Six years ago, when Mike Orr made his first cigar box guitar, he wasn’t thinking about beginning a second career. He came across cigar box guitars while surfing the Internet one day, and decided to make one as a Christmas gift for his son. He studied the design and made it his own.
Then, he made more and brought them to an annual camp-out where they were a hit. Gradually, he began building a wide range of other string instruments, from a soup can diddley bow to an ironing board lap steel guitar, and started selling them on eBay and at music festivals on the weekends. Even professional musicians have come to him for these homemade, unique instruments.
Now, with his day job as a flooring installer slowing down with the economy, Orr hopes to make and sell even more guitars and kits. Plus, he’s come out with the book Handmade Music Factory: the Ultimate Guide to Making Foot-Stomping-Good Instruments, a detailed guide for those interested in building string instruments from recycled materials.
“I hope everyone has fun trying to build something,” says Orr, 42, explaining his motivation for writing the book. “That’s really what it’s all about. There are a lot of plans out there, and it’s great to get complicated with it, but cigar box guitars are supposed to be a simple thing.”
He recommends beginners start with an easy project, like a three-string cigar box guitar. “It has no frets,” he says. “That’s really how it began—the original cigar box guitars didn’t have frets. They just had a stick and were built more like a lap steel guitar, where you play it with a slide.” He recommends a double shot glass for the slide, or you can fashion a slide from a bottleneck or piece of pipe.
The history of cigar box guitars dates back to the roots of the blues, when African Americans created their own ad hoc instruments. For example, one story, recounted by Robert Johnson’s childhood friends, tells how a young Johnson took three strings of baling wire and nailed them to the side of his sharecropping shack, making a diddley bow. Slide-guitarist Blind Willie Johnson began on a one-string cigar box guitar.
Here are some tips from Mike Orr’s Handmade Music Factory
- The length of the box determines the fretboard length. A shorter box means a longer fretboard.
- You can find supplies just about anywhere—home improvement stores, eBay, yard sales, even the dump.
- For a resonator, you can use cigar boxes of any shape and wood, cookie tins, oil or gas cans, hubcaps, or whatever else comes to mind.
- For the neck, look for straight one-by-two-inch pieces of hardwood (cherry, oak, maple, etc.) at a lumberyard, or ask a cabinet shop about scraps.
- Bridges can be made of hardwood or Corian countertop scraps. You can use a block of wood under the bolt or rod to more easily achieve the correct string height. Then, you won’t have to deal with string spacing or cutting grooves for the strings.
- You can use either new or used tuning pegs. You will need left side pegs for right-handed guitars, and right side pegs for left-handed guitars.
- Grommets are a great way to hide tattered edges, especially on cigar boxes that are covered with paper.
- If you end up with a box that doesn’t sound that good acoustically, you can electrify it for a couple dollars and make it sound great.