Make: Projects

The $5 Cracker Box Amp

Build this workable little practice amp in about an hour.

  • By
  • Time Required: 1-2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
The $5 Cracker Box Amp

In Make: volume 04, I presented my version of the venerable cigar box guitar, which included an electric pickup so you could play the guitar through an amplifier.

People from around the world emailed me to tell me they’d built cigar box guitars based on my instructions. I struck up a conversation with one gentleman from Europe who goes by the moniker Blind Lightnin’ Pete. He made a couple of beautiful cigar box guitars, including one he calls the Vintage Blues Texas Rattlesnake Special model. He then went one step further, and built a cracker box guitar amplifier.

This outstanding little amp cost me all of $5 to build, since I had some parts lying around (you’ll spend more like $30 if you buy all the parts from scratch). Pete kindly allowed me to modify his design and present it as a project for you to build. (See Step 8 for a word from Pete about the origins of the cracker box amp.)

My amp differs a little from Pete’s because I wanted to make a workable little practice amp with parts and tools that could be purchased “one-stop shop” at RadioShack and built in an hour.



Step #1: Download the schematic.

The $5 Cracker Box Amp

Download the PDF of the schematic from the files above and print it out. NOTE: Cairn Idris designed a circuit layout diagram that is much easier to read than this schematic.

Step #2: Make the circuit.

The $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box Amp
  • Install the socket in the printed circuit board.
  • Solder it down.
  • Install the chip. I like having the chip in the printed circuit board while I build because there can be no doubt as to where pin 1 is. This is also why I install parts and make wire connections on the top of the printed circuit board.
  • Install the 0.01µF capacitor so one leg connects to pin 2 of the chip and one leg is in a “proto row.” Flip it over and solder it.

Step #3:

The $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box Amp
  • Install the 9V battery clip and mark a plus sign for the red wire and a minus sign for the black wire.
  • Install the 10Ω resistor and the 0.047µF capacitor. Take advantage of the “proto rows” to make the connections:
  • Chip pin 5 to one leg of the 10Ω resistor.
  • The other leg of the 10Ω resistor to one leg of the 0.047µF capacitor.
  • The other leg of the 0.047µF capacitor to “ground.”
  • For our purposes “ground,” which is shown on the schematic as a triangle with the point down, is the long “proto row” we marked with a minus sign.
  • TIP: Every time you install a part or make a connection, mark it off on the schematic (“Little Gem” schematic courtesy of

Step #4:

The $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box Amp
  • Use this same technique to install and make the remaining connections.
  • Solder the wires to the phone jack. Use green for signal and black for ground.
  • Install the wired phone jack to the circuit.
  • Cut the red lead and install the switch.

Step #5: Build the enclosure.

The $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box Amp
  • Make holes in the side of your box to fit the potentiometer, rheostat, and phone jack.
  • TIP: Why bother with drills and X-Acto knives when you can use your soldering iron to make holes?
  • Make holes for the “speaker grill.” You are going to find some hanging chads on the inside of the box. Reach in there with the soldering iron and burn them off.

Step #6:

The $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box Amp
  • Make a hole for the switch
  • Pop your circuit into the box.
  • Mount the speaker. Make some big glops of hot glue to act as “standoffs” on the speaker.

Step #7:

The $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box AmpThe $5 Cracker Box Amp
  • Mount the switch.
  • Install the chicken head knobs.
  • NOTE: It’s a proven fact that chicken head knobs greatly enhance the vintage sound of an amplifier. Use them liberally.
  • That's it; you're done! Now install a battery and go use it!

Step #8: A Few Words From Blind Lightnin’ Pete

The $5 Cracker Box Amp
  • The Origins of the Cracker Box Amp
  • The cracker box amp I built cost $5. It uses an 8-pin National Semiconductor LM386 series low-voltage op-amp IC. The amp circuit unleashes the full potential of this beast and creates 1 watt of arena-shaking power. Think of it as sort of a silicon shrunken head of the Marshall stack that Jimi Hendrix played at Monterey.
  • This integrated circuit has provided the basis for low-power solid-state amplifiers in recent years, including the famous Smokey Amp and a few of the designs at
  • You can buy an LM386 for under a buck; it’s a standard RadioShack item, the same one that was used in the MAKE project for turning your old computer mouse into a robot (see MAKE, Volume 02, Mousey the Junkbot). Our favorite hobbyist robot supply source, Solarbotics, sells them for 75¢ a piece.
  • I added a couple of capacitors, a couple of resistors, an LED, a 1/4“ jack, a potentiometer, and a $2 speaker, wrapped it all in a big blob of solder, crammed it in whatever empty box was laying around, and voilà!
  • The pot controls the gain, and it goes from California clean vintage Fender to Santana Mesa Boogie crunch to Hendrix Marshall. It runs off any combination of batteries — I usually use a 9V, but it’s possible to get a cleaner tone with 12V (8 AA batteries in series). I have used it to drive a 412 Marshall cabinet, and it gets pretty loud. Not loud enough to compete with a rock drummer, but loud enough for me not to hear my wife screaming “turn it down,” which I guess is enough for household use. If we had any neighbors, I could raise some complaints from it. Let’s just say that even with a 2” speaker it’s plenty loud enough for most apartment dwellers.
  • Interested in learning a bit more about the LM386? A great place to start is National Semiconductor’s website ( where you can download the data sheet. Even better, if you take the time to register on the site, they will generously send you a few samples for free!
  • Ask for the LM386N-4 series, as these are rated to handle up to 18V. Although any of the LM386 chips will work wonderfully for our hi-gain design, several experimenters and makers have found that cleaner tones with more headroom are achievable by running the circuit with a few extra volts.
  • See videos of Blind Lightnin’ Pete playing his cigar box guitar through his cracker box amp at

Step #9: Other 386 Op-Amp Projects

The $5 Cracker Box Amp


This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 09, page 104.

