Cigar box guitar

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A collection of cigar box guitars

The cigar box guitar is a primitive chordophone that uses an empty cigar box for a resonator. The earliest had one or two strings; the modern model typically uses three or more. Generally speaking, strings are connected between the end of a broomstick or 1" x 3" wood slat and to the resonator, the cigar box.


Cigars were packed in boxes, crates, and barrels as early as 1800, but the small sized boxes that we are familiar with today did not exist prior to around 1840.[1] Until then, cigars were shipped in larger crates containing 100 or more per case. After 1840, cigar manufacturers started using smaller, more portable boxes with 20-50 cigars per box.

Trace evidence of cigar box instruments exist from 1840 to the 1860s.[2] The earliest illustrated proof of a cigar box instrument known is an etching copyrighted in 1876 of two American Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle. The etching was created by illustrator and artist Edwin Forbes who, under the banner of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, worked for the Union Army. The etching was included in Forbes work Life Stories of the Great Army. In the etching, the cigar box fiddle clearly shows the brand ‘Figaro’ on the cigar box.

In addition to the etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were published by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, in 1884 as part of 'Christmas Eve With Uncle Enos'.[3] The plans, eventually retitled ‘How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo’ as part of Beard's American Boy’s Handy Book in the 1890 release as supplementary material in the rear of the book.[4] These plans omitted the story but still showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.

It would seem that the earliest cigar box instruments would be extremely crude and primitive; however, this is not always the case. According to Bill Jehle, curator of The National Cigar Box Guitar Museum, and author of One Man's Trash: A History of the Cigar Box Guitar,[2] has acquired two cigar box fiddles built in 1886 and 1889 that seem very playable and well built. The 1886 fiddle was made for an 8 year old boy and is certainly playable, but the 1889 fiddle has a well carved neck and slotted violin headstock. The latter instrument was made for serious playing.

The cigar box guitars and fiddles were also important in the rise of jug bands and blues. As most of these performers were black Americans living in poverty, many could not afford a "real" instrument. Using these, along with the washtub bass (similar to the cigar box guitar), jugs, washboards, and harmonica, black musicians performed blues during socializations.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a resurgence of homemade musical instruments. Times were hard in the American south and for entertainment sitting on the front porch singing away their blues was a popular pastime. Musical instruments were beyond the means of everybody, but an old cigar box, a piece of broom handle and a couple wires from the screen door and a guitar was born.

Modern revival[edit]

Cigar box guitars at Maker Faire 2011

A modern revival of these instruments (also known as the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution) has been gathering momentum with an increase in cigar box guitar builders and performers. A loose-knit group of underground musicians tour the East Coast (US) each summer under the banner "Masters of the Cigar Box Guitar Tour." These musicians include Doctor Oakroot, Johnny Lowebow, Tomi-O and many others. Also, there is a growing number of primitive luthiers adding cigar box guitars to their items for sale. One cigar box guitar maker is Shane Speal; another is Mike Snowden.[5]

Modern revival is sometimes due to interest in jugband and the DIY culture, as a cigar box is relatively inexpensive when considering other factors, such as strings and construction time. Many modern cigar box guitar can thus be seen as a type of practice in lutherie, and implement numerous personal touches, such as the addition of pick up and resonator cones into it.

A superior modern fiddle

The modern revival of cigar box guitars is documented in the 2008 film, "Songs Inside The Box" which was shot primarily at an annual Huntsville, Alabama event called the Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza. [6]

The Cigar Box Guitar Museum, a free-to-the-public display dedicated to cigar box guitars is located in Speal's Tavern, a small blues club in New Alexandria, PA. It is curated by cigar box guitarist, Shane Speal and contains over 60 antique and modern cigar box guitars.[7]


For a cigar box guitar there is no defined tuning. Common tunings are:[8]

  • Open tuning
    • three strings: for example A – e – a or G – d – g
    • four strings: for example A – e – a – c#' or G – d – g – b
  • Classical tuning of a 6-string guitar (E – A – d – g – b – e’)
    • three strings: for example A – d – g
    • four strings: for example d – g – b – e’
  • Magic jazz tuning: A – e – g
  • Hawaiian tuning: A – e – f#

Notable performers[edit]

