A cigar box guitar is an example of an instrument that was made by those who either couldn’t afford to buy their own, or were from way back when everyone had to build their own instruments as Gibson and Martin were not yet even in business!
People still use and own cigar box guitars for the particular charm they bring to a band and for the fact that they can build them all on their own.
Home made instruments: Cigar box guitar
The first true cigar box guitars started coming about in the 1840’s as cigar manufacturers began shipping their cigars in smaller boxes, 20-50 per case, as opposed to earlier when they shipped 100 or more per case. This gave those looking to build guitars the right size for their instruments.
This is the reason why they’re called ‘cigar box’ guitars – they literally use cigar boxes as the resonator of the instrument. Other similar materials had been used before, plain old boxes worked just fine, but the pre fabricated, and sturdy, cigar boxes that were just scrap once the cigars were sold, became a huge hit with would be guitar players by the 1880s.
Various other instruments have been made out of cigar boxes. This includes a cigar box fiddle as played by Civil war soldiers, and a cigar box banjo that was published in the American Boy’s Handy Book in 1890.
The importance of cigar box guitars
Cigar box guitars were absolutely instrumental in the development of jug bands. This is because most of these musicians were living in total poverty and could not afford a modern instrument. With a cigar box guitar, a washtub bass, a couple jugs and a harmonica, many jug bands made their living off of these simple instruments.
Cigar box guitars became popular once more in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Many people were poor and without any means of entertainment. However, with a thrown out cigar box, a broom handle and some wire, you could play a song and sing your blues away.
The recent cigar box guitar revival has renewed interest in the instrument. From their home in the south, to underground scenes right in the heart of New York and all across Africa (where they are frequently found as a souvenir) you can find bands using them.
How to play a cigar box guitar
This all depends on how many strings your guitar has on it. The earliest examples had only one string. Modern cigar box guitars can have the standard six strings. It will also depend on how your neck is set up – a broom handle without frets will not play the same as a fretted neck.
The basic rules of playing a guitar apply. Chords are made by notes that are fretted down by one hand and then strummed by the other hand. Six string guitars can be played exactly the same way as traditional guitars when it comes to chords. The more common four string guitar will use chords like that of a mandolin, with the exception of the double strings, as they’re nearly identical if you tune the strings to the same notes.