We recently received these plans from “Hubcap John” Hayward which were originally featured in Practical Wireless Magazine in London in 1965. The plans feature a lap steel guitar with full schematics. They were scanned from the original and sent in eight different parts. We did our best to match them up into one complete PDF.
You may be thinking that plans published in a guitar mag in 1976 aren’t quite old enough to qualify as “historic”. These plans are special though, because these are the ones that Shane Speal used to build his first cigar box guitar… and from that first cigar box guitar, he went on to jump-start the entire modern cigar box guitar revival.
This article on how to build a cigar box ukulele comes from the June, 1917 edition of Popular Mechanics. In it S. H. Samuels walks the reader through the basics of constructing a uke, which in 1917 “was made at a cost of 30 cents, by careful selection of materials from the shop scrap stock.”
Click the image below to see as PDF of the article, or you can click here to see the article in the original context of the Popular Mechanics edition,
Memphis blues legend, Furry Lewis got his start playing on a cigar box guitar he built with his own hands. He was known to tell the story of it to visitors of his Memphis home, always embellishing a few details. Several versions of the tale have been chronicled. Here are two:
From the book, Goin’ Back to Sweet Memphis by Fred J. Hay
“The first guitar that I had, I made it myself. Because, quite naturally, it couldn’t be no guitar if I made it, but I could make some tunes with it. I taken a cigar box and tacked it down, where you couldn’t open it, and I cut a little hole in there, in the middle of it, just like a guitar. Then I taken another guitar and got me a strip off of it like that and tacked it on there like the guitar neck. And I got screen wire, just like you get off your screen door or screen window… And I had some nails and I nailed them in there, in the neck part like you was tuning it, and the nails bent in there and bent them. And then when you bent them like that, it tuned it. Don’t you think it won’t. Yeah, that’s where I learnt.
Another version of his story was captured in the book, For Black and Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s Main Street by Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall:
Well, I guess I was ’bout twelve, thirteen years old, something like that, when I first started playing guitar. I didn’t have none so I got a cigar box, I cut a hole in the top, but a board and nail it on there. And I taken four nails, put wire on ’em from a screen door for strings. I couldn’t play it, but I rapped the sides, hootin’ and hollerin’. I thought I was doin’ somethin’, you know.
The book continues:
He strolled the streets with his guitar for nickels and dimes, played parties for his neighbors and jived with jug bands for bigger to-dos. Most prized, and most repeated, were the memories of playing with W.C. Handy…
Archived April 26, 2017 by Ben Baker and Shane Speal for CigarBoxGuitar.com
This story first appeared in The Book Buyer: A Summary of American and Foreign Literature in 1884-1885. It was written by Daniel Carter Beard, who also founded the Boy Scouts of America. It tells the story of a Christmas Eve where the boys Tom, Dick and Harry discover that their beloved Uncle Enos has built himself a banjo out of a cigar box and broomstick.
This is not just a story though, but a set of plans for how to build a 5-string fretless banjo using a cigar box. These plans, minus the folksy story, would later be incorporated into Beard’s American Boy’s Handy Book.
Due to the time period in which it was written, some of the language and terms used in it may be offensive to some people. We present the digital version of the original publication here in its full, unedited form, as a historical curiosity and for educational purposes, as one of the earliest printed references to making instruments out of cigar boxes. We hope you enjoy it.
This excerpt from the book “Creative Music for Children”, written by Satis Narrona Coleman and published in 1922, describes the author’s work with teaching music and musical instruments to children. In this section she describes how the children crafted their own instruments, including a cello and violin, from various materials including cigar boxes.
This excerpt from the book “Creative Music for Children”, published in 1922, describes the author’s work with teaching music and musical instruments to children. In this section she describes how the children crafted their own instruments, including a cello and violin, from various materials including cigar boxes.
Shane Speal recently discovered a rare appearance by a cigar box guitar in a vintage film clip, this one from a 1942 music video recorded for the Spike Jones song “Pass the Biscuits Mirandy”. According to the Youtube video post, this short film (which really is a precursor to modern music videos) was called a “Soundie” and was made for playing on special jukeboxes.
This old hillbilly song was popular at the time, and a number of homemade and impromptu instruments are shown in it. The Cigar Box Guitar gets a brief appearance right around the 1-minute mark, as the screen shot to the left shows. You can watch the full video below.
Spike Jones was popular in the 1940’s and early 1950’s for his satirical and often comical adaptations of popular songs. You can read more about him and his career on Wikipedia.
Here is a short article from the July, 1920 edition of Popular Science Monthly, in which author Frank W. Vroom gives fairly brief instructions for constructing what he calls a “Jazzolin” using a cigar box. This is basically another take on the classic one-string cigar box fiddle.
Here’s a cool old patent from 135 years ago, showing a double-necked dulcimer with a rectangular body. These “double” dulcimers were meant to be played by two people at once, usually seated on either side of a table.
It is interesting that the inventor does not actually refer to this instrument as a “dulcimer”, but rather as being like a zither. So this must pre-date beginning to call this style of instrument a dulcimer or Appalachian dulcimer.
