Cigar box guitars are a little known American tradition. This "lost art" and long forgotten form of
guitar construction spans back well over 150 years in our country's history. Since the mid 1860's
up to the early 1950's and well before musical instrument mass production brought the cost down,
it was quite common for poor people to make their own guitar or stringed instrument out of
different types of cigar boxes and scavenged or found wood.
My name is John McNair, I am from New Orleans, Louisiana. I have been building homemade
guitars as a hobby since my teenage years in the mid 90's. I am fascinated by early American
history and Folk music of all types; Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Rock and just about any form of
self taught primitive music from early America.
It seems most people are happy with the industry standard electric and acoustic body styles made
of rare and exotic woods. As for me, I enjoy working with recycled materials in the pursuit of an
authentic Blues and Country sound that they achieve. To me it's challenging to find and use old
furniture and reclaimed old growth American hardwoods. Not only are they much more stable
woods, but they are also much better looking and it adds a charm and character that is a
trademark of early Americana.
|I really enjoy playing 3 string guitars
They are my passion to build and play
|This is where the "Blues" all started,
the American Southern Delta, a cigar box,
a stick and homemade music!
This photo is dated 1868
"George D Flynn Jr. Fall River, MA"
Painted by, L. Rupert
Traditionally, cigar box guitars had only a
few strings. Many had only 3 or 4 strings
due to the simple nature of being homemade.
Check out the Cigar Box Guitar Museum
online to see and learn more about the
history of these homemade guitars.
|The first Bo Diddley guitar
now owned by Hard Rock Café
|Flash ahead almost a 100 years, early Rock pioneers were still doin' it.
Homemade is still cool!
Long before the Gretch Guitar Company machine made and mass produced Bo Diddley's
legendary square guitar...Bo made his own guitars himself!
He did it with his bare hands and with some simple hand tools. He made them in the true
spirit of "Americana." He never kept count but it is said that Bo made well between 25 and
30 homemade square wooden guitars.
Bo with his 50's Gretch guitar, notice that even
though it was factory made, he still added his own
art and chrome embellishments.
Bo was a true Folk artist and Do-it-Yourself Rocker!!!
Bo's "Red Dog" 6 string guitar
His guitars were made using recycled wood, whatever he could find, and he made them most
often simple and crude, they were after all "homemade." The nicer ones he doodled and finger
painted art on them for the individual owners whom he often "gifted" them to. The most
famous one of all is the wooden one he gave to Dick Clark after being invited to American
Bandstand which helped launch his career to the next level.
|If you have always played standard 6 string guitar,
I know you would love the refreshing change of playing a 4 string Bottleneck Silde guitar.
You should try, it's much easier to play and it's alot of fun!
Truthfully, I've never considered myself much of a "guitar builder," but just a ordinary guy with
a passion for music, history and art, putting them together for an original formula for creating
guitars. I'm a "craftsman" so to speak? I love to make these antique inspired guitars, it's my
passion and they would pile up to the celling if I didn't do something with them.
So, here I am sharing them. This is a life long hobby I have had, so I know I can't keep them all.
Would you like one? Made from scratch, I can whip you up one!
The fact that you are here on this site, means that you have the same or similar interest in early
American history and guitars like I do.
I greatly appreciate your interest in my craft. You can contact me and If you want I can send you
a guitar, I build both Left and Right handed guitars and whether you are a Blues, Country,
Bluegrass, or Rock guitarist, I'm sure to have the perfect guitar for your style.
email me at email@example.com
or if you want to talk on the phone send me your phone number.
If you have any questions on something you've seen on this site, contact me. Don't be shy!
Well, since you're here, feel free to browse the gallery of guitars for sale and viewing. I've been
making them far longer than I have been using the internet, and while it wasn't possible for
me to show you all of the guitars I've built over the years, I've never kept count so who knows,
but I've tried to select some interesting and colorful designs to give you an idea of what I enjoy
making. I like 3 string guitars and hand spun "Old Lowe" resonator cones the best. They are
both fun to make and super fun to play....and easy too!..they really are easy to play, that's one
thing above alI that I like about them, it's that they are easy to sound great playin' old time
Blues slide guitar.
