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Building A Cigar Box Guitar With Shane Speal
They call him “the king of the cigar box guitar.” Shane Speal, an avid cigar smoker, guitar player, woodworker, and author, is not only building some of the best cigar box guitars, he’s also serving-up a lesson in American history. Working out of his modest backyard shed in York, PA Shane takes pride in recreating the “poor man’s guitar,” which dates back to the turn of the 20th century.
“I wanted to find that sound that was kind of one step deeper than the old Delta Blues,” says Shane. “And I came across the stories of guys that were building their own guitars because they couldn’t afford it. And twenty five years ago I built my first out of an old Swisher Sweets box.”
Fewer artisans are as passionate about what they do as Shane. Strewn with vintage photos of Delta Bluesmen, concert posters, file cabinets overflowing with nuts, bolts, and electronics, plus unfinished guitars, his workshop is a virtual time machine, When he’s working on a new “gitty,” Shane feels like he’s channeling the blues players of the Mississippi Delta who made their guitars from broomsticks, pieces of wood, metal, and of course, cigar boxes. Moreover, Shane has also written a book on cigar box guitars titled, Poor Man’s Guitar.
In this video you’ll see, in great detail, how Shane builds a cigar box guitar – what cigar boxes he likes to use, his unique construction hacks, and much more. . .
– Gary Korb
(Shane is playing some Delta-style Blues on one of his cigar box guitars)
Gary Korb (CigarAdvisor.com) Alright. [applauds]
Gary: Hey, I’m Gary Korb from Cigar Advisor dotcom and we’re here with Shane Speal—
Shane Speal: How’s it goin’?
Gary: —The original cigar guitar maker man – cigar box guitar man. So you’ve been doing this for what, 25 years now?
Shane: 25 years now.
Gary: We’re in his studio, in his workshop. Also here is John Pullo who will be joining us later. Tell us a little bit about what you do, how you got into this, why you even wanted to do it.
Shane: This is an old-time-style cigar box guitar. This is what the old blues guys used to play back, you know, we’re talking turn of the century up until you know the 1920s, 1930s when people were too poor to buy their own guitar. They would take an empty cigar box, jam a stick through it, and put two strings, maybe three, if they were being fancy, and that’s what they’d play. They’d get an old broken bottle neck like this bottleneck slide I have here and that’s what they— (plays guitar to demonstrate)
And 25 years ago I was smitten by the blues; for that blues. Before that I was a heavy metal guy until I heard Jimi Hendrix’s Red House and that just set me on this path back in time over and over again.
And I wanted to find that sound that was kind of one step deeper than the old Delta Blues. And I came across the stories of guys that were building their own guitars because they couldn’t afford it and I said that’s the sound I wanted. Twenty five years ago I built my first out of an old Swisher Sweets box. I’ll show that to you later. And since then I’ve been building these and probably made over 2,000 since.
Gary: Wow that’s amazing. And we’re talking like ultra minimalist. I mean there’s not even a bridge, it’s just a screw.
Shane: It’s just a bolt right there.
Gary: There’s a bolt right there and a screw right there. Now where do you get the wood?
Shane: That’s nothing but a stick of poplar from Home Depot or Lowe’s. You go to the craft wood section and they’ve got poplar, one-by-two-by-three.
(Shows Gary an unfinished neck) This is starting to be shaped into a neck but it’s still just a piece of wood. And it goes right through the box. And what I do and we’ll get into this a bit. I notch the neck out so that the box fits in like a puzzle piece. And the neck being that it goes the whole way through, it’s called the old spike fiddle tradition of building. It’s how they made the old banjos where, because the neck goes through the box it acts as bracing, and so that lid doesn’t cave in or any [inaudible].
Gary: Some boxes are obviously not as good for making guitars—
Gary: — as others because of the construction. Are there specific boxes you like to work with, specific brands?
Shane: There are in the world of making cigar boxes. There [are] a couple different styles. One is called boite nature.
