Gary Copeland (Spence’s Rye)

Musical styles: Americana, folk, Appalachian stomp
Handmade instruments played: cigar box guitar, banjo, fiddle

As far back as he can remember, music has been part of Gary Copeland’s life. Gary sings and plays music steeped in rich tradition, bellowing the heavy sounds of Appalachia. And the roots of his musical history run deep as the coal mines in his home state of West Virginia.

Gary may have waited until his adolescent years to begin playing guitar, but he’s always been surrounded by music. He grew up listening to his grandfather, an excellent flatpicker. He heard his mother’s voice every Sunday gracing the church with hymns. His father used to whittle whistles out of tree branches for him and his brother. And the roots run so far as hearing his great-grandmother play piano in her old coal-camp home.

Those roots took hold and gave Gary the life he needed in music. He came up through childhood singing and eventually playing six-string guitar. Throughout high school and college, Gary was involved in countless musical projects, each helping to shape the path that as led him to today – a folk music artist.

Gary built his first folk art instrument using plans from the Foxfire books that lived on his grandparents’ shelves. His affinity for banjo, and the varied folk music that used it, led to all sorts of musical influences like Roscoe Holcomb, Miles Krassen, and Homer Walker to name a few. Gary, a student of music and tradition, studies the different techniques used by the various artists and genres.

This led Gary to his Folk Art apprenticeship with the Augusta Heritage Center. His instructor there encouraged Gary to get out and play what he was learning. After honing his chops and meeting other artists while playing markets and busking, Gary began to land paying gigs. Gary also has a background in audio engineering which has helped him to understand something that serves him well in music: “less is more”.

Spence’s Rye, Gary’s solo musical endeavor, is based not only in his Appalachian history but more importantly in the world that best defines him: community and family. Gary continues to record and perform his rustic and raucous Appalachian folk, playing festivals and pleasing crowds as a one-man-band. You can find much of his work at

Gary Copeland can be found at

GDG – The King of Cigar Box Guitar Tunings – by Glenn Watt

What makes Open G – GDG tuning for Cigar Box Guitars so popular?

It’s the King of cigar box guitar tunings.

G-D-G is the most widely used tuning you’ll find used in videos throughout most cigar box guitar communities.

Why is this tuning so popular?

This article unpacks that question, and gives you the straight facts to answer it.

Let’s first begin with what G-D-G actually is.

G-D-G is an open tuning

G-D-G is an open tuning; it refers to how the strings are tuned.

The thickest string is tuned to G.

The string in the middle is tuned to D.

And, you guessed it, the thinnest string is also tuned to G.

When you strum 3 strings tuned G-D-G, without using a slide or your fingers to fret them, you’re playing the strings open.

And when all 3 strings are played open in G-D-G, you hear a “G” chord.

That “G” chord you hear is referred to as a power chord.

Power chords in an open 3-string tuning lack a note to make it sound happy (major) or sad (minor).

Also, there are no sour notes, unlike a standard tuning on a six string guitar that sounds several different notes when played open in the standard EADGBE tuning.

As Bad Finger, member of Cigar Box Nation, replied in a Nation forum topic,

“…think of standard tuning as a really nice pair of channel-lock pliers. You ‘can’ do about anything with them. … Fix the kitchen sink, hold a workpiece, twist a nut off a bolt, use it as a hammer, pry tool, . . . lots of things.”

An open tuning, on the other hand, has a simpler focus.

Bad Finger went on to say,

“Open tunings are a bit more like a specialized tool that will have features making it good for a particular purpose or purposes. Like an impact wrench. You can break a nut off about anything – and fast, but don’t try to use it as a hammer.”

But don’t let that specialization fool you.

A power chord open tuning is capable of much more than you think.

You can play nearly any song

A 3-string cigar box guitar tuned to an open power chord can play nearly any song in western music.

That’s right, nearly any song.

Most of the music we hear can be broken down into simple chord progressions.

And whether you’re listening to Mozart, Robert Johnson, or The Beatles, every song has a simple version that can be played with an open tuning.