If you enjoy history, check out the antique photos and history archives on this site. It's filled
with history of American Folk music and the Blues. I have spent many years scouring Libraries,
the Internet and basically any and everywhere for the history of the cigar box guitar. It is vast
and I have collected an array of historical photos not found anywhere else in the world.
I encourage you to dig deep and stay awhile, especially if you have a child or family member
interested in history. Some of the photos are so memorable and impressionable you'll never
forget them... some will take your breath away....But no matter what, If you enjoy history, you
are sure to enjoy them, have a peek at the online museum link further below.
|The oldest known photo of a Cigar Box instrument is actually hand drawn art by Edwin Forbes
it is of Union soldiers at a Civil War encampment 1863-64.
This photo below is dated 1865 at the "Siege Of Charleston"
He writes of his story of the making of a Figora cigar box fiddle in his book of etchings
"An artist story of the Great War"
But, that doesn't mean there is not an older photo yet to be found, I am always on the hunt!
This is the Ultimate How to Build a Cigar Box Guitar
From beginner to advanced, everything is completely
I have spent well over several hundred hours filming and
editing the most complete How to Build a cigar box guitar
DVD available. If you would like to make your own, or
would like to take your guitar building not only to the
next level but far beyond to get the sound you have always
wanted in a cigar box guitar, I will show you how and
what I do, everything is covered from start to finish, If you
would like me to send you a copy in the mail, click here.
This DVD is from A to Z, the complete start to finish of
building cigar box guitars. Full of many secrets that can
only be found on a Red Dog Guitar...listen to the guitars
on this site and you will hear why they have a sound that
is iconic and original. The best part is you too can build a
guitar just like the ones on this website by watching this
|Everyone tells me at some point,
"cigar box guitars are just as much fun to build as to play"
If you want to try to make your own homemade guitar, I have a DVD
that shows you everything , I will post this DVD link here
Red Dog Guitars are proudly MADE IN AMERICA.
All rights AVAILABLE, feel free to cut, copy and paste any guitars you see on this site...
be sure to tell 'em it's a Red Dog!!!
Do NOT use any photos or logos from this site to sell any products,
they are only available to use for educational purposes only
|There is 3 nagavation choices below, be sure
to check them all out,
Wait for the pages to load, there's alot of
photos on them all
After building guitars for friends and strangers alike, I have never changed my outlook and I
am just a guy stuck in the past, but because the power of the Internet I am with disbelief at
how popular cigar box guitars have become, if this was still the 90's and without the world
wide web, being able to share this part of American history would be all but IMPOSSIBLE!
I remember trying to meet people in Guitar clubs and organizations by posting small
classified adds in a Louisiana newspaper and just waiting for a call.
I just wanted to met like-minded people who loved America and it's history as much as I did,
I always knew I was not alone.
Man, that was a strange time before the Internet came along, and to now see how
information is now exchanging between person to person is mind boggling. Now pictures of
a house, car or even cigar box guitar can be shared instantly from the other side of the planet
at the click of the mouse.
|Here is a modern interpretation of those guitars from the 1880's.
It's just a stick running thru a cigar box.
|All of the designs on these guitars are hand drawn original art by me,
nothing is done with computer fonts or programs, all my work is done homemade
and handmade with pencils and pens on white or brown paper.
|This "1857 Old Timer" art is done with a black Sharpie fine point pen and drawn on brown paper.
|This 1865 "Arrows & Talons" is one of my all time fav-o-rite works.
Inspired by my Dad's "Old West" Time Life book collection I read as a kid.
I really enjoy drawing Old West and Native American art.
Up front I tell everyone, I've never been trained in any type of woodworking or guitar
construction. I'm not educated in any form of carpentry, everything I know I have just randomly
Everything I do is by hand and eye. I mostly use a pocketknife, screwdrivers, a few small hand
saws and sandpaper. I think power tools and machines are wonderful and they help other people
save time. But for me, they always seem to create a lot of dust and because they work so fast they
make me nervous when they start skipping and jumping around, they always seem to cause me
more problems than they solve.
