HOW TO PLAY A CIGAR BOX GUITAR in ten minutes or less!
What first attracted me to cigar box guitars was how easy they are to play. I have played 6-string classical/folk guitar for years, written dozens of songs, produced and marketed three CDs... yet the simplicity of this instrument fascinates me.
I was browsing YouTube one day and came across this video:
(Go ahead and watch it. It's only 4 minutes long.)
So the CBG is an instrument that just about anyone can play regardless of musical background. This delighted me because we've all heard someone say "I wish I could play an instrument but never learned how." Maybe you've said that yourself. The CBG offers an introduction to music without years of practice... and encourages improvement of skills as you learn more songs.
Cigar box guitars are a foot in the door that can bring years of playing enjoyment without requiring rigorous study. They are truly the heart of folk music... but versatile enough to play any style from blues to jazz to rock n' roll.
How to Play Any Song on a 3-String Guitar with Just One Finger
Most of us have seen a dulcimer, a lap-instrument that is played using a wood peg and a pick. I've always liked these instruments, but they use a diatonic scale (7 whole notes). The CBG is chromatic (all musical notes) and can have from 1 to 6 strings (most have 3 or 4). These are tuned so that a "chord" can be played by placing a finger across all strings at the same place(called "barring" the chord). The instrument is so versatile that almost any song can be played using this method.
This method is so easy that CBG players often "write" their music using numbers rather than notes or chords. No matter what your git is tuned to, you can play a song literally by the numbers. On the neck we start with the nut as zero, followed by fret 1, 2, 3 and so on.
This in mind, see if you can figure out what song this is by playing it on your CBG (** means pause, o means open string):
9-9-7 ** 9-9-7 ** 9-9-7-5-3-3-3-3-3 ** o (answer at the bottom of this post)
PICKING OUT YOUR SONGS
It is easy to pick out songs by ear. Just sing the song and bar different frets until it sounds right, changing chords as the song seems to need a change. It can seem tricky if you're just starting out, but gets easier as time goes along. For those who suffer from being tone deaf, there's always guitar music...
"READING" GUITAR MUSIC
Most guitar music has chord signatures above the music. These signatures will look something like this:
C D G7 Am C D F Em C
All of these represent full chords that are played on a 6-string guitar.
On a CBG however, because of the harmonic tuning you can drop the secondary signature (7, m) and just play the main chords:
C D G A C D F E C
It usually still sounds right. So that simplifies things to start with. You can tell what chords are on the CBG by the fret number. In the key of G (where the thickest string is a G note) these are:
O 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
G G# A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G
So when you know where the chords are on the CBG (it doesn't take long to learn them; there are only 12), you can actually read and play standard guitar music books... without the months or years of practice necessary to learn standard guitar chord fingering. Just place your finger across all the strings at the positions shown above, and there are your chords. It's like a dulcimer on steroids!
MOVE IT UP A NOTCH
Now that you have the bascs, you can expand your tuning and playing skills with one little, fantastic trick:
Tune your guitar to D-A-F. Alternate tunings are C-G-d# or G-D-Bb
Here is a really neat video that shows why this works. It's well worth watching. The link below starts playing at 2min 16sec to avoid the unnecessary stuff. Note this video is in regard to 4-string tuning, but can be just as easily used for 3-string. It is my personal favorite tuning and playing method.
There is of course a lot more you can learn about playing a CBG. You can learn fingered chords and rifts and all sorts of things as you gain experience. But to get started, to my knowledge there is no easier stringed instrument in the world. Not only that... but cigar box guitars sound wonderful (especially when amplified), they are great conversation pieces, and they're just plain fun.