What is the allure of the Cigar Box Guitar (CBG)?
It is easy to play. The guitar has 3 strings set to open tuning, for example GDG. Strumming the strings without pressing any strings produces a G Major chord. It’s that simple. Pressing all three strings on any fret also produces a chord. Minor chords can be played as well. Chord sheets are available to show you how.
Check out the photos below. With three simple chords – G C D – you can play many, many songs, as this is a standard combination of chords used in many rock and blues songs. (Musicians will recognize G C D as the 1-4-5 progression in the key of G). Here is a very small sample of songs playable in three chords:
Elvis Presley – “Hound Dog” (G,C,D)
George Thorogood – “Bad to the Bone” (G,C,D)
Beach Boys – “Surfin’ USA” (G,C,D)
Bob Dylan – “Knockin’ on the Heaven’s Door” (G, C, D)
Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Sweet Home Alabama” (G, C, D)
Easy to play a “G” Chord – press on no strings and strum.
Easy to play a “C’ chord – press all three strings on the 5th fret and strum.
Easy to play a “D” Chord – press all 3 strings at the 7th fret and strum.
Throw in the “A Chord” (press all 3 strings at the 2 fret) and there are many, many more songs you can easily play. There are also many instructional YouTube videos – I highly recommend Glen Watt for Beginners, and Shane Speal for Advanced Players.
Are CBGs something new? Or have they been around for a while?
There are a lot of stories to tell here.
The CBG evolved from stringed instruments (gourd fiddles, lutes) native to western Africa – Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria – which Africans recreated when they arrived in North America in the 1700s and 1800s. The ‘akonting’ existed in Africa in several forms – as a 1 string, 3 string and 5 string instrument. A 1 string CBG is called a Didley bow, which was and remains a fixture in today’s music culture as a unfretted instrument, well adapted to playing one string ‘blues’ in a ‘slide’ fashion.
Where can you see the CBG in action? 1) There are many photos of soldier bands from the US Civil War and German soldiers in World War One holding CBGs. 2) If you look real close towards the end of the cartoon ‘Jango’, one of the ground hogs flying through the air is holding a CBG. 3) And in the 1953 movie ‘A Face in the Crowd’, Andy Williams speaks of playing a ‘ceegar box guitar’.
During the Depression in the 1930s, there was a resurgence in the building of CBGs as money was tight and production guitars became a luxury for many.
Today there is a major renaissance as musicians, hobbyists and woodworkers discover the addiction of building and playing CBGs.
Only Cigar Boxes?
Other boxes have been used to build CBGs – cookie tin boxes, craft boxes, even make your own boxes. Experimentation has shown acceptable sounds produced with cardboard shoe boxes, pizza boxes, and thick honeycomb cardboard. The cardboard solution is a great alternative for schools looking to introduce CBGs but not cigar boxes, which may be misinterpreted as endorsing smoking.
The didley bow, a one string cigar box guitar, has also morphed into the ‘canjo’, a one string guitar with a can of any type you can think as the sound box.
A little more on CBGs
The following video produced by Joe Caruso shows several types of cigar box guitars and how they are built. The video won a competition by Vision TV in Toronto, where contestants were asked to share their unique skills or hobbies. Click on the link to watch the video.
Joe, your guitar models have names – is there a method to naming them?
The thought of naming the guitars came to me when I was watching ‘Forrest Gump’, when the old man looks at Forrest’ shrimp boat and tells him – ‘Bad luck to have a boat without a name’. And the first CBG I ever built is named ‘Jennie’.
Some of the names suggest the occupation of the customer (guess what the owner of Sweet Sue does? Anna?). And some are chosen to reflect what the guitar includes or is made of (Lizzie, Maggie – look at them and think about it 😉