On the flip-side, since I don't use or need power tools...It's kind of liberating if you think about it,
to build regular guitars, you will need a whole shop of specialized tools and planes, But anyone
can build a cigar box guitar by hand with only a few common hand tools.
Homemade instruments really became popular
during the Great Depression in America.
Poverty did not stop people from wanting to enjoy
music and having fun with family and friends, In
fact it made the desire even stronger, people just
made their own instruments!
In the 1920's and 30's it was common to see
many street musicians with a wide variety of
banjos, mandolins, ukuleles and guitars all made
from a simple cigar box.
|Old Willow Joe 1932
He's holding that thing with pride.
I sure would love to hear him play
|They all love it and so will you,
Red Dog Guitars has been the Sailors first choice for over a century.
OK maybe that's going a bit too far, but hey, at least you read it!
I drew this art on cheap photocopy paper with charcoal pencils and ink pens.
|Have a listen and watch this short video of a cigar box guitar
|Play this Reso at exactly 88 miles per hour and see what happens!
Sometimes a little is allot!
I often get asked by people if I would make them
a simple and clean "old timey" homemade style
cigar box guitar. Good News, I make these often!
Made to play and sound like homemade guitars
did a 100 years ago. Email me and I usually have
some on the work bench.
|Just plug in and play!
Strait wired internal acoustic pickups make theses guitars a joy to play.
Plus it's easy to get a great old time vintage sound, it's really just an acoustic guitar with
a bone bridge and nut that has strings running across the body...no knobs, no frills....just fun!
Here is some original hand lettered art I did with a $1 sharpie pen in about 2 hours while
watching TV. It's hard for even me to believe what I've created when I see my own work.
When I was younger I did not show the knack for drawing of any kind. In fact I did not do any
art all that well or even had any interest. I was not a "natural," but as I grew up I wanted to learn
how to draw so I read as many books on the subject as I could find.
Just another reason to NEVER bury your desires or give up on your dreams, It's never too late!
The point is, if you are 70 and want to learn how to play guitar, Now is the time. You CAN do it.
It's real easy to learn how to play 3 string guitar, more on that on the next page.
Anyways, I do allot of Native American themes and art, It's part of the history of cigars and
tobacco, and also a very important and fascinating part of American history.
Watch this short video and come on in my shop and you can see this work in progress
Here is a simple recording of a cigar box guitar and a glass bottle neck slide.
These cigar box guitars are built with just a few basic hand tools that most
people have, a small saw, sandpaper, a drill, a few screwdrivers and a
pocket knife, you do not need many tools at all.
That is what's so fun and interesting about them, they are simple by
nature. Give it a try, make one, you will have a blast.
Well, what is a Cigar Box Guitar?
The truth is, in the South it's common to hear stories that B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Lightnin'
Hopkins and all those other old-time blues guys started playing guitar on a cigar box guitar. Not
many people who follow Blues and Country music know this, but many famous Bluesmen and
Country singers started their career on a simple homemade cigar box guitar. One reason most
Blues and Country music has such a distinctive sound is because it was derived off of music
made on these simple instruments.
The precursor to the cigar box guitar as an instrument was the diddly-bow. It was a one stringed
instrument where the player would take a Coke bottle or Rum bottle neck and run it up and
down a string while plucking the opposite end of the string to achieve the tone they where after.
These basic "guitars" didn't have frets and this crude form of guitar playing is what melded into
the form of slide guitar were familiar with today. That is what is thought to be the creation of
slide guitar in the "Southern Delta."
From Son House to Muddy Waters, they were all influenced in some way by these early
homemade instruments following along in their career as slide guitar players. That's where the
blues and slide guitar truly started at. On those plantations and cotton fields, homemade
guitars and 'field hollerin' went hand in hand.
Blues players didn't play Gibsons or Martins, they couldn't afford them!
Many of the biggest names in early Blues history played a cigar box guitar. It's been quoted that
a schoolmate of the Legendary Blues guitarist Charlie Christian, said:
"[Charlie] would amaze us at school with his first guitar - one that he made with a cigar box. He
would be playing his own riffs...but they were based on sophisticated chords and progressions
that Blind Lemon Jefferson played."
