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BUILDING A BOX GUITAR Tags: box guitar cbg cigar box guitar how to build building


I build and sell "cigar box guitars"-- or as I prefer to call them: "box guitars"... because they can be made out of just about anything. I've built guitars out of cigar boxes, cardboard boxes, license plates and even Altoids Mint tins. I've seen them built from silverware boxes, wine boxes and more. They have all sounded great. The trick is: it's not so much what they're made from, as how they're made.

I enjoy helping people learn how to build their own instruments. If you're going to build it yourself it's good to know the pitfalls ahead of time. If someone can't build one (for whatever reason) or doesn't have the time or tools, that's where my store comes in. Either way, the idea is to get music in the hands of the people.

In addition to instruments I also offer the popular FlatCat guitar pickup as well as other accessories. People buy these to put on guitars they have built themselves. Some are experienced builders, some are just getting started. For those getting started, here are some basics of building a box guitar-- a list of suggestions and things to watch out for so that your build is successful. I hope this helps in your guitar turning out just the way you want it to. If you decide to employ a FlatCat pickup in your design it will enhance the natural tone of your instrument, producing rich, vibrant results.


One of the most often-made mistakes is setting the neck too low to the surface of the guitar. Here is an illustration of what many have in their mind when they start:


In this concept a 1 x 2" piece of wood is run through the box, attached to the lid. A 1/4 x 2" fret board is placed on top of that. This makes for a nice, solid neck with all of the string tension on the stick, not on the body.

THE PROBLEM: Since the main stick sits just beneath the lid, the clearance beneath the strings is extremely shallow. Most lids are at least 1/8" thick, which means by the time you get that 1/4" fret board on there you have less than 1/4" clearance between the bottom of the strings and the lid. This barely leaves room to strum without hitting the box top, and no room for a pickup (not even a flat pickup).

To compensate some raise the bridge, but that brings the strings too high and makes fingering painful. There has to be a better way... and there is!


In this design a 1 x 2" board is run through the box and about 3" beyond on the neck side. The neck is glued and screwed to the top of that stick. This method allows you to measure the position of the stick-through exactly and raises both the neck and fret board much higher above the surface of the box. This leaves plenty of room both for strumming and installing a pickup.

An added advantage is that the bridge is higher, causing greater tension on the strings, which improves their sound quality. It doesn't really matter whether you run the stick out the end of the box and anchor your strings there, or use metal eyelets to run your strings through the box and anchor them within; both methods work equally well.

A wood platform directly underneath the bridge (inside the box) transfers the vibration directly to the stick, which keeps almost all of the stress on the stick-through and not on the box. It allows more open space on the surface-- which means better vibration from the box itself.

Using this method it's very easy to get an ideal clearance of 1/2" between the strings and your box surface. If you're using the Wishbringer FlatCat pickup all you need do is drill a small hole through the box and stick and run the pickup wire down into the box and over to your controls (shown in the diagram as the black rectangle with blue wire). The FlatCat itself is only 1/4" thick and adheres right to the surface of the box, providing wonderful sound.

If you wish to use a standard pickup you'll need to cut an opening in the top of the box for the pickup to fit through and make sure you leave enough clearance above the stick-through for the pickup to drop down into the box. Whichever method you choose, the stick-through method is a great way to insure you have enough room between the strings and your box surface.


The above method provides some space between the stick-through and the box surface. Some feel this allows more of the box surface to vibrate and creates a "better" sound.

The reality is that sound is subjective, and "better" is actually simply different. If you want to avoid using the 1/4" braces inside the lid, you can glue the stick-through directly to the box. On the downside this raises the fingerboard about 1/4" higher... and you may not want that for your design (depending on your design concepts). On the upside though-- that stick glued directly to the box transfers a lot of vibration to the box surface on both sides of the neck.

The result is a pleasantly rich sound that is surprisingly robust. Having used both methods I can say you will get "just as much sound" from an attached stick-through as a separated stick-through. For a prime example, look at the photo at the very top of this page. That is a "neck over" CBG... which means the neck itself is extended and runs clear to the bottom of the instrument. That is an old CBG design that predates the SlickStick itself. It's time-tested and proved to work just fine; the SlickStick produces terrific sound.

So imagine that stick running inside the box instead of on the outside, and attaching the neck to the top of the stick through as shown in the above design. It works just fine.

Either method you choose, you'll wind up with a totally-functional, awesome-sounding CBG that provides plenty of space between the surface of the box and the strings.


Poplar is often spoken of as a "good" neck wood for box guitars. It is readily available, inexpensive and easy to work with. It both cuts and sands more easily than harder woods.

I encourage re-thinking that choice. In my experience a good piece of poplar is okay if you have a 3-string guitar and 2 of the strings are trebles (un-wound plain metal wire). But if you're using heavier strings or are making a 4-string guitar, you may wish to opt for stronger wood. Although hardwoods are a bit more expensive and more difficult to cut and sand than poplar, the durability will be well worth it in the long run. Just ask yourself the question: Do I want this guitar to last for one year or 100 years? All Wishbringer guitar necks are made from hard wood-- oak, hickory, ash, mahogany, walnut.

If you're building a 6-string guitar you'll want to add a truss system to your neck. Quite a bit more work, but absolutely essential. Many builders who tackle a 6-string guitar will buy a pre-built neck and add it to the box. In my opinion there's nothing wrong with doing so; it's no different in concept than buying store-bought tuners, strings and electronics. You're still building your own guitar, with your own hands, from a box. The results can be very rewarding


The quality and type of strings you choose will make a difference. You can choose electric strings or standard guitar strings, both will work. The resulting sound and playability will be different depending on string brand and size. I can't say which string is best for you because sound is a very subjective thing... as well as playing style. Some folks prefer one kind of string, others prefer another. (Note: for a mag pickup and amplifier, electric strings are required, not phosphor-bronze.)

The one thing I can state is this: it takes a little time for strings to set in... usually two or three days at least. I have consistently found that a guitar sounds far better a week after I've built it than the day I finish it. So once you've built your git, give it some time. Tune it daily, 2 or 3 times a day, play it a bit, give your strings time to set in. Once they've "set", you'll likely notice a greatly improved quality of sound. Of course, the better the strings to begin with, the better the potential sound. I often suggest trying different brands over a period of time to see if you prefer one brand over another. Once you find your favorite... that brand and type of string will likely continue to work well for you.


The main thing to remember when building your guitar is this: there is no need to rush. Enjoy the building as much as you can, because once it's built, it's built. What's left after that is the playing. Poor quality from a rush job will be heard in every strum. Taking your time and using quality materials will produce much better tone and provide far greater satisfaction in a creation of your own hands.



June 2018 (1)

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