It’s the sides of the box, in fact I’ve got one here. I’ve got an old boite box here where the sides will come down around the edges. I’ve made guitars out of these but quite honestly I like a box that has just a nice, simple, flat, box lid to it where it’s just simple, flat, nice, thin, plywood. And that’s what I prefer. I love these Padron boxes. They’re huge. The Padron 7000s, and that’s what I’m working with this week, but I’ll use anything. My favorite of all time is the Macanudo Portofino Cafe box. Later on I’ll show you. I built one out of this box back in 1996 and I still perform with it now. I’ll show you later, but it’s– I’m wearing a hole through it. It looks like it’s turning into Willie Nelson’s [guitar]. This is a tiny wood shop. This is nothing but a little shed in my backyard and the entire shed has just been converted into my wood shop. Everything in here is set up just for a cigar box guitar building. Gary, this is an overview of how I build these. There are free plans online and I want to encourage people to go to cigar box nation dotcom. It’s a social network that I created many years ago and we’ve put free plans on there. I do have a book coming out with the more specific plans called “Poor Man’s Guitar.” But for now, check out cigar box nation dotcom.
What you do is you start out with an empty cigar box like this. There’s nothing really big in particular about it other than I liked it, it had a nice thin lid, and it’s a flat lid, fits down in, and I’ve got my one-by-two-by-three stick of poplar. I’ve cut this down to 32 inches long, and what I want to do is I want to notch out this neck so that it fits in this cigar box and I want to notch out the cigar box. So in Martha cooking demonstration style I’ll show you the pieces that have been– what I’ve done to it.
First of all, I’ve got the box and this’ll be the second part. I’ve cut a little sound hole here. You can cut it in the middle here or you can do a fancy violin hole. Either way that’s kind of part of the creativity of this you can have a lot of fun. And what I do, I notch out the box here so that the stick fits perfectly in the box. And that’s a nice tight fit. Over the years I’ve made my own little templates and things like that but just laying the stick beside the box and tracing around it is an easy way to do it. So we have that and we have all the sound hole here. Next thing I want to do is work on the neck, itself, which goes through the box and as you can see I notched out this neck. I use my table saw and what I do is I turn the neck over and the table saw is here and I just run it until it notches stroke after stroke after stroke. And what that does is, if measured correctly, this lid will fit like a perfect little puzzle into here. And I have a process of doing it where the box lid only touches the neck at the beginning, at the end, and I know the bridge is going to be right here so I notch it just a little higher there and that allows the rest of this lid to vibrate and to amplify the strings vibrating. So this becomes the resonator.
Gary: That’s very interesting.
Shane: And then I cut down the head stock here; I notch-out the head-stock here. I drill in where my tuners are going to go. This one’s going to have three strings on it, and I draw a little notch here because I use these bolts as my nut and I have a bolt here as the bridge.
What I like to do on mine, for this one I used my wood burning pen right here and I wood-burned the lines, and you see these are real frets. You can make a cigar box guitar with real frets, but for this I just needed the lines because this is played with a slide. So you’re not pushing your string.
Gary: And I see the strings are up high. You don’t really need the frets.
Shane: All you need is for that slide to make contact, with the strings and it changes the note. So, I’ve got the neck cut out, I’ve got the wood-burn lines in there; the holes drilled, what I’ll do is add some regular guitar tuners.
I get these guitar tuners from CB Gitty dotcom, and I’ll install the tuners here, and then it’s just a process of taking everything, putting it together, and gluing. When it’s done you have this whole instrument that– everything’s so tight, that it’s tough to do fast on camera, but when it’s done it’ll be altogether like this. The strings come up through the back here, as you see here, this becomes the anchor for the strings. You see the string balls are right there.
I use A, D and G strings, and they come up through to the tuners. Now this is a direct descendant of the way they did it back in the Depression era except for in the Depression era, most of the guys would use a broomstick. And they would just cut a hole in the box here and here shove a broomstick through, put one or two strings and that was their guitar. So this is kind of a little more fancy but it plays awesome.
I came up with this design pretty much 1994, and since then I really haven’t changed it. The cigar box guitar is going through a renaissance and people are making them and I’ll show you different crazy guitars that were made with different pickups and everything else by other builders worldwide. For myself I’m still in love with this simple design.
Gary: Now, do you do pickups and things? I know some of them you said have a piezo [pickup].