Most songs in western music are built on some variation of 3 to 5 chords.

Every one of those chords can be played on 3 strings.

Now here’s where your mind will be blown.

You can play all of those songs with only 1 finger.

“What’s that?” you ask. “Any song?”

Believe it.

Play cigar box guitar with 1 finger•

Is there anything more beautiful that that?

Not only can you build your own cigar box guitar, but you can make music with your guitar by using only 1 finger.

Use that 1 finger to hold down all 3 strings behind any fret and you’ll play a chord.

The same can be done by holding a slide on top of the strings.

So, all along the entire fretboard, nearly the whole of western music is available to you using only 1 finger with a power chord open tuning.

The simplicity doesn’t end there.

Forget about confusing music theory

Open tunings are perfect for cigar box guitars.

Just as the simplicity of a cigar box guitar makes it inclusive for would-be builders, the simplicity of an open tuning makes it inclusive for all players.

Making music with your cigar box guitar doesn’t need to weigh you down with the science of music.

There’s no need for scales, or sight-reading, or complicated chord forms and fingerings.

A cigar box guitar with a power chord open tuning allows everyone, regardless of musical experience or education, to feel the joy of making music.

“That’s all well and good,” you may say, “but do I need special strings to get tuned G-D-G?”

It’s easy to get tuned G-D-G

Finding strings that can be tuned to an open power chord is easy.

Of the 6 strings on a conventional guitar, 4 of them can be used to easily achieve 2 power chord open tunings.

The 6th, 5th, and 4th strings – traditionally tuned E, A, and D – can be tuned to D-A-D.

Additionally, the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings – traditionally tuned A, D, and G – can be easily be tuned G-D-G.

So you can pull off the strings from that dusty ol’ guitar that’s been sitting in your closet for 15 years and finally put ‘em to use.

“Can other strings from a conventional guitar be used on a cigar box guitar?” you ask.


Even better, you can find single, or bulk, sets of strings to get tuned to G-D-G from C.B. Gitty Crafter Supply.

“Still” you wonder, “what makes G-D-G stand out above the rest?”

The people’s key

In the music world, the key of G is often referred to as the people’s key.

Many people’s vocal range fits into melodies written in the key of G, making it inclusive of a vast number of voices.

On top of that, the key of G works well with most stringed instruments used in western music.

Guitars are easily tuned to open G.

Half the strings on violins and mandolins are in the G chord.

And the standard tuning for banjos is to an open G.

“Okay. This all sounds good. But where’s the hard evidence to support this popularity?”

The straight facts

On Cigar Box Nation, member Turtlehead conducted an exhaustive survey of the the community.

One of the questions posed determined the most widely used tunings among 3 string cigar box guitar builders and players.

And a whopping 93% of those surveyed who play 3 string cigar box guitars use the tuning GDG.

Long live the King

So now you can see why G-D-G is the King of cigar box guitar tunings.

  • •It’s an inclusive key for an inclusive instrument
  • •It can be used to play almost anything
  • •You can use just 1 finger to make music
  • •There’s no need for music theory
  • •The strings are widely available
  • •The key fits most voices and stringed instruments
  • •And you can easily play along with almost every other 3 string cigar box guitar player.

Bear in mind, there are numerous ways to tune a cigar box guitar; no one way is the right way.

This is a fun, and fact-filled article, but the joy of making and playing cigar box guitars is based in the freedom of expression.

Keeping in line with that spirit, let’s close with more of Bad Finger’s forum topic reply,

“As a teacher, we are encouraged to start our students with an “I can” statement. This is often a lot more productive than “With open tuning, I can’t . . .” Focus on exploring the possibilities vs. the limitations.”

What are your thoughts on GDG tuning? Let us know in the comments below! 

Gerry Thompson

Musical Styles: Blues, Folk, Americana, Originals

Handmade Instrument Played: Cigar Box Guitar

Even with music in the family, Gerry Thompson didn’t start playing music until well into adulthood. When he inherited an old banjo-lin from his father the wheels began to turn. However, the little strummer was sorely in need of work.

