD/CAM technology has not killed off cigar box guitars, thanks to a renaissance of self-expression that’s unfolding in the music universe. Indeed, the cigar box guitar has spawned near-fanatical following from a group of hobbyists, musical hacks and audiophiles who revel in non-conformity and eschew mass-produced instruments and other trappings of modern society.
Pretty much anything that you can play on a conventional guitar can be played on a cigar box guitar—from jazz/rock instrument fusion, acoustic/electric slide guitar blues, metalloid hard rock and folk songs to Middle Eastern drone, avant-garde noise, junkie laments and drunken sing-alongs. Blues legends such as Muddy Waters, Jimmi Hendrix, Robert Johnson and Carl Perkins all started their careers playing cigar box guitars!
Being esoteric and anachronistic instruments, you probably won’t be able to buy a shiny new cigar box guitar from your average music shop. But as with many other things, you can order from third-party sellers on online stores such as Amazon and eBay or purchase a cigar box guitar kit for less than $40 to assemble/customize from the comfort of your home.
Here are reviews of some top-rated cigar box guitars and kits on Amazon:
1. “Pure & Simple” 3-String Flying Bridge Model #1 Cigar Box Guitar
Designer: C.B. Gitty
A renowned New Hampshire-based cigar box guitar company, C.B. Gitty provides a range of cigar box guitars, kits and accessories on Amazon. The Pure & Simple 3-stringed cigar box guitar is a beautiful hand-made instrument that combines great sound, fun playing and low prices in a single package. Some key features by this product include:
• Scale Length: 25″; Overall Length: 36”
• Large, beautiful Arturo Fuente “Chateau Fuente” Cigar Box (Box Size: 9 1/2″ W x 9 3/4″ H x 1 3/8″ D)
• Innovative “Flying Bridge” that allows for almost double the volume of a standard “stick on box” bridge model
• Unfretted, high-action instrument set up for slide playing
• Open-gear tuners with pearloid buttons
• Intended Tuning: G D G
The key selling point of this guitar is the innovative “flying bridge” which allows for efficient transfer of string vibrations around the neck and down to the box lid thus almost doubling the volume compared to a basic “stick on box” design. The guitar comes fully assembled and can be tuned and played right out of the box.
The seller warns buyers to expect minor differences in the hardware. This seems to be a friction point for customers with some complaining of having received a different-colored guitar than what is displayed in the Amazon ad.
2. 4-String Arturo Fuente Cigar Box Guitar
Designer: St. Blues
Price: From 225.00
Another guitar fashioned from a stylish Arturo Fuente cigar box, this 4-string St. Blues classic is a serious gigging guitar that comes with a rather steep price tag. Key features include:
• Real recycled Arturo Fuente cigar box body; overall dimensions 34 x 3 x 9 inches; 5.05 pounds
• Bolt-on neck provides better resonance than cheaper kits
• Bone bridge, bone nut and an oversized piezo yield better sound quality than kit guitars
• Grover tuners provide better control
• Tuned to Open G (G D G B) with custom D’Addario strings
The St. Blues Arturo Fuente is a high-end piece made from sturdy parts including a maple wood neck (the designer claims it’s the same wood they use on their $3,000 guitars), custom wired 1 3/8″ Piezo transducer and general high quality finish. The bolt-on design provides sharper acoustic resonance compared to cheaper kits that utilize a neck trough design that tends to dull the resonance. Arrives in great packaging and gives amazing sound.
Apart from being pricey, a customer has complained of receiving their guitar with missing parts. It’s not clear whether this is an omission by the manufacturer or defects acquired during handling and shipping.
3. 3-String Standard Model Cigar Box Guitar #1
Designer: C.B. Kitty
This is an unfretted, 3-string standard production model by C.B. Gitty. Some of its leading features include:
• Beautiful red Romeo & Julietta Paper-covered Cigar Box; Box Size: 8″W x 6 5/8″ H x 2 1/2″ D; Scale Length: 25″; Overall Length: 35″
• Hard maple neck
• Chrome skull sealed-gear tuners
• Embedded piezo pickup for plugging into an amplifier
• Intended Tuning: G B D’
The C.B. Gitty standard model guitar is a bit more compact than its bigger flying bridge cousin. It comes sans frets thus giving it a distinctive slinky slide blues sound. Sturdy build, easy to tune using a Snark and stays in tune.