Shane: Yes I actually, in fact, let me pull this out.
Over the years tried so many different pickups I’ve put everything from you know humbucker pickups in, you know old Danelectro lipstick tube pickups. For these that I’ve been doing, I use what’s called a piezo rod pickup. This is the type of pickup that would be used in a regular acoustic guitar. And I don’t have the rod pickup in front of me here but what happens is take this out. The bridge is going to go right here and remember I said this is notched a little higher. Well there’s a little worm notch in there. The piece is a rod pickup will fit right in there. I glue in and it’s making direct contact with the underside of the box lid. Those strings are running over the box and vibrating it and then I even add an acoustic guitar pre-amp to give it the proper sound because I want it to sound just like a cigar box guitar would sound. So you got to go through a few little extra steps for it but a piezo pickup on its own, never sounds that great. But adding a pre-amp and even just a simple – I mean these are like eighteen dollars at GB Gitty. It changes it. And I’ve done major festivals with this setup simple stick through box piezo rod and pre-amp. I’ve opened up for Jackle, The Kentucky Headhunters, I’ve done my own blues festivals. This simple setup and it sounds fantastic. It’s full and I have no complaints on all of this. Again, everything I do, when it becomes this puzzle where it all just fits together in the little notches that I made.
Gary: So, it’s not only a great hobby, it’s a very affordable hobby.
Shane: Absolutely affordable. I mean, the simple setup here let’s say you go to your cigar store you go wherever you can find these boxes just everywhere. Because we know how popular cigars are.
Gary: Yes they are, and you can find them at Famous Smoke Shop. [laughs]
Shane: Absolutely. And then you have the one-by-two stick of poplar which is just a couple of bucks; tuners, which are a couple of bucks, and guitar strings. There really isn’t much to it but there’s even a bigger magic that happens, and that is sitting here in the wood shop. Right here is kind of my little sanctuary. And I’ll come out here at night and be building, and I’m a big fan of Java cigars so I’ll sit and have a cigar and just start building. Put some old blues on the radio and there’s just something beautiful about it. However unlike building furniture or building crafts in a wood shop you’re building a guitar. And what you’re creating is something that will breathe and sing when you’re done. There’s nothing like it. I mean, as I’m sitting here sanding the neck and I’m rounding these corners of the neck. I keep thinking to myself this thing is going to join me onstage. My hand is going to fit right in there. So it just adds that extra bit of Zen as I’m doing it. Between that and enjoying the cigar quite honestly, this is the greatest escapism I’ve ever found. Well next to performing on stage.
Gary: Of course, everybody loves that. So this one has C-holes. This would be it for an acoustic. You don’t need to put them in this because this one has the piezo.
Shane: Right, but there is a sound hole here. And what I did with this if you notice. I reinforced the back here. I had a piece of old maple yardstick and I glued that to the back here because I didn’t want this to be like a bow where it just pulled up afterwards.
Gary: See, I think that gives it such great personality, you know?
Shane: Nobody will ever see it either.
Gary: Right, but you know it’s there.
Shane: And then this hole here, in order for me to block out the wood going through, this pearloid piece is from an old drum wrap. The old vinyl things they used to wrap drums with. And I just put a piece right there.
And this is the artistic side of it where I know that when it’s done and whoever buys this is going to have it and it looks great. The sound still comes through because I’ve rounded that out. But there’s so many small elements you can continue to add to these such as. I mean I have this one. . .
Gary: That’s looks vintage.
Shane: This is a 100 year old box, and I wanted to make a guitar that approximated the original cigar box guitars. I have a yardstick [and] the yardstick is so old that phone number is only four digits. [Gary laughs]
Gary: And it’s a two-stringer.
Shane: It’s a two-string just like so many of the originals. And I thought the Stradivarius style violin holes were a perfect touch for it. It gave a great look, but it’s still that stick through a box. That’s the same piece of poplar from Lowe’s. Now let me tell you a little secret I did to this one. If you look at the neck, it’s darker. I had a stain – I had an old American chestnut stain that we had used inside my house for a floor and had some leftover but it was a little too light and little too orange. So what I did is I took that stain and mixed it up. I took the ashes from my cigar that I was smoking and I mixed it with the stain and it darkened it and it just added that extra touch to it. I don’t know, but whoever buys this from me eventually you know I’ll tell them about it but it’s kind of my little secret and it just added that extra personal touch to it.