-Ralph Ellison, schoolmate of Charlie Christian.
It's well known Lightnin' Hopkins got his start on the cigar box guitar. If you would like to hear
Lightnin' himself talk about his homemade guitar, watch this short video...what's better than
the man himself telling you some of the history of this wonderful type of guitar!
Many of the people who built these curious guitars went on to become America's best know
Blues and Rock stars of the day. Rock 'n Roll pioneer Carl Perkins reminisced about his
childhood cigar box guitar that he made with a cigar box, stick and baling wire. Years later, he
would take the knowledge he first learned on that down-home axe to create the song "Blue Suede
That sure got Elvis to stand up strait, after that HE WAS HOOKED on the BLUES!!!
This tradition of making and playing a homemade guitar continued from the 1880's for many
decades up till the 1950's.....but it never stopped there, many small magazine articles from the
60's, 70's and 80's keep this art form alive. Even though this form of guitar has faded into
obscurity, some Blues and Rock musicians still enjoy playing them today.
Here is a wonderful example of one being played still today, it really does take you back in time,
Watch this video.
|This sound recording of Ry Cooders' song "Billy The Kid" is performed by Billy Gibbons of ZZ-Top and is an excerpt
from a Mark Maron interview. I have presented it here for educational and commentary purposes only in relation to
the brief discussion about of the history of the cigar box guitar as a long forgotten instrument in American history.
All Copyrights for this material are the property of their respective owners.
Those humble beginnings of the cigar box guitar are what eventually gave this little known
guitar a home in music history. Even the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. has
several early examples of homemade Cigar Box Guitar on display. How cool is that!
The art and lettering on this guitar is hand engraved freehand, NO computers or machines
are used. It is far from perfect, yes, it's scratchy, it has crooked lines, but it's done the way
craftsmen did it in early America before typesetters came along and WAY before computers
and just pecking keyboard buttons on a computer program.
I use to be insecure about my guitars and always think that other people's art was so much
better than mine, but over the years I have come to realize that I have my own style and it is
how God made me. When I was younger, no matter how hard I tryed to get better, my art
always just looked the same. So I embrace my flaws and do it the way it was done in the past.
All my art is drawn just by hand and when there is mistakes in my art, I accept it. I start and
finish all my art ideas with just pencil and paper right at my kitchen table.
This story about what would make a poor person use a cigar box for a guitar in the first place
began in the mid 1800's. The Cigar boxes that we are familiar with today didn't exist prior to the
1840's. Prior to then, cigars were shipped in larger crates containing 100 or more per case. But
after 1842, due to exploration of the West, cigar manufacturers started using smaller, more
portable boxes with only 20-50 cigars per box. In the Old West and through out the 1800's cigars
were extremely popular. Card games, Saloons and of corse those great Mississippi Paddleboats
helped spread tobacco throughout early America. Because of the widespread popularity of
smoking in those days, many empty boxes would be just laying around. Unlike times are today,
the 1800's were a simpler time for Americans, when necessity was truly the mother of invention.
Being that most American music was based off of stringed instruments, using a cigar box to
create a guitar, fiddle, or a banjo was an obvious choice for a few crafty souls. The earliest proof
of a instrument made from a cigar box that has been found is an etching of a Civil War solider
at the "Siege of Charleston." Even during the War, there was a passion for music in America and
it was overflowing
After The Civil War and in the 1870's, America was in ruins. Little money was had to buy
instruments. One thing for sure about American resilience is that ingenuity was abound. After
the War both Union and Confederate Soldiers along with now freed Slaves carried the
knowledge and appreciation of this creative and homemade guitar back with them to almost
every corner of America. People used left over wood, cigar boxes, biscuit tin cans, string, broom
handles, baling and screen wire and whatever else was lying around the house, shed or barn to
create these crude homemade instruments. Making a "home-made" guitar was the only choice
for the impoverished.
|Photo provided by Shane Speal
Cigar Box Instrument c.1880
|Here is a short video of an Old Timer 3 string Resonator guitar in action,