This product seems to be out of stock for a while now on Amazon. It’s not clear whether C.B. Gitty has discontinued its production completely and decided to stick to the flying bridge model or customers can still order a custom-made piece.
4. Eddy Finn Electric Ready Cigar Box Guitar
Designer: Eddy Finn
Price: From $219.73
The special 5 Cigar box guitar is a non-authentic cigar box guitar that incorporates a mahogany top, back and sides. Also available is a cool electric version that you can use with your favorite amp or in a recording setup. Features include:
• Mahogany top, back and sides
• Blackwood fingerboard
• Walnut bridge
• Composite nut
• 23 3/4″ scale instrument
This is a versatile instrument that performs well in open or standard guitar tuning. A slide and effects pedals allow for a very authentic sound without the grittiness and intonation issues you might encounter with a conventional cigar box guitar.
Some customers might still prefer an authentic cigar box regardless of the easy tuning and refined sound offered by something more honed.
There are a couple of other cigar box guitars on Amazon that have not received any customer reviews and ratings. These are:
• Delta Cigar Box Guitar by Tremor for $199.
• The 3-string ”The Southbound Katy” electric cigar box by C.B Kitty for $169.99.
• The Old Glory 3-string acoustic guitar by C.B. Kitty for $179.99
Cigar Box Guitar Kits
Some people just love building things from the ground up. For the DUI crowd, there’s an option to purchase a complete cigar guitar kit containing all the necessary hardware and accessories (usually pre-drilled and pre-marked) from online stores. Depending on your handyman and musical skills, assembling and tuning a cigar box guitar can be a bit challenging, but also rewarding and fun. Leading kit manufacturers throw in well-illustrated instruction booklets as well as how-to-assemble and how-to-play videos, making it possible for even a novice to put together a playable guitar using basic tools like a screwdriver and a small hammer in an hour or so.
Here are some well-rated cigar box guitar kits:
Complete Pure & Simple 3-string kit by C.B. Kitty
C.B. Kitty is a well respected cigar box guitar aficionado, and also happens to have some the most comprehensive kits as well. Their top-rated kit is the $79.99-Complete Pure & Simple kit that comes with all the necessary hardware including neck and accessories. Everything is pre-marked and pre-drilled, meaning all you have to do is put in the screws, tap in the ferrules and string it up. The kit is designed for the Pure & Simple 3-string guitar reviewed here, meaning you get to save a cool $20 for your troubles.
Hinkler Electric Box Slide Guitar Kit
This Hinkler kit contains all the basic hardware that you would expect for a blues cigar box guitar plus a few unexpected bells and whistles such as a 20-track blues CD to help you strum along with ease. That seems like a steal at an Amazon price of $31.87. Weighing in at slightly less than 2.5 pounds, an assembled Hinkler is even lighter than the unpretentious ukelele. Has a reputation for producing a great sound too.
Basic Cigar Box Guitar Kit by C.B. Kitty
If you prefer something less pricey from C.B. Kitty, their Basic Kit going for $44.99 at Amazon will serve you well—if you can source your own neck from a hardware store or an old cigar guitar box. Other than the missing neck, the kit contains virtually everything else: strings, guitar tuners and pieces of hard-to-find hardware such as open-gear tuners and screened brass grommets to help you build a 3-string unfretted cigar box guitar right from your home. A well-illustrated 26-page how-to guide is also included.
Types, Brands and Selection of Cigar Box Guitars
In its most basic incarnation, a cigar box guitar consists of a used cigar box, several strings (anything from one to six though most tend to have three) and pieces of random hardware. It’s entirely possible to build a really cheap one using stuff you salvage in your backyard or buy in a firesale.