  • Bo Diddley played a cigar-box shaped guitar
  • Luther Dickinson, the guitarist of the North Mississippi Allstars, uses an electric cigar box guitar called the "Lowebow."
  • Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top performs with a cigar box guitar made by Kurt Schoen.[9]
  • Frank Turner plays a 4 string cigar box guitar, built by Adam Holmes- Dust Box Guitars.[10]
  • Richard Johnston, the subject of the 2005 Max Shores documentary Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour, performs with a Lowebow. Johnston helped design the instrument with the builder, John Lowe.
  • Bonny B. plays with a cigar-box with only two strings - Octave chord.
  • Tom Waits plays cigar box banjo on his album Real Gone.
  • Jon Hembrey, lead guitarist of 2014 Juno nominees The Strumbellas, plays a 3 string cigar box guitar built by Adam Holmes- Dust Box Guitars.[10]
  • Seasick Steve plays several personalised and obscure instruments including a cigar box guitar[11]
  • Shane Speal, billed as "The King of the Cigar Box Guitar," performs exclusively with cigar box guitars in solo shows and with his group, Shane Speal's Snake Oil Band. Although he performs with self-built cigar box guitars, he also performs with instruments by Daddy Mojo, Smokehouse Guitars, Tomi-O Hartwell, Johnny Lowebow, Kurt Schoen and Mike Orr.[12]
  • Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd plays a cigar box guitar made by Tomi-O.[13]
  • Harry Manx, a Hindustani slide master, plays a Lowebow cigar box guitar.
  • Chris Ballew, lead singer of The Presidents of the United States of America, has recorded with a one-string cigar box bass made by Shane Speal.
  • Lead singer of The Slackers, Vic Ruggiero, recently recorded tracks in Japan for his upcoming new solo album. He plays 4 string cigar box guitar built by Adam Holmes- Dust Box Guitars.[10]
  • Joe Buck, one-man-band performer and also a member of Hank Williams III's band Assjack, plays a cigar box guitar made by Tomi-O.[13]
  • Robert Hamilton of the Low-Country Messiahs plays a 3-string Tomi-O cigar box guitar.
  • PJ Harvey plays a Baratto Cigfiddle.[14]
  • Charlie Brown, of the Peanuts comic strip, played a cigar-box banjo a few times in his first years (early 1950s)[15]
  • Lightnin' Hopkins Played a cigar box guitar at times and said this on the subject:

So I went ahead and made me a guitar. I got me a cigar box, I cut me a round hole in the middle of it, take me a little piece of plank, nailed it onto that cigar box, and I got me some screen wire and I made me a bridge back there and raised it up high enough that it would sound inside that little box, and got me a tune out of it. I kept my tune and I played from then on.

— Lightnin' Hopkins
  • Alain Johannes plays a cigar box guitar in the entirety of his first solo record called "Spark", and also on tour.
  • Reverend Peyton of The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band plays a three string cigar box guitar.
  • Paul McCartney played a Baratto cigar box guitar on "Cut Me Some Slack", as heard in the documentary Sound City.[16] McCartney also used the guitar for the live debut of the track at the 12-12-12 Concert and for a subsequent performance on Saturday Night Live.[17]
  • Mark Stowe was included on the 2014 CD release "Guitar Wizards Vol. 1 & 2" with his guitar solo "Hemingway" which was played on a homemade 3 string Cigar Box Guitar[18][19]
  • Mike Snowden has handcrafted close to 1,000 cigar box guitars which he sells all over the world. He is also a singer-songwriter with six CDs of original songs played on his guitars, including "Cigar Box Guitar Stomp" and "Cigar Box Guitar Evil." He has been featured on CNN, Georgia Public Television, the CBS radio show "The Osgood File," and in an article appearing in the Summer 2015 issue of the online magazine "Craftsmanship." He was a featured performer at the Boxstock Festival in Manchester, England, in the summer of 2012. A number of his original songs and tutorials are available on YouTube. His website is

Notable commercial manufacturers and amateur luthiers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hyman, Tony (1972). Handbook of Cigar Boxes. New York: Arnot Art Museum. 
  2. ^ a b Jehle, William (2010). One Man's Trash: A History of the Cigar Box Guitar. ISBN 1-4538-0239-8. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Beard, Daniel Carter (1882). The American Boy's Handy Book. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-87923-449-0. 
  5. ^ Nancy LeBrun, "The Cigar Box Guitar Maker, Craftsmanship Magazine, Summer 2015 Issue.
  6. ^ "". Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  7. ^ [1],
  8. ^ How Do You Tune A Cigar Box Guitar? on, retrieved on 16 August 2015
  9. ^ "People". Kurt Schoen. 
  10. ^ a b c!gallery/c8gq
  11. ^ "". 2009-04-09. Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  12. ^ "Shane Speal, King of the Cigar Box Guitar". Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^ Randy Lewis (13 March 2011). "Musicians feel the pull of cigar box guitars". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 29 May 2015. 
  15. ^ The Complete Peanuts by Charles Schulz
  16. ^ "Sound City Movie and Sir Paul Photo's". Cigar Box Nation. Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  17. ^ Randy Lewis (2012-12-13). "Paul McCartney, Nirvana members jam at '121212' concert - Los Angeles Times". Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  18. ^ "Hemingway - Mark Stowe - Listen, Appearances, Song Review - AllMusic". AllMusic. 
  19. ^ "Mark Stowe". 
  20. ^ "GK Cigar box Guitars". Retrieved 25 March 2015. 

External links[edit]