In MAKE Volume 04, Ed Vogel showed us how to make a DIY guitar out of a cigar box and junk from the hardware store, and electrify it with a cheap piezoelectric pickup. In Volume 21, Mark Frauenfelder gussied it up with a traditional high-quality neck, frets, and tuning machines. In this project we’re going to turn it up to 11 with the help of an old license plate and a few components from RadioShack.

A popular DIY resonator guitar, the License Plate Guitar is easy to make. You’ll wind your own electromagnetic pickup and mount it on a homemade soundbox made with an old automobile license plate for the metal resonator top. Then add a potentiometer and volume knob and get ready to rock that classic electric blues sound.


Step #1: Collect the body pieces.

License Plate Guitar

For the body you'll need the license plate, the 12"x6" plywood, the 2 strips of hardwood, and the wood screws.

Step #2: Cut the box sides.

License Plate Guitar
  • Stand the 1×3 hardwood plank on edge in your miter box and clamp it in place. You'll make all cuts at 45° angles.
  • Cut the long box sides so they're 12" on the outside, and cut the short sides to 6" on the outside. Be sure to cut opposite angles on either end of each piece.
  • When fit together they should form a perfect box that's the same size as the license plate.

Step #3: Clamp and glue the box.

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  • Place one of the long box sides into your corner clamps but keep the clamps loose so they can be easily adjusted. Apply a liberal amount of glue to the angled ends of the board.
  • Place the 2 short box sides into the clamps and adjust the clamps until all the 2 corners are perfectly aligned to 90° angles. Tighten the clamps and leave these 2 joints to dry for at least 6 hours; 24 is better.
  • When the first 2 joints are dry, apply glue to the remaining 2 joints and clamp in the final board. Leave these again to dry for at least 6 hours.

Step #4: Mark and drill the license plate.

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  • The pickups that you'll be building are about 1-1/2"×3". This works out to be almost exactly the same size as a single letter on a standard license plate.
  • Begin by measuring and marking out the placement for the pickup. This should be around 3" from one end of the plate and centered vertically as shown here.
  • Inside your marks, drill a few holes in the plate close together, to create a hole big enough to fit the nibbler tool into the plate.

Step #5: Nibble away.

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  • Use the nibbler to open the hole up to the proper shape and size to fit the pickup.
  • You can clean up the rough edges of the hole with a file if you wish, but since the pickup will cover them, this isn't completely necessary.

Step #6: Prepare the neck.

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  • The fret spacing on the neck is designed for a 25" scale length between the nut and the bridge. The distance from the edge of the guitar body (where you'll attach the neck) to the bridge (which you'll attach to the license plate) should be around 9". So you'll need to cut down the neck to about 16".
  • Starting where the headstock meets the neck, measure 16" down the neck and make a mark for cutting.
  • Clamp the neck in your miter box and cut it squarely at your mark. Save the extra scrap piece for use later.

Step #7: Prepare the headstock.

License Plate Guitar
  • The headstock can be an opportunity to really customize the look of your guitar. We decided to keep ours simple to match the straight lines of our guitar body, so we just trimmed the headstock down, making it about 1/4" wider than the neck on each side.
  • Next mark the spacing for your tuning machines on the headstock. You want a grid of 4 holes centered in the headstock as shown here, each hole 1/2" from the edges of the headstock and with 2" between each row.
  • After marking your grid, drill the holes with a 1/4" drill bit.
  • TIP: To prevent chip-outs, drill the holes from the top of the neck, and put a sacrificial backing board under the bottom of the neck.

Step #8: Install the tuning machines.

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  • Our tuning machines came with metal grommets that help them operate smoothly in your guitar. Place those grommets through the holes in the front of the headstock.
  • Flip the neck over, test-fit the tuning machines through the headstock, and mark the location of each of the mounting screw holes.
  • NOTE: If your tuning machines have an exposed gear, it should be oriented downward toward the neck, not upward toward the top of the headstock. If you install them upside down, they can't maintain tension.
  • Drill pilot holes for the mounting screws with a drill bit that's slightly smaller than your mounting screws.
  • Mount the tuning machines in your headstock. Be careful not to strip the holes as you tighten the small mounting screws.