Gary: (Begins reading the notice on the back of the antique cigar box) “STATE OF PENN. The manufacturer of [cigars] herein contained comply with all the requirements of law. The person is cautioned not to use this box for cigars again or stamp thereupon—” That’s just some of the legal mumbo jumbo they used to have on these things.
Shane: Some of the legal mumbo jumbo they used says you were only allowed to sell the cigars between five and eight cents. But that’s the reason these are— Well there’s also a beautiful history behind this. The reason cigar box guitars became popular in the late 1800s and in early 1900s, that’s when cigar boxes first came about because cigars used to be transferred in barrels. And then they passed a tax law in some way, somewhere around 1849 that said the cigars had to be set in smaller boxes and they would all have a tax stamp. We’ve all seen cigar boxes and there’s this sticker. That’s a tax stamp. And that is essential and that’s why they did the boxes in the first place. So you had these boxes like this one was meant to hold 50 cigars and others were meant to hold 20. But they all had the tax stamp on there. So cigars finally started going out in these smaller boxes and people had these boxes everywhere. So it’s American ingenuity from, you know, the very poor. I need a guitar or I need a banjo, or a fiddle, but I don’t have anything. Here’s an empty wooden box and let me see what I can make with that. There is nothing like the sound of this 100 year-old cigar box with that slide. Here it is. OK see you’ve got it. Check this out. (Begins playing it)
Gary: You know, it sounds really good.
Shane: You can’t fake that sound. [laughs]
Gary: I mean it’s really true.
Shane: There’s no factory-made guitar that will deliver a tone like a cigar box guitar, especially one with an old wooden box like this.
Gary: (Points to the stings) Is this a D and an A?
Shane: This is a D and a G string here.
Gary: They’re wound strings, I noticed, too.
Shane: Yeah, because they project more. The unwound ones seem to be whiny, like they’re too high. I’ve had some like that. And for this one. In order to tell where I was going I have old hand-cut carpet tacks and that’s giving my 3-5-7-9-12 frets right there. (Begins playing again.)
Gary: Have you played this on stage?
Shane: No I haven’t. I just built this last week. So I’ll do things like, as I’m hitting flea markets looking for the old cigar boxes. If you look here, a whole set of cool old yardsticks. The older the better. I always try to find the ones, like those that have the smaller phone numbers, because you know how old it is.
01:22:16:05 – 01:22:18:09
Gary: Are most of these made of maple?
Shane: No, it’s probably just made of pine or something. So I haven’t gotten into these yet but these just add a cool little element and it looks like a fretboard.
Gary: Yeah. . . I think it’s great. Now, when you play on stage, you know, you go see a band and the guitar player has like six guitars on a rack, do you bring up a whole bunch of different guitars?
Shane: I’m usually showing up with anywhere between five and seven guitars. However, this past week my band did a show in a small tiny hole-in-the-wall bar in downtown York, Pennsylvania. And as I was headed out the door I just got this idea. Let me just bring one guitar. We had a three hour show. Let me just bring one guitar. It was one almost identical to this; a Macanudo, three strings, no frets. And I did the entire three hour show with this and only had the low string break on me on the last song.
Gary: I was going to say, what do you do if you break a string?
Shane: I keep going.
Gary: Well, you only need two anyway, right?
Shane: Our very final song was “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors and the low string broke in the first verse. We continued that song for another 10 minutes and I still did it on two strings.
Gary: I love it.
Shane: Yeah, but in concert it depends. I do sort of unplugged shows sometimes or I’ll do electric shows. And then my electric shows I have guitars with crazy pickups in there; amps blazing, distorted sometimes. And the thing is the rest of the band is a jug band, washtub, bass, hand percussion, and harmonica. And it’s just absolutely absurd but it’s kind of like we’re playing the music we want to play and it’s somewhere between Delta Blues and AC/DC.