With a stroke of good fortune, Gerry had a neighbor who not only played guitar but could do a little work on them as well. That neighbor was the guitarist, Dave “Catfish” Mecca, of April Mae & the June Bugs. Dave lent Gerry a hand and Gerry had a banjo-lin to start playing music.

Gerry’s interest in playing stringed instruments soon turned to cigar box guitars. He stumbled upon CBGs while on the internet and found Shane Speal. Gerry reached out to Shane and a couple of other gents who gladly offered advice, direction, and encouragement.

He got to building and shortly after that, Gerry got to playing. For a long time Gerry had written poetry. Playing cigar box guitars gave him an outlet to shape his written word and with them songs were created.

While at a cigar box guitar festival in Kentucky, and with another stroke of good fortune on his side, Gerry was asked to perform on stage. The festival needed a performer and Gerry had his guitar. He had never performed for anyone before but got on stage anyway and found that he took to it rather naturally.

That performance launched Gerry into string of songwriting and festival performances. He’s got dozens of original tunes and continues to play out as often as he can. Gerry’s played at festivals in West Virginia, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. The travel from his home state of New Jersey doesn’t seem to slow him down. He looks forward to sharing his art with the crowds.

“Playing music is probably my favorite thing in life. It’s the only time I’m completely relaxed. […] It’s a great outlet. It takes everything away.” – Gerry Thompson from David Sutton’s book, Cigar Box Guitars: The Ultimate DIY Guide for Makers and Players of the Handmade Music Revolution

Gerry Thompson on

Gibson’s Guitar Truss Rod Patent from 1923 – US Patent #1446758

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.


Patent - 1923 - US1446758 - Gibson Truss Rod Screen Shot
Click the image above to view the full patent document in PDF form.

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.


Gitty’s Guide to Junkin’ and Pickin’ for Cigar Box Guitar Building – Part 1

This is Part 1 of a series of two articles, in which Ben “C. B. Gitty” Baker shares some of what he has learned about buying cool old vintage items (ie: junk) for making homemade instruments.

C. B. Gitty owner Ben Baker checking price tags carefully

I am pretty much a newcomer to junking, picking, thrifting, yardsale-ing and the like.

Though I grew up poor and most of my clothes and toys were secondhand, it is only since getting into making cigar box guitars and other handmade instruments that I have begun to appreciate the value of junk stores, thrift stores, yard sales and to a lesser extent antique stores.

Once you realize how many different things you can make musical instruments out of, it isn’t long before you realize that second-hand buying is the best way to get the best stuff at the best prices.

So it is only within the last couple of years that I have really gotten into the world of second-hand buying, and only in the last six months that I have really gotten serious about it. So you may ask, isn’t that a bit soon to start writing a guide telling other people how to do it? In short, yes it is – but I am learning
as I go, so I wanted to share what I have picked up so far. I am sure veteran yardsale-ers and thrifters will have a lot they could add to this, and that’s fine – for me, it’s still a work in progress.

Keep in mind that I am talking purely about buying stuff to be made into instruments, not about buying to resell or buying to collect. There are plenty of guides out there already for that sort of thing.

What I Look For

First, a list of the sorts of things I am looking for when I go out junkin’. This list is not all-inclusive, because you never know when
you’re going to run across something you’ve never seen before, and in a flash of insight you realize you can make a guitar out of it. There is no requirement that you know what something actually is, or what it was used for – but of course that helps. So here it is my “watch list”:

