When it comes to electrifying a cigar box guitar (or really any stringed instrument, for that matter), there are two basic options: either a piezo pickup (sometimes called a contact pickup), or a magnetic pickup. Well, really there is a third option – a microphone – but we’ll not cover that here. So, what are the main differences between a piezo element pickup and a magnetic pickup?
Rod piezos can give you great improvements in overall tone and sound on your instrument builds, compared to a standard disc piezo. However, the standard rod piezo is made for a 6-string guitar, and at 2 ¾” in length, is often longer than a cigar box guitar builder needs or wants for embedding in a bridge. Fortunately, it is a fairly simple process to cut the rod piezos to a shorter length, for 3 or 4-string setups. However, it is important to cut it them in a certain way so you don’t ruin them, which is what this article will show you.
Electrifying your cigar box guitar or other homemade instrument build can be a very rewarding experience. Being able to plug into an amp not only gives you more volume, but it opens the door to a huge range of effects that would not otherwise be available. And it is a proven fact that having a pickup in a guitar makes it easier to sell – being able to plug in and rock out evokes images of Eddie Van Halen and Slash and is sure to get any would-be rocker’s blood pumping.
Glenn walks you through how he installs the mini humbucker pickup in the “Mi Amor” cigar box guitar he designed for C. B. Gitty.
How I Took This Cigar Box Guitar to a Whole New Level
The Mi Amor meets the Snake Oil Humbucker: A Killer Combo
It sounds raw and dirty.
A single coil pickup in a cigar box guitar has grit and a surly swagger. But for this build, the sound of a solitary single coil pickup is missing something.
When designing the Mi Amor – a recent addition to the C.B. Gitty line of guitars – I wanted it to have a big punch. Picture a cinder block-sized fist, wearing brass knuckles, being thrown into your gut. You know, really taking the air out of you.
This illustrated guide written by Glenn Watt walks you through how to install the C. B. Gitty Part number 54-020-01, “Pre-Wired 4-String Single Coil Pickup Harness with Volume and Tone.” Cutout and drill bit sizes are given and the steps clearly shown for mounting one of these handy pre-wired pickup harnesses into cigar box guitars.
The principles in this guide can also be used for most any single-coil or humbucker pickup with a neck-through cigar box guitar, where you often have to notch down into the neck (and brace underneath it) to get the pickup into place.
So you want to hear that new gitty you’re building through your amplifier that’s been sitting unused behind the holiday decorations in the basement? Do you want to make certain that you can crank that little bad rabbit when everyone leaves and you’re left to your own devices in a quiet home? Or maybe you’re looking to level-up and retro-fit a pickup into a guitar you already have that’s been sorely needing a little volume. In the Pre-Wired Piezo and Jack Harness from C.B. Gitty you have the simplest way to electrify your instrument with the most basic of installation requirements.
If you have been thinking about using a magnetic pickup in your next cigar box guitar build, but aren’t sure about how they are different from piezo pickups, then here is a quick overview for you. Magnetic pickups can be a nice addition to most any cigar box guitar, but they do require some different handling and some knowledge of their unique properties.
Magnetic pickups respond only to the vibration of the strings, not the acoustic vibration of the instrument body.
It is the interaction between the vibrating steel strings and the magnets in the pickup that cause slight voltage to be created, which is picked up by the amplifier and reproduced as recognizable sound.
With a piezo pickup, which responds to pressure changes from string/instrument vibration to create voltage. So while a piezo responds to the instrument’s vibration, and as such will pick up more of the acoustic properties, the magnetic pickup responds only to the strings.
This means that a magnetic pickup underneath the same strings should sound the same on a Les Paul electric guitar, a cigar box guitar, or a cinder block. The acoustic properties of the instrument itself do not come into play. This can be both a good and a bad thing – if you want a CBG that sounds like an electric guitar through an amp, then it is great. If you want a CBG that sounds like a CBG through an amp, then it is not so great.
Magnetic pickups need to be mounted directly under the strings.
While a piezo can be mounted inside the box, a magnetic pickup cannot. It has to be mounted such that the poles are very close to the strings, so that the string vibration will excite the magnets.
The distance from the strings can vary, but it is generally in the range of 1/4″ to 1/2″ – usually, the closer they are the more sound you will get out of the guitar.
Personal preference comes into play here. Getting the magnetic pickup into the right position almost always means cutting an appropriately shaped hole in the top of the instrument so that it can extend through it. Mounting it fully inside the box is almost guaranteed to yield poor results.
Magnetic pickups require strings that have some steel in them.
Magnets are only excited by “ferrous” metals – such as the steel in standard guitar strings. Non-ferrous metals, such as brass and bronze, and non-metallic substances like nylon, will not produce any sound through a magnetic pickup.
Standard acoustic guitar strings, even Phosphor Bronze and 80/20 Bronze, have steel cores and will work for magnetic pickups. There are also nickel-wound strings sold specifically as electric guitar strings.
Usually electric guitar string sets are somewhat lighter in gauge than acoustic sets — this is because acoustic guitars need to produce a lot more sound to be effective, and heavier strings under greater tension produce more sound. Since the only thing electric guitar strings need to do is excite the magnets, they can be lighter in gauge and still work great – keep in mind that the electric guitar has the amplifier to do all of the work of making the sound louder.
There are many variations in how magnetic pickups can be combined and arranged in a build.
There are both single-coil and double-coil (humbucker) varieties of magnetic pickup, and they can be used singly or in matched pairs on a build. One popular configuration is to have one pickup close to the neck and one close to the bridge, with either a switch or some sort of fader potentiometer to either select between them, or blend their sounds together.
Some builders go even further and put both a piezo and a magnetic pickup in their build, with a switch or pot to select between them, so they get a blend of electric guitar and acoustic guitar sounds. When it comes to guitar electronics, the possibilities are pretty much wide open to experimentation.
There are very few hard-and-fast rules of what is right and wrong, so feel free to experiment and try new things!
We hope that this brief overview of magnetic pickups is helpful and answers some of the questions you might have in regards to using one in your build. There is a great deal of additional information out there, on sites such as http://www.CigarBoxNation.com, as well as a number of books published on the subject.
Putting electronic components into a cigar box guitar, and getting everything properly wired and connected, can be a daunting task for the first-timer – but it doesn’t have to be. In this article we will present several basic wiring diagrams created by Ted Crocker, and discuss each of them in some detail to help you understand what is going on.
When looking at the use of piezo elements as pickups in acoustic instruments, and specifically in cigar box guitars, there are two main types that get used – disk-style piezos, and rod-style piezos
While disk piezos are perhaps more prevalent, because they tend to be cheaper and easier to find, many builders feel that the rod-style piezos offer superior sound and tonal quality. This article delves into the differences between disk and rod-style piezos, and takes a close look at how rod piezos are put together.