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  • Writer's pictureMichael Ireland

Cigar Box Guitars

I can think of no instrument more representative of the American spirit than the cigar box guitar. A utilitarian instrument built from the necessity for musical expression, its ingenuity is a testament to our creative nature. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Just what the heck is a cigar box guitar?

An Obsession with Cigar Box Guitars

As the name implies, a cigar box guitar is simply a guitar built from a cigar box. Guitars and similar stringed instruments are amplified by allowing their strings to vibrate over a hollow space known as the resonant chamber. The cigar box fills that role, serving as the body of the guitar. The size, shape, ports, and material composition of the chamber alter and color the overall tone of the instrument. As cigar shipping containers became more standardized during the industrial periods of America’s development, the small wooden boxes were given new life by handy musicians looking to build their own instruments. For many, purchasing such a luxury item was simply not an option. Professionally made instruments were expensive and not always easy to come by. In addition to cigar box guitars, violins and other stringed instruments were common.

Making Poor Man's Guitars

A cigar box guitar can take on many forms. Three strings and a fretless neck are common, but any number of strings and a variety of scale lengths can be found. Sometimes, a cigar box guitar isn’t even built with a box, but with alternate resonant chambers such as oil cans. Fretless guitars are typically played with a slide, while fretted variants may more closely resemble standard acoustic guitars. Whatever their scale, string count, or type of neck, all cigar box guitars are handmade, usually from recycled or repurposed materials. A simple bolt may serve as a bridge, screw heads as string trees, and cabinet hinges can make excellent saddles. The humble cigar box guitar is frequently electrified, with builders adding all manner of pickups and electronics to alter and amplify their creations.

Handmade Music Factory

The cigar box guitar is an important artifact in the history of American folk music that continues to be a fixture in many contemporary styles. With a consumer market flooded by cheap relatively decent guitars, why would anyone choose to play a crude homemade instrument? Perhaps there’s a little bit of magic in the handmade that the mass produced simply can’t capture. No two cigar box guitars are alike, and their uniqueness is a reflection of their creator's skill and intentions. Maybe the resilience of the cigar box guitar is a response to the commercialization of music, a manifestation of the human component, or just a reminder that the soul still sings.

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