Three-string Custom Box Guitar

blacks dating appWell, the building phase is pretty much complete – I’ve built three instruments over the course of the past month so it’s time to take a look at how it all worked out. The first one is a three-string

cigar box guitar. That said, I’m actually calling them “custom box guitars” seeing as the main point of difference with them is the fact I’m not using a cigar box! Like my songwriting endeavors, they aren’t exactly finished – the fine tuning/sanding/finishing is something that can take a long time and I’m afraid I get impatient to play them!

The whole cigar box thing started for me with the Paul McCartney performance at 121212 where he teamed up with the remaining Nirvana guys. There was something about the sound that grabbed me and I wanted to find out more. The first step was to make something very basic – and Max and I churned out a couple of very rudimentary models to check how to actually go about building one. Because cigar boxes were proving hard to come by on short notice, we made a box, and that set the seed for making “custom boxes” moving forward.

3-string cigar box guitar neck detailThe core of all three versions is a body “frame” made from a 40mm plank of pine: simple trace and cut out the shape, then cut the insides out leaving a 20mm thick “frame”. Next step was to get some thin timber to use for the top and bottom. Ben at Anagote Timbers has helped me with wood in the past (all the crew there are great and I can’t recommend them highly enough) and he suggested some Tasmanian Blackwood that he ended up thinning down to 7mm. Finally, the neck was from some rock maple – I really wanted something decent here given the lack of a truss rod to keep the neck straight. On the three-string model I used some African Sapele for the fretboard, but I think the bass and four-string ones where I just used the single piece of rock maple works and looks a little better. This was also the first time I had fretted a neck (my previous build was a fretless bass).
For electronics, I made the bold decision to wind my own pickup for the three-stringer. It was a fun project and it has turned out nicely. Other hardware includes an aluminum nut, threaded rod for the bridge, and a bunch of tuners, ferrules, and tools from Stew Mac.

3-string cigar box guitar fullRather than talking about all of them, I’ll do a bit more detail on each individual post. The good news is that they all really sound great! The three-stringer is tuned to open G (G/D/G) as most of what I’ve listened to has been in that tuning. The pickup on this three-stringer is, as mentioned, the homemade one and while it probably need a few more winds to improve its output, it still works well. Using three strings was my starting point as I really love the work of Mike Snowden. I’m still playing around with the action to get a nice balance between high enough to use a slide, but low enough to use normal fretting

What’s Next
As I said, it’s not exactly “finished”. I could do a heap of sanding and finishing to make it look better, and there are a lot of construction techniques that I tried with these ones that I will modify next time. I also still want to add a piezo pickup to this one but that will have to wait.

The Rest Of The Family
Two-string slide bass
Four-string cigar box guitar

cigar box guitars

6 Comments on “Three-string Custom Box Guitar

  1. This is a really great approach to the cigar box guitar situation. I’m in the planning stages for making my own box, and I’m interested in how you did these bodies. You mentioned starting out with a certain size and then carving out the insides . . . do you have any pictures? I’d love to see them if so!

    And do you have a video of how these sound?

    Beautiful work!


    • Thanks Jo. No pictures I’m afraid (or sound clip – I should rectify that) but it’s as simple as getting a thick wide plank of pine, then drawing on the body shape. I then draw a line parallel to the shape but about 2cm inside it. I then cut out the inside, then the outside to leave you with a solid “frame” to work with. You just need to leave a little extra timber at the heel of the neck and also when the neck enters the body to ensure that there’s a secure platform to mount the neck. You are really only limited by the size of the plank you start with, especially the width of the plank.
      Good luck!

  2. I would like you to build me a three string tele type guitar as in your blog , I would like it to be LEFT handed , would you be able to do this , would you give me some idea of cost for building me a guitar ,
    Thank you
    Kind Regards

    Mike Scott

    • Hi Mike,
      I’m afraid at this time I don’t have the capacity to build to order – but I’m more than happy to assist you with advice if you want to do it yourself. Should I get setup to build more I will certainly let you know.

  3. Hi Chuck,

    I am wondering if you have played these instruments acoustically, without using the pickups? If so, how do they sound? Since you hollowed out the body I assume it was meant for acoustic playing, but then again you haven’t cut any sound holes.

    I am planning out my first CBG build with my 10 year old daughter, and we really like the look of your bodies; I just want to be able to play without plugging in when the situation warrants it (campfires, low volume stuff, etc).

    I assume that, since you can make these bodies larger than most cigar boxes, it would work just fine without pickups, but would love to hear your thoughts as well.


    • Hey Wyatt,
      I think they’d be fine for low volume playing as you describe – between the metal slide and the bridge there’s a fair bit of resonance. The construction wasn’t really about playing acoustically – more a way to get a different kind of shape. The beauty of that method is that you can have any shape you want, use a jigsaw to cut it out, then the jigsaw again to cut the “inside” out, then some timber (ply is fine) top and bottom. Of course you are right that it is a hollow body, so I can’t see why you couldn’t cut sound holes too, and that would certainly help the volume a bit. Good luck with the build!

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