  • Smaller Tins, cans and canisters of all types:
    tobacco tins, beer cans, flour tins, oil cans, gunpowder tins, spice cans, random kitchen/houseware tins, modern decorative tins, candy tins, etc. An awful lot of household wares used to come in metal containers, before cardboard and plastic took over, so there is a LOT of this sort of stuff out there. Even metal mugs can be used as canjo
    resonators. I haven’t gotten into using the larger gas and oil cans yet, since making instruments out of these larger items presents unique challenges.
  • Miscellaneous smaller metal pieces that can be used as resonators: license plates, hub caps, mail box doors, can lids, badges, machine parts, motor parts, gears, saw blades, etc.
  • Small metal decorative items: reclaimed architectural salvage like door knobs, hinges, latches, catches, and the like. Old bolts/lag screws/etc that show their age. Any smaller metal pieces that can be glued or screwed to an instrument to give it some extra visual appeal.
  • I personally am always on the outlook for old reclaimed wood, particularly if the story of where it came from is known. It sure is easier to buy a bunch of old wood than it is to put it to use though.
  • Cigar boxes, smaller crates and boxes, anything with dovetail or box-jointed corners, especially if it has readable lettering on the panels. Unfortunately these have been very “hot” lately and finding a good price on them is hard.
  • Random cool stuff. This is where you get into trouble for dragging home too much rusty old junk. If there is one thing I have learned so far, it’s that it is an awful lot easier to accumulate piles of stuff than it is to actually figure out how to make instruments out of it.

Where to Buy Stuff

Now that you know the sorts of things I am on the lookout for, here is my working list of tips for effective junkin’.

  • Get as close to the source as possible –yard sales. The closer you get to the source (the actual people who own the stuff, not people who are trying to resell it for a profit), usually the better the price you’ll get. There are a couple of exceptions to this (see #2 below), but usually yard sales, garage sales, estate sales and that sort of thing are the source of the best bargains. Of course some people research what all of their stuff is worth and try to get full retail for it, but for the most part people just want to get rid of what they see as their junk. And a lot of it will in fact be junk. You have to be willing to walk by a lot of junk, and make quite a few stops where you don’t buy anything at all, to find the good stuff.
  • Donation-based thrift stores and Free Clean-Out services. Donation-based thrift stores can be a great source of parts for making musical instruments. So can “yard sales” set up by the folks who drive around the trucks with “We’ll clean out your stuff for free” on the side. Usually thrift stores and free clean-out people are just looking to make a few bucks on stuff that they got for free, and they rarely do much research into what things are worth. Some thrift stores might be a bit more savvy about researching actual values of things – you’ll have to get an idea of where the best bargain potentials are in your area.
  • Flea markets. These can be a crap shoot, and you never know what you are going to see. Flea markets can range from the lowest of low-end yard sales, to more or less professional cadre of slick dealers looking for full retail prices. You never know what you might find though… a few cigar boxes, some decent tins, some old beat up guitars that can be used for parts, who knows! Be ready to haggle – that is part of the flea market experience, and if you pay the first price that they throw out, you’re probably paying too much.
  • Junk and second-hand stores. These are a step or two down from antique stores – but that’s a good thing! Personally, the more piles of rusty junk out front, the happier I am. These sorts of places seem to be harder to find these days, but they’re still out there. You have to be willing to dig through rusty junk, squeeze through packed semi trailers, get grease, mud and random gunk on your hands. You have to dodge wasps, step over bumblebee nests, tiptoe around ticks, keep up with your tetanus booster shots, and watch out for broken glass. You never know what you might find in that next semi trailer or outbuilding.
  • Antique stores. These are tricky. Usually antique store owners know what all of their stuff is worth, and they price it at the high end of the scale. It is possible to find antique stores out there, usually on the lower end of “antique” and upper end of “junk”, where the owners don’t really keep up with current prices and you can get some good deals. I have learned that the magic phrase “I don’t do anything online” can mean good deals.
  • Scrap Yards. These can be a tough nut to crack. Scrap yards tend to be busy places, and the people there tend to be… rather gruff. When your day to day job is moving tons of scrap metal around, having to deal with somebody wanting to wander around and buy a few trinkets can be pretty annoying. So be ready for that if you’re going to go in. I personally have only tried to make inroads into one local scrap yard, and it has been hit and miss. I managed to get 13,000 beer can tops at just over the scrap metal value from the owner, but a few months later the same guy had no idea who I was and was too busy to even deal with me. So there you go.
  • Other. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask. Take a page out of the American Pickers playbook. If you’re out somewhere, where stuff wouldn’t usually be considered to be for sale, and something strikes your eye, go for it. Sometimes it just doesn’t hurt to ask. If you’re polite, the worst thing that can happen is you’ll get told “no”. Tell them you want to make a musical instrument out of it. Describe other stuff you’ve built, or show them a picture. Tell a story, pique their interest, and it just might work.