For a quality CBG that will satisfy a real audiophile, you will have to dig deeper and do a bit more homework. The type and brand of the cigar box is one of the most important variables that will determine how your guitar will sound. Shane Speal, a New York PA native, is widely recognized as the King of the Cigar Box Guitar and the prime mover of the CBG cult. In his book, Making Poor Man’s Guitars, he presents authentic stories of American DIY music including step-by-step projects that showcase antique instruments and how anybody can build amazing musical instruments using locally found and inexpensive items. He recommends four main picks as the best cigar boxes to make a cigar box guitar:
• Arturo Fuente Double Chateau
• Le Aroma de Cuba Churchill
• Punch Deluxe Chateau L
• Macanudo Café Portofino
Speal himself is a top cigar box guitar maker, so he obviously should be in the know. Other top designers and builders include C.B. Kitty, Daddy Mojo, Saint Blues, Matty Barratto, Eddy Finn and Hinkler.
So, what else should you look for when shopping for a good cigar box guitar? It all depends on what you want from your guitar. Here are a few factors to look at:
1. Have you ever played before? If you’ve got some experience, you should be able to master a fretted, frestless or resonator guitar; three or four strings. Many experts recommend a 3-string as a happy medium between ease of playing and giving you more options. A fretless cigar box is played using a slide, so that can be challenge if you have never played a slide guitar before. For a beginner, a fretted cigar box is a good option. Without frets you will find your options limited and that might make you quickly lose interest in playing. Bear in mind that you will still need to relearn a lot when you actually play a 6-string normally tuned guitar though the experience you get on a CBG will certainly help.
2. What’s your preferred tone? ZZTOP electric, a Dobro sound, Rl Burnside or a Lee Hooker tone? A resonator is a Dobro-style guitar with a distinctive tone quite similar to a Son House or bluegrass Dobro, both of which are electric.
3. Size of box. Do you prefer smaller or larger boxes? Bigger boxes are easier to hold than smaller ones.
4. Will you be playing fretted, using a slide or both? Unless you plan on playing 100% slide guitar, you will need a fretted guitar. The frets and neck should preferably be made of hardwood.
5. Type of music. Blues tend to lend themselves very well to cigar box guitars because that’s what the guitars were originally designed to play. CBGs are usually tuned to an open chord although you are at liberty to tune them the way you like. This makes playing blues on a CBG a cinch. On the other hand, playing rock might require tuning the CBG normally with four strings meaning you might have to relearn many chords and play them as a bar chord.
Short history of cigar box guitars
Bill Jehle, curator of the Cigar Box Guitar Museum and an avid collector of antique cigar box guitars, says that the first cigar box instruments can be traced way back to 1840. Cigar box guitars appeared circa 1895, around the same time when the radio was invented. Broadcasts music usually featured the guitar as a lead instrument which made it cool and helped popularize the instrument. The earliest recorded proof of a cigar box guitar though is a 1876 etching depicting two Civil War soldiers playing a cigar box fiddle at a campsite.
It follows that many people wanted to play the guitar but could not afford whatever was available in the market back then. Naturally, they found ways to improvise and build guitars out of whatever was handy and within the maker’s budget. Cigar boxes were favored due to their relative ubiquity and good sound quality. Cigar box guitars and fiddles quickly became important in jug bands and blues played mostly by poor black Americans who could not afford a ”real” instrument. Cigar boxes were not the only ragtag paraphernalia to find their way into the guitar—washboards, jugs and harmonica were all used by black musicians to perform blues mostly during socializations. Cigar box guitars were, however, not confined to black American social functions. Rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins, the son of a poor white tenant farmer, learned his trade on a guitar fashioned from a cigar box and broomstick. Soon, other poor whites started following suit.
The Great Depression of the 1930s ushered in a period of economic challenges of epic proportions. Times were particularly hard in the South which encouraged the resurgence of home-made musical instruments. Sitting in front of your porch while singing away your blues helped along by an instrument made from an old broom, pieces of wires from the screen door and a used cigar box became a common sight once again.
The modern revival of the CBG aka the cigar box revolution has been gradually gathering momentum over the past decade with a sharp increase in CBG builders and performers. The revival is mainly being driven by a growing DIY culture as well as a desire for a more primal sound by many musicians. In particular, Blue guitarists have taken to the humble instrument driven by a strong desire to play Delta Blues in their purest form. This trend is aptly captured in the 2008 film Songs Inside the Box and has found strong proponents in stalwarts like Shane Speal and Luthier Ted Crocker.
In a nutshell, the cigar box guitar is a beautifully simple instrument with awesome pedigree. Why it continues to be treated as little more than a curiosity is indeed a mystery.