These were also sometimes known as courting dulcimers, because when a young man came calling on his sweetheart, her parents would seat them at the table with one of these in between. The parents could then leave the room, and as long as they heard both sides of the instrument being played, they’d know that the young hands were not busy elsewhere.
You can see in the patent’s drawings that the fretboards also were marked with shapes, which harken back to an earlier form of musical notation that used shaped note heads to help indicate pitches.
This may not be the earliest dulcimer patent, but it stood out as being of interest to homemade instrument builders.
In this series of posts, we feature various U. S. patents from the last 150 years, which were either historically significant in the development of modern musical instruments and instrument-building methods, or which present something interesting or just plain cool. We hope that these historical curiosities will help give cigar box guitar builders some context for their work, and hopefully also provide some inspiration.
This patent was filed in 1921, and published by the U. S. Patent and Trademark office in 1923. It is historically significant because as far as we can tell, this is the first registered patent for an adjustable steel truss rod in a guitar (if you know of an earlier one, please let us know in the comments and we’ll check it out!). The inventor is listed as Thaddeus J. McHugh, of Kalamazoo Michigan, “assignor to the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company.”
The adjustable steel truss rod was a major innovation in guitar manufacture, and most electric and acoustic guitars today include them. Being able to make fine adjustments to the bow of the neck, and thereby adjust the string action of the instrument, is now considered to be an integral part of guitar maintenance.
From the patent’s text:
The main objects of this invention are:
First. To provide an improved neck for stringed instruments, which is so constructed that it is not likely to sprint or warp under the strains to which it is subjected in use, and one which should it become warped, may be straightened.
Second. To provide an improved neck for stringed instruments which may be adjusted or sprung to adjust or regulate the distance of the strings from the keyboard.
By this arrangement of parts, I provide a neck for stringed instruments which is not likely to warp or spring under severe strains, and one which should it become warped or sprung may be readily adjusted to remove the spring, and also to adjust the position of the strings relative to the fingerboard.
By this arrangement of parts, I am also enabled to use wood which has not been heretofore considered satisfactory for the manufacture of necks, on account of its not having sufficient strength and rigidity, and further, great care in selecting stock is not necessary.
This video from December 4, 1928 shows a young African American (likely identified as “CoCoMo” Joe Barthelemy) playing a homemade drum kit consisting of a wooden box, tin cans and cake tin cymbals. As he plays, two other boys dance. This type of homemade instrument was a part of the New Orleans “spasm band” tradition, which began in the late 1900’s on the streets of the city, playing a variety of Dixieland, skiffle, jug music and other forms of early jazz forerunners.
Usually the term “spasm” was applied to bands, often made up of children, which crafted their instruments out of cast-off items and junk. Drum kits made out of wooden boxes and tin cans, cymbals made from pie plates, horns made from old pipes and parts of other instruments, and of course guitars and fiddles made from cigar boxes and other items. These spasm bands were not just one of the forerunners of what we know as jazz… they are also a key part of the history of homemade musical instruments.
A collection of photographs from across the years, showing a variety handmade instruments and the people who played them. Thanks to John McNair of Red Dog Guitars for allowing us to repost many of these photos. John has spent years collecting historic images of homemade and handmade instruments, and we are honored that he has agreed to let us host them here.
The first “spasm bands” were formed on the streets of New Orleans in the late 19th century, playing a variety of Dixieland, skiffle, jug music and other forms of early jazz forerunners. Usually the term “spasm” was applied to bands, often made up of children, which crafted their instruments out of cast-off items and junk. Drum kits made out of wooden boxes and tin cans, cymbals made from pie plates, horns made from old pipes and parts of other instruments, and of course guitars and fiddles made from cigar boxes and other items. These spasm bands were not just one of the forerunners of what we know as jazz… they are also a key part of the history of homemade musical instruments.
Click the image below to visit the University of South Carolina page where you can watch the full video, which is itself a series of excerpts from a longer film.
Here is a collection of old drawings, artwork and illustrations displaying cigar box guitars, fiddles and other handmade instruments. Thanks to John McNair of Red Dog Guitars for allowing us to repost many of these photos. John has spent years collecting historic images of homemade and handmade instruments, and we are honored that he has agreed to let us host them here.
Click on the image below to view the printable PDF document for these plans. They were published in the February-March 1948 edition of the Science and Mechanics magazine. If you want to see an old movie of W. C. Fields having an energetic time with a similar instrument, check out this video post on Cigar Box Nation.
This clip comes from the 12.12.12 Hurricane Sandy benefit concert, and shows Paul McCartney playing a Matty Baratto Cigfiddle (cigar box guitar) with Dave Grohl and the other surviving members of Nirvana. A few days later, they did it again on Saturday Night Live. These two appearances of a cigar box guitar on stage, in the hands of one of the greatest living musicians, was the biggest public recognition ever received by our namesake instrument, and we include the clip here because of that historical significance.
McCartney also played this cigar box guitar (rumored to have been given to him by Johnny Depp) in Grohl’s “Sound City” film (the single of the song “Cut Me Some Slack” later won a Grammy), and it also made an appearance in one of Sir Paul’s music videos.