Check out Part 2 of this guide for more tips and advice!

Gitty’s Guide to Junkin’ and Pickin’ for Cigar Box Guitar Building – Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series of two articles, in which Ben “C. B. Gitty” Baker shares some of what he has learned about buying cool old vintage items (ie: junk) for making homemade instruments.

In the Part 1 of this article, I discussed the sorts of things I look out for when junkin’ and pickin’, as well as the sorts of places I go to do it – the What and the Where. In this part of the article, I focus more on on the “How” – the way I go about picking. They are still under development, but they are working for now. I have never been a big fan of negotiating prices and dickering, but I have been working on it – so that affects some of these general thoughts. Everyone is different and these methods may not work for you, but I hope some people are able to gain something from it.

  • It’s OK to pay full retail sometimes. Some stuff can be old, and still not be high-dollar. I always approach it by thinking of what I can reasonably sell an instrument for. So if a dealer wants $10 for a very cool tobacco tin, I have to think of what I can reasonably charge for a canjo made from it. $25? $40? If you are building it for yourself, go wild… but if you are building it to resell, you gotta think about costs. A coffee tin from the 1920’s might be worth $50 to collectors… but a canjo made out of it probably isn’t going to be worth $100 to very many people. Remember that making instruments out of stuff usually damages or ruins the collectible value of a piece (unless you go to great pains to not do so, but that takes time and time is a cost).
  • If they give you a great price, don’t try to talk them down. Usually I try to negotiate a lower price for stuff, especially if I am buying a pretty good-size pile of it. But sometimes, a seller will throw out a really good price, and I know I am getting a great deal. In those cases, I don’t even try for a lower price, I just pay the money and know I did good.
  • Don’t be shy about letting them know what you’re looking for. You can make up a written list of the stuff you’re interested in if you want, but just telling the owner the sorts of things you want can save you a lot of time. Sit down and make a list of what your main items of interest are, and then memorize it so you can rattle it off clearly and confidently when asked. Don’t get too laser focused in on a limited list though – always keep your eyes open for new stuff that you might not have known about.
  • If prices aren’t marked, form a sample pile and get a price on that. I have found that in junk stores, and some less fancy antique stores, there might not be any prices on individual items. This can make it tricky to know whether you want to buy specific items. In these cases, I have found it useful to do a lap around the place (noting where the good stuff is) and gather up a few different items to present to the owner and get a price on. This can let you know whether it is worthwhile to gather up any more stuff. Let them know that you’ll be diving back in for more if the prices are friendly. If they are firmly set on high prices, you might want to move on.
  • Tell them you don’t want anything that’s of high collectible value. If you’re looking at a shelf full of 20 oil cans, 3 of them might be $50 cans, 8 might be $10 cans and the rest might be $5 cans. Unless you are trying to meet a specific customer request , it probably won’t make your creation more saleable or valuable if it has a $50 oil can on in instead of a $5 oil can. I make sure the seller knows that I am not really interested in anything that is rare or higher-dollar. I am not afraid to put stuff back on the shelf.
  • Take a page from the Frank Fritz playbook – bundle! If you don’t know who Frank Fritz is, he’s the short chubby bearded guy on the History Channel show “American Pickers”. If you’ve never watched American Pickers, start with episode 1 season 1 and watch them all – you’ll learn an awful lot about antiques, buying, negotiating and shenanigans in general. But anyway, bundling is buying groups of items at the same time, instead of one at a time, in order to get a better price on the group. It seems like it would be so obvious that it wouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Put one old oil can on the counter, and the price might be a firm eight bucks. But put 5 up there and offer $30 and it might just fly. That’s $6 each, or 25% off the price on the single. Sure, you had to buy more stuff and spend more money, but if you wanted all of them anyway, you got a good deal! If they won’t budge on the price, see if you can add something else. “If I give you the $25 you want on this, will you throw in that?” It actually works.
  • Show and talk about what you are going to make out of the stuff you’re buying. Bring a couple of your instrument creations along with you on your picking adventures, or at least bring some pictures. If you have a card, give them a card. Tell them about the stuff you have made. I am not saying it will get you better prices, but it can make an impression, spark an interest… and it can get you into areas that “normal” customers aren’t allowed to go – the packed basement, that extra semi trailer off to the side, the unpicked, unsorted, unwashed “good stuff”.
  • Work on forming relationships. If you plan on doing this sort of thing for a while, I recommend that you work on getting to know the people in your area who set up booths at flea markets, run junk shops and antique shops, run “free clean-out” businesses, etc. If you get to know these folks, they might look out for specific items for you, cut you better deals, etc. If you really get into it, consider making up a watch list to leave with people so they know to contact you when something good comes along.
  • Be open to trade deals. If you follow suggestion #5 above, and bring a few finished instruments with you when you go out junkin’, you might run into a seller who offers to trade stuff for one of your creations. This can be a good way to establish a good relationship with a seller, even if you don’t come out too far ahead on that specific trade. Some might even offer to take something on consignment and try to sell it for you. Whether or not that’s something you want to do is entirely your call – managing consignment sales is a whole other article or two.
  • Try to have fun with it. Personally, I love finding more or less rusty old stuff and giving it new life as musical instruments. Whether it’s a cigar box being re-lifed into a guitar, an old oil can or tobacco tin being made to ring and twang as a canjo, for me this crazy hobby is fun. For me, getting good deals on neat old stuff to turn into the instruments is almost as fun as making the instruments themselves. If you find that it stresses you out, then stick with eBay or other less direct means of procuring materials. Life’s too short to spend time doing stuff that makes you stressed and unhappy.
  • Don’t get too carried away. It is a lot easier to accumulate piles of rusty old stuff than it is to actually make instruments out of it. Don’t strain your finances and personal relationships by endless accumulation of stuff. It’s easy to get carried away… as attested by the ever-expanding pile of stuff in Gitty HQ. I have to admit I’m not very good at following this particular advice point. – but I do try to keep it in mind.

