Intern’s Corner: Cigar Box Guitar bloopers

Intern’s Corner: Cigar Box Guitar bloopers

MAKE: Intern's Corner
Every other week, MAKE’s awesome interns tell about the projects they’re building in the Make: Labs, the trouble they’ve gotten into, and what they’ll make next.

By Meara O’Reilly, projects intern

I’ve been tinkering with the electronics on various cigar box guitars for a while, but I’d never had the chance to build one from the ground up. So when MAKE editor-in-chief Mark Frauenfelder wrote up a new how-to for an acoustic version of the guitar for the upcoming issue (MAKE, Volume 21, “Traditional Cigar Box Guitar”), I jumped on the chance to test-build it.

Mark Frauenfelder’s new acoustic cigar box guitar in MAKE Volume 21, coming in January.

As always here in the Make: Labs, it can be quite an adventure trying to sniff out all the possible interpretations of instructions while at the same time learning new skills, and this guitar build was no exception! I made two orientation-related mistakes based on an early manuscript and had quite a time trying to finish the build. In retrospect, the misunderstandings seem silly, but once made it’s really easy for mistakes like these to compound — due to structural weakness, later on my guitar neck snapped, twice! — so I thought I’d write about them here, even just as an ode to those mistakes you think you’d never make, but somehow end up making anyway:


Cigar Box Guitar on MAKE: Projects1. With this guitar design, it’s good to make sure to orient the neck perpendicular to the direction the lid opens, so you’ll be able to open up the box after you’ve built the guitar (especially if you’re planning on adding some sort of magnetic pickup later). At the beginning, I measured the neck cuts so that the tailpiece (a cabinet hinge) lined up with the hinge of the box itself — this seemed pretty logical (or at least arbitrary) at the time, but I soon found out that my configuration prevented the box from being opened!

Before Broken.jpg
A seemingly fine cigar box guitar about to explode!

2. Another early mistake I came to rue later was thinking that the cutout in the neck where it fits into the cigar box could be on the backside of the neck instead of on the fretboard side. This made things quite sticky later when I tried to orient the tuning pegs and fretboard and to line up the string “action” so that it wasn’t too high. I ended up cutting another shallow cutout in the bottom of the neck, on the fretboard side, in order to even things out and lower the string’s path from nut to bridge, but this weakened the neck enough that it couldn’t hold the string tension and kept snapping. (Until I figured out how to put another reinforcement piece in.)

broken guitar.jpg
The aftermath. Mistakes were made.

Now that I’ve learned my lessons and I’m on my way to mastering the basic luthiery of it all, I’ll be writing soon about a good pickup modification I figured out and applied to some of our old cigar box guitars from MAKE Volume 04 lying around the lab …

• Related: The original, electric Cigar Box Guitar how-to from MAKE Volume 04 is also available as a PDF from the Maker Shed.


4 thoughts on “Intern’s Corner: Cigar Box Guitar bloopers

  1. mike patterson says:

    if you use a taller bridge, you will get more volume. An empty rifle shell will give a good volume and a place to put a pickup made from a cell phone speaker.

  2. Shane Speal says:

    Hi Meara, it’s Shane from Cigar Box Nation. Great tips you’ve got here. We put a link to your blog on the front of

    I have many cigar box guitars in my collection (my wife says “too many”) and several have a design where the box can be opened to work on the electronics. You’re right…it sure makes it easier.

    Another idea for you: instead of mounting the box perpendicular to the neck, you could simply remove the top during construction, mount the neck parallel (which can be easier to hold and play, depending on the box) and then simply screw or nail the box top back on during completion. If you ever need to access the innards, just unscrew or pry the top off.

    BTW, I think the Maker Labs needs some cigar box guitar music to blast while you build. Drop me a line at the email above and I’ll send you some mp3’s from the store.

    Thanks for spreading the word!!!
    -Shane Speal
    King of the Cigar Box Guitar

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