Step #9: Add the nut.

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  • At the point just below the headstock where the fretboard flattens out, place your nut across the neck running perpendicular. Use a pencil to mark both edges of the nut.
  • Between your marks, use your coping saw or other handsaw to cut a groove 1/8" deep into the neck. Do this multiple times to remove most of the material between the marks. Then use a knife to clean the remaining wood from the channel, and use sandpaper to smooth it.
  • Once your channel is cut enough to fit the nut into place, trim your nut to the width of your neck and glue it into place in the channel.

Step #10: Attach the neck.

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  • Drill a pilot hole in the center of the end of your neck, using a bit slightly smaller than your 1-1/2" wood screws.
  • Measure the thickness of the neck and of the license plate. Divide the neck thickness in half and subtract the thickness of the license plate. Measure down from the edge of one short sides of your body box the same length you just calculated and drill another pilot hole centered in the board.
  • Now use wood glue and a 1-1/2" wood screw to attach the neck to the body. Make sure it's perfectly squared up and not twisted. Placing a small amount of glue between the neck and body will help prevent the joint from loosening in the future.

Step #11: Prepare the string holder.

License Plate Guitar
  • From the remaining scrap of neck that you cut off earlier, cut a 3" section.
  • Mark where you'll place the strings in this board by spacing the 4 holes evenly across the board. Ours were 1/4" apart.
  • Drill the 4 holes with a 1/8" drill bit.

Step #12: Attach the string holder.

License Plate Guitar

Measure and attach the string holder in exactly the same way that you attached the neck, on the opposite end of the body box. Don't forget to drill pilot holes to prevent the wood from splitting.

Step #13: Secure the license plate.

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  • From the 1.5"×1.5" hardwood stock, cut 2 lengths that are as long as the walls of the guitar body are deep (~3 inches). These can be cut in the miter box to ensure 90° flat cuts.
  • Center the license plate on top of the body box and mark the locations of the plate's 2 existing screw holes that are on the opposite end from the pickup hole.
  • Place glue on one side of each of the 2 blocks that you just cut and clamp them inside the box as shown, so they're centered on your screw hole markings. Leave the glue to dry for at least 6 hours.
  • Finally, coat the top surfaces of the frame with glue and clamp the license plate on to secure it. Add clamps as needed to ensure that your license plate is making good contact on all edges, the whole way around. Again, let the glue dry at least 6 hours.

Step #14: Build a single-coil pickup.

License Plate Guitar

An electric guitar uses an electromagnetic device known as a pickup to capture the vibration of the strings and convert it into a signal that's sent to the amplifier. (We based our pickup design on this great tutorial on Instructables.) It's basically a coil of wire and some magnets; vibration creates fluctuations in the magnetic field, which are picked up and converted to a small electrical current.

Step #15: Cut the pickup bobbin.

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  • Measure the hole you cut in the license plate, and design a rectangle that's slightly larger than the hole. This will be the bobbin's top plate. It can be drawn by hand or created digitally using an application such as Inkscape or Adobe Illustrator. Design a second template that's approximately twice as tall, for the bobbin's bottom plate.
  • Mark a pattern of 4 holes evenly spaced 1/2" apart in the center of the top template. Copy this hole pattern to the lower half of the bottom template, then add 2 more holes centered near the upper edge of the bottom template.
  • Tape the templates to a piece of 1/4" plywood and cut them out with your coping saw or jigsaw. Use sandpaper to clean up the edges.

Step #16: Drill the pickup bobbin.

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Drill the holes in your top and bottom plates with a drill bit slightly larger than your #8-32 machine screws. Ensure that the top and bottom plates line up.

Step #17: Assemble the bobbin.

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  • Insert 4 machine screws through the top plate with the screw heads facing up.
  • Place the bottom plate on the bolts, then add the nuts and tighten them just flush with the bottom of the bolts. This should leave a space of nearly 3/4" between the 2 plates.

Step #18: Wind the pickup.

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  • Insert the magnet wire into one of the 2 wire mounting holes in the bottom of your pickup bobbin. Wrap it through the hole and around the outer edge a couple of times to secure it.
  • Wrap the wire neatly around the entire group of 4 screws at the center of your bobbin (not between the screws). Keep your wrapping even and consistent, starting at the bottom and building layers to the top. Continue wrapping all of the wire from the spool onto the pickup.
  • When you're near the end of the wire, loop it through the remaining mounting hole multiple times to secure it in place.

Step #19: Add the magnets.

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Place one rare-earth magnet on top of each screw, at the end with the nut. These should stay in place on their own, but to ensure they don't come loose during any particularly rocking jam session in the future, you can attach them with a drop of super glue.

Step #20: Wire the pickup.

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  • Cut an 18" length of 2-conductor audio cable and strip the ends.
  • Magnet wire is coated with a thin film to insulate it; you need to strip this coating off the wire ends before you can solder them. It can usually be easily burned off with your soldering iron; you can also try to scrape it off using a sharp knife, razor blade, or sandpaper.
  • Solder one end of the cable to the 2 magnet wire ends coming out of your pickup.

Step #21: Wire the volume pot.

License Plate Guitar
  • At the other end of the cable that you attached to the pickup, connect the red wire to the outer pin on the potentiometer as shown, and solder it into place.
  • Cut another length of audio cable and strip both ends. Solder the red wire to the center pin of the potentiometer.
  • Solder both white wires to the remaining outer pin of the potentiometer.

Step #22: Wire the audio jack.

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Connect the remaining wire ends from the volume pot to the audio jack: solder the red wire to the tip connection and the white wire to the ring connection of the jack.

Step #23: Drill holes for the pot and jack.

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Decide where you'd like to place your audio jack and volume control on the face of the license plate. Mark those locations and drill holes in the license plate, using a drill bit slightly larger than the component you're going to mount.

Step #24: Mount the volume knob and audio jack.

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  • Remove the mounting nut from the volume pot, insert it through its hole, and tighten the mounting nut back on the threads to secure the pot to the plate.
  • Repeat to mount the audio jack the same way.
  • Put the knob onto the the pot and tighten its setscrew to secure it.

Step #25: Mount the pickup.

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Angle the top of the pickup to push it up through the big hole you cut in the license plate. Arrange it so it's evenly placed and then glue it in place. Leave the glue to dry before continuing.

Step #26: Place the bridge.

License Plate Guitar

Measure and mark the license plate 25" down from the nut. Place the bridge onto the license plate, making sure it's squarely aligned with the neck and fretboard, and glue it in place. Let the glue dry.

Step #27: String your guitar.

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  • Thread the 4 strings through the string holder, starting with the thickest string and ending with the thinnest.
  • Run the strings over the bridge and then over the nut and finally into the hole of the tuning machine. As shown in the second photo here, the thickest string should mount into the lower left tuning machine, the next into the top left, followed by the top right, and finally the bottom right.
  • When all the strings are in place, tighten down the tuning machines evenly but without applying too much tension.

Step #28: Test it and close it up.

License Plate Guitar
  • Plug your License Plate Guitar into your amp, switch on the amp, and strum the strings. You should hear your new electric guitar!
  • If it's working properly, it's time to close it up. (If not, unplug everything, check your connections, and try again.) Test-fit the plywood back on the guitar body and drill 4 pilot holes through the back into the body walls.
  • Secure the back to the body with four 3/4" wood screws.

Step #29: Tuning and playing.

License Plate Guitar
  • There are numerous free apps for iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac that will allow you to tune the guitar. Choose the scale you would like it tuned for and then tune each string to the proper pitch. Now plug your new guitar into your amp and rock on!
  • A popular tuning for small guitars like this is called open G tuning. As Mark wrote in Volume 21, "Many of the original blues guitar players used open G, and it's a favorite with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones."
  • For more tips and lessons on playing your License Plate Guitar, look for Keni Lee Burgess and Shane Speal at Cigar Box Nation or on YouTube.
James Rutter

James Rutter

Jame Rutter is the Labs Manager at AS220 Labs in Providence, RI. When he's not fixing machines, he enjoys playing music with his band.

Matt Stultz

Matt Stultz

Matt is a community organizer and founder of both 3D Printing Providence and HackPittsburgh. He's a professional software developer which helps fuel his passion for being a Maker!

  • Pierre

    I would be interested to know how
    you insert the 3D red text
    at the beginning and end of you videos
    Which editing software do you use?
    i find this really cool and would like to know how you do this :)
    thank you very much

  • Where can one buy those ready-made plywood guitar necks? I checked your shop and didn’t see them listed.

    • nevermind … i found the part listed in the right sidebar

  • Matheson Harris

    Just curious why you chose 4 strings instead of 6? Could I build this with 6 strings, just expanding the number of pick-ups and strings on each side, or would major modifications need to be made?

  • There’s no reason why you couldn’t make one with six strings, but this neck seems to be sized for four. You’d have to make your own neck, but its not really terribly difficult. Everything else would go just as according to the instructions, except of course for the number of poles on your pickup.
    The Cigar Box Nation website will be of interest to you, I think. the Advanced Cigar Box Guitar Construction document is full of fantastically good information, including how to make a neck. Check it out.

  • Great job on the guitar build!!

    May I offer a few comments to help your readers?

    First it may be easier and stronger if you make your guitar a through body guitar. The CB Gitty (what a great store!) Necks are long enough to make it go all the way through, no need to cut the neck. All you have to do is center the neck on the top and bottom of the body and notch a hole on each end so the neck sits flush with the body of the guitar. Leave the end stick out about 1 inche so you have room for your string holes. You will also have to notch part of the neck to make room for the depth of your pickup, You can also glue and clamp a piece of your 1 x 3 hard wood underneath the neck (inside the body) to give the guitar extra strength and balance out the guitar so it isn’t neck heavy.

    I know folks make fretted neck in different scale lengths such as 24, 24.5, 25, 25.5 and so on. Just make sure you measure the correct length that goes along with your fretted neck. So a 24 inch scale would be 24 inches between the nut and bridge, 24,5 would be 24.5 inches and so on… Also to note the CB Gitty makes some cool bridges but the height has to match fretboard, usually I keep the strings around 1/8 of and inch off of the frets so the fretted notes sound proper, the higher the bridge the more the notes will sour and sound out of tune. A cheap fix is using a 1 1/2 inch machine bolt, using the screw and nut together give and even height and the tension of the strings keeps it in place so you can adjust the intonation depending on the gauge of the strings you are using. A good thickness of bolt is anywhere between a #8 to 1/4 inch.

    Also being your tail piece is wood the metal strings will start to cut the wood as you are playing and can make your guitar go out of tune. A simple cheap fix is using roll-pins or tension-pins. A 1/8 by 3/4 pin does the trick. Just use a 1/8 bit when drilling your holes and gently tap in the pins with a hammer.

    Awesome job on the pickup making! A tip I’ll pass along from Elmar is, if you alternate the poles in your pickup it will have less hum like a humbucker. Humbuckers are 2 pickups put together, wrapped in opposite directions to eliminate the hum. You can get a similar effect by alternating the poles North to South. So a 4 string pickup would be N S N S or S N S N. This blew my mind and it works.

    Again a really good job on this project! Making your own pickup put over the top in my book. I offer this just as advice to help, please don’t think I’m being harsh or critical just want to help folks make a guitar they will love. Trust me I know how hard it is to write something like this.


    -Keep on playing…

    Saner Cigar Box guitars

    • David Scheltema

      Hey Brian!

      We had our Hangout On Air tonight. We tried to address your suggestion regarding a “through body” build and why we didn’t use that type of design. I’d love to learn your reaction to our response!

      You can see the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsKZvY4nv6c&feature=share

      My guess is that you’d change the pick-up design, but I’m betting you might have more up your sleeve to offer. Anyway, thanks for posting all the great content and, again, love to hear your reaction to our justification for not using a “through body” neck. Keep on making!

  • Brooke

    Um, are there links to the parts listed? What is the source of the neck? These details would be helpful – or did I completely overlook them?

    • James W. James

      You can get the neck, nut, bridge and strings here: http://www.cbgitty.com/

      The parts list is at 0:34 in the video.

      Here is the complete parts list:
      Plywood, magnet wire, tuners, hard wood, audio cable,
      license plate, potentiometer, jack, magnets, nut, bridge, screws and nuts,
      guitar strings

  • Ken

    I purchased the Neck, tuning machines, nut, and bridge from CB Gitty online. Most everything else was available at radio shack.

  • Amanda

    So, I hope someone can help me out. I’ve built the license plate guitar, but when I plug it into my amp and turn it on, I can’t make sound come through the amp. If I tap the screws in the pick-up, the sound of the tapping does come through, so I feel like the the pot and potentiometer are connected properly, but I don’t know. Does anyone have a suggestion of what I could try next?

    • James W. James

      This is just a thought but, I am wondering if you have enough wire wound around the magnets? You say you pick up the sound of your tapping on the pickup which would “SEEM” to indicate you have a working pickup but sometimes you have to retrace your steps to find a problem.

      It MAY be a stupid question but, what kind of strings are you using?

      The video does not say but, I wonder if it makes a difference if you have all the magnets with matching poles facing the same direction? (i.e. all of the north poles facing the screws)

      Little things can make a big difference. So, like I said retrace your steps.

    • Blake Hatton

      I know this is an old question, but several things may make your guitar not come through the amp; I actually had to do a lot of research to get mine to work right. assuming that you wired your pickup with enough wire, here are the most likely problems:
      Strings: make sure you are using STEEL strings; the electromagnetic pickup can’t get any signal from nylon. I would recommend this first, as it is the easiest troubleshoot

      Soldering: make sure you have everything wired properly and grounded. I ended up grounding the strings, pot, license plate, and pickup. If you have any wires touching, you will probably corrupt your signal. also, ditch the crappy 100k linear taper pot and go for a 250k audio taper pot. better sound quality.

  • oily

    A group of us player / builders @ Cigar Box Nation (www.cigarboxnation.com) have been reviewing Amanda’s problem with her build based on this article. We believe two things may be “wrong” with the pup design: 1) 22 AWG wire. Most pups use much thinner 42 or 43 AWG. 2) Only 40 ft of wire. At roughly 2″ per wrap, you’re only getting something like 200-240 wraps on the bobbin. Most pups use several thousand winds. These two factors, combined with the height of her strings above the pup, may be contributing to her pup’s lack of output. You may want to revise the article, or write a new one with modifications. There are lots of pup builders at. CBN who make amazing homemade single coil and humbucking pickups; check out Elmar Zeilhofer’s FlatPup, and the closely-related Dan Sleep Thintalker for examples. Also, most of us wire the ground and bend the ground lug to the back of the pot, not wired to the lug as shown in the diagram.

  • jeshurundavid

    Question here: so I’m going to make one of these, but I would like to avoid making my own pickup. What are some good, and not too high-priced, pickup options that would install similarly?

  • Daniel

    This was an interesting article and the video was just as good. I have now built 5 of the guitars and all of them are different which is why I love building them as well as cigarbox guitars. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Mark

    How do I mount a pickup that I bought? I am assuming without glue.

  • Taynak

    so out of curiosity… is there a way to make this with a standard guitar neck or possibly with six strings? 4 strings are nice if your only going to be playing power cords or bass guitar… but what if i want to actually play something softer?