That about sums up what I’ve learned so far about the fascinating hobby/obsession of junkin’ and picking. When you venture out into this rusty, dusty and fascinating world of stuff, the whole long history of American (and world) manufacturing lies in front of you. Sometimes you have to dig for it a bit, but the dig is worth it.

Glenn Kaiser

Musical Styles: Blues, Rock, R&B, Christian Rock, Originals

Handmade Instruments Played: diddley-bow, cigar box guitar

At the young age of 12, this Wisconsin youth became active in the Milwaukee music scene. So active, in fact, that before having reached 19 years of age, Glenn had played in more than 12 bands and had already led two.

While active in the scene Glenn escaped some of the more dangerous trappings of boyhood and of a performing musician to find his life purpose in living his faith. From there, a storied musical career and a life lived in service was launched.

Not only is Glenn’s life defined by his art and faith but by the roles he plays as husband, father, and grandfather. Glenn met and married his wife while playing in Resurrection Band, a Christian rock group. Through the various inceptions and regions played before settling in Chicago, IL, The Resurrection Band stayed together for nearly thirty years.

After the many years with his long-time band, Glenn has led a successful career as a solo artist, performing with his cigar box guitars and diddly-bows while maintaining his roots in Chicago.

Being someone who enjoys found object instruments, Glenn is drawn to making and playing his own cigar box guitars. Moreover, he can be found running workshops and demonstrations helping others to learn how to build their own instruments.

Find Glenn Kaiser on his blog: