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The Frugal Luthier

vic.miller: the frugal luthier – the story of bill’s cigar box tenor resonator guitar

Ben Franklin was right to say that “A penny saved is a penny earned”. But yet, in a Highland Appliance commercial, he also warned never to eat spinach with a stranger. This is my story of not only how I came to build a tenor resonator guitar from a cigar box and an Altoids can, but how Radio Shack paid me to make an amp out of a cigar box too.

fru·gal adj.
Economical in the use or appropriation of resources; not wasteful or lavish; wise in the expenditure or application of force, materials, time, etc. See cheap ass.

After completing my last project (See The story of how I became a Luthier), I was out searching for new ideas for my next project. What I found was a great site dedicated to the preservation fo the cigar box guitar. What a worthy cause… the preservation of the cigar box guitar. You just don’t see cigar box guitars anymore. Gosh, people are trapping them for fur, poaching them for ivory, and packaging them with tuna… it’s just not right, and I won’t stand for it anymore! But seriously, pretty cool site. So I’m reading this cool website with a bad case of halitosis and I reach for an Apple Sour Altoid. Bam! it hit me. My friend Bill once mentioned to me he wanted to get a tenor resonator guitar.

Being a big blues buff, he loved the sound of a resonator guitar. But he only knew how to play four strings, so he wanted a tenor guitar. For those not in the know, a tenor guitar has a smaller scale (23 inches) and the same four middle strings as regular guitar except that the B would be tuned to a C. But to confuse the reader even more, Bill wanted the bottom four strings instead of the middle four. Are you still with me? So hear I am with tears coming from I eyes from this sour ass piece of candy and I’m thinking that I could make a tenor resonator guitar from a cigar box and an Altoids can.

I had my new mission and loaded up with as much information as I could. Cigar boxes were not a problem for me, being a cigar smoker, and Altoids were not scarce either, since I was a cigar smoker with yak breath. I then rummaged up four old tuning machines that didn’t match. I figured that would add to the charm being that I’m making this out of a freakin’ cigar box and Altoids can. I then proceeded to bum some fretwire off a buddy and headed out to the shop.

I chose a Padron 4000 box for my body since it was a quality cedar box that was more long and wide than it was thick. I carved the neck from a piece of hard maple I had leftover from my electric upright bass project. I also fashioned the fingerboard from a leftover piece of maple.

Yes, I know the cigar box is upside down. That was intended. The hinges are such that they would sit right where you set your arm. I elected not to take the hinges off and flipped the box. More charm.

I had to reinforce the cigar box so that it could take the tension of strings, but I also didn’t want it to sound dead so I made some acoutic reinforments from some leftover mahaogany I had. Mahogany is a great tone wood. I made the bridge from yet another peice of leftover maple and rest that directly on the Altoid Resonator. I wanted most of the tone to come from the resonator and not the body of the guitar. In this case, I wanted the body to merely act as a speaker cabinet to the resonator. I glued an peizo tranducer inside the resonator to serve as a pickup should Bill decide to plug her in.

I cut out a couple of shoulder sound holes and for kicks some “F” holes to give it that classic resonator guitar look.

Since I was making this for someone else, I had to leave my mark. So rather than writing my name on it with a crayon, I came up with my own “V” logo to inlay into the head. The inlay is made from a lefetover piece of mahogany. I chose mahogany because it looked better with the cedar box and, of course, because I had it laying around. I’m pretty proud of this inlay.

The nut is made from a leftover piece of bocote I had.

I also made the neck block and tail block from maple. I had more of it laying around than mahogany, so I chose it. Also since maple is much harder and stronger, I thought that at least for the neck block, I felt more confortable using the maple. Not that I expected Bill would be going Pete Townsend on this or anything, but this was my first neck joint of this type.

I pondered for a long time what to do about the tail piece. I ultimately decided to run the strings throught the body. Long story short, I had some string ferrules laying around so it would be cheaper than anything else I could come up with. There, I said it.

Done? Oh, but not so fast. What cigar box tenor resonator guitar would be complete without an amp made from a cigar box. Brilliant!

This is my favorite part of the story.

If building the cigar box tenor resonator guitar from leftover parts was not enough. I had to take this mother to another level. Radio Shack had the bright idea to put out a web coupon for $5 off any purchase. That’s right $5 off any purchase. So I printed off half a dozen copies and headed out to 4 different locations to use my $5 coupons to pay for all the parts I need to make, not one but two amps. MmmmHaaa MmmmHaaaa!

Schematics and scammed parts in hand, I picked out a Nat Sherman Harrington box. Sharp looking box and would make a cool little amp. It’s only 1/2 watt, so it’s not that loud, but it’s loud enough for tooling around the house. Complete with volume and tone pots, on/off switch, and even a gain boost switch in case Bill wants to go Jimi Hendrix on someone. All this and it runs off a 9 volt battery. Oh yeah, can’t forget the “V” logo cutout sound hole and “V” shaped knobs. How cool can it get.

Fin. I suspect Bill will be taking it out to the local jams, so if you see him, check it out.

Inquiries about acquiring custom handcrafted cigar box guitars or crafting services can be made to the following address: vicmiller@ameritech.net
vic.miller: toledo.ohio