Related Posts on Make: Online:

Cracker Box Amp Subwoofer

Coconut Amp

Flashback: Cracker Box Amp

  • Laura Cochrane

    I asked Ed Vogel, and he thinks this audio jack from Neutrik would work:

  • Goli Mohammadi

    Genius! Do you have pics of it posted anywhere?

  • Damon

    Just found this:

    I’ll give it a try tonight.

  • Gabriel Sharp

    i made mine from parts of an answering machine someone threw out… 0$ spent

  • Max

    The author used some parts he had lying around. The $5 was all he had to spend to get parts he didn’t have.

  • Josh

    I’m interested in making an amplifier out of a wooden box, which I will then connect to a gramophone bell, similar to what is being sold on Etsy and/or Restoration Hardware. Does anyone think this cigarbox system would work?

  • Pingback: I built a Cigar Box Guitar... | Josh Holmes()

  • db

    Does the voltage of the capacitors matter?

    • Yes. Capacitors are rated for so many hours usually 2,000 to 3,000 hours at 80% capacity. Whatever the voltage is you should go two to three times higher. For example if you measure 10 volts across the capacitor and you have a cap rated at 10 volts they would begin to leak after the amount of hours they are rated. If you use a 20 volt capacitor then they would be at half of the maximum capacity at all times thus extending the life of the circuit.

      • Benjamin Stoudt

        What sort of changes would I have to make in order to power 4 speakers instead of 1???

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  • Clydicus

    “This outstanding little amp cost me all of $5 to build, since I had some parts lying around (you’ll spend more like $30 if you buy all the parts from scratch).”

    Another totally deceptive “$5” project headline from MAKE Magazine. My kid got so excited about the “$5 quad copter” in the last issue of MAKE which, like this $5 project, ended up being a far more expensive project. Honestly, WTF?

    • Hey, I hear your frustration.
      We’ve recently had a meeting about this and we all agree that we should always deliver on our headlines. This one (a project from one of our early magazines) slipped through the cracks.

      We are working to ensure that all of our stuff going forward delivers on the headline.

      • Michael Black

        Or the readership could be raised up by raising their knowledge of electronics, so they could scrounge parts and save money.
        I don’t know why that pot is on the output, by putting the volume control there, a low ohm higher wattage pot is needed, read expensive and less common.
        Under some circumstances it might have use, but volume controls go at the front of the amp. There, a higher value, low wattage pot will do, and those are easy to scrounge. Within reason, any “high” value will work at the input, making scrounging easier.
        The amplifier IC has to be a 386, but those are common, they used to be in dial up modems among other places. Older soundcards too. Maybe cordless phones, cheap at garage sales.
        If you’re not picky, other amplifier ICs will work, though the rest of the schematic will change. Open up anything with an amplifier and small speaker, and you’ll get a suitable ic amplifier (and just pull the rest of the parts from around it to rebuild the circuit).
        After that output pot, and the IC, there is nothing here that is critical, though I’m not going to explain it all. But understanding what the parts do, allows for substitution, because then the reader has an idea of the sort of part needed.
        Computer speakers would offer up a nice small amplifier board, though then here’s nothing much to build. Except one could use a better speaker and build it into a proper cabinet.
        Open up a VCR or clock radio, and lots of parts become available. Not everything, but why buy an LED when they are plentiful in junk?
        Some junk will offer more of the parts, depending on the project and the junk.
        The beginner is at the mercy of the article and the parts store. But that can change rapidly. If it doesn’t start at the beginning, the process never starts.

    • Daniel Reband

      The source of your confusion is unclear, as the writer of the original article is honest and accurate. The quad-copter you refer to was in reality a quad copter frame, again clearly stated. Please read and consider before you criticise.

      • Ceci Pipe

        The writer is accurate…

        In the body of the text, after the viewer has already clicked through to the article following the “The $5 Cracker Box Amp” headline.

        Clickbait isn’t excused by apologising in the article, if the headline says $5 Amp then it should be a $5 Amp.

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  • alrui

    Thanks for this cool idea that actually includes a proper schematic drawing and a complete parts list! Other people who post articles here could learn from your excellent example:-)

  • Gašper Törner

    i dont get the schematic what goes where i never saw this kind

  • amdamgraham

    I built this amp about a year ago but very sloppy solder work and had very low output. So I rebuilt it last night and used some new components but I did a very good soldering job. I have checked all connections and still the audio is very low. Only as loud as the tinny sound that the electric guitar strings make. any thoughts? attached is the diagram i used to guide my work.

    • Bill Zink

      I saw this also and caught that if your following the video be careful because the positive and negative rails are switched. I followed the video and had to run the jumped leads

  • Jesse

    I cant find a 25 watt 25 ohm rheostat anywhere. Can i use a different wattage rheostat?