I was going through some of the posts over at cigarboxguitar.com looking at the historical articles and pictures and it seemed to me that most of the old instruments are either diddleys, or they're homebuilt versions of traditional instruments like ukes, banjos and violins.  Are there any period examples of 3 stringed guitars out there?

I know there are plenty of 3 string instruments from around the world, but as far as American roots instruments are concerned the only thing I could think that would compare is the Appalachian dulcimer with its 3 strings and 151 tuning.  Maybe they are cousins, but especially as it relates to the blues and how we generally approach these things today, I'm beginning to think 3 stringers might be a more modern idea than I thought.

Are there any historians out there that could shed some light?

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Maybe there is some indirect evidence from open tunings preferred by early bluesmen, like DBGDGD [Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson] or DAFDAD [Rube Lacy]. I suppose they have their roots in simple three string instruments tuned 151.

That's sort of what I was thinking at first Moritz, but it appears those specific tunings come from parlor guitar music of the 1800s.  The open G, aka Spanish comes from the song Spanish Fandango and open D, aka Vestapol, from the song Sebastapol which were copyrighted in 1860 by Henry Worrell.

Here's an interesting article discussing these songs and how they influenced the blues.


The banjo probably has some influence here as well...

When you look for the origin of the terms «spanish» [DGDGBD] and «vestapol» [DADFisAD] sure you will end up with Henry Worrall and his «Worrall's Guitar School», but how should we imagine the transmission of this material to a yougsters of a black sharecropper in the Delta area? My question was rather why early bluesmen chose this tunings among others for playing a real guitar still called «box» by them.

Yeah, that's a good question Moritz.  The fact that they called them boxes is a good point too.  Just a guess, but I would think those tunings would be just as appealing back then as they are now for ease of play, etc.  How that information was transferred, we may never know I suppose.

turtlehead I think you are fully right and I have to rethink my idea about preferences for open tunings in early blues based on simple 1-5-1 tunings...

Some time ago I asked Prof. David Evans – author of the excellent «Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues» based on field work in the sixties in the Drew area – about his knowledge about home made instruments and their tunings: here his answers: 

Most blues players of a stringed instrument played the standard six-string guitar (acoustic or electric).  Some started as children on a 1-string instrument, and a handful of players have maintained the one-string instrument into adulthood.  But there were not players of 3 or 4 stinghome-made guitars, except children making home-made instruments from cigarboxes, etc.  Not much is known about these instruments, and we have no recordings.  We do know somewhat more about the 1-string instruments (which are not modeled on the guitar).  The 1-string instrument has certainly influenced some guitar styles (e. g., bottleneck style), but I don't think there is any special influence from home-made multi-string guitar-like instruments. They are just the products of a child trying to make a guitar.  In recent years some (white) manufacturers have made 2 and 3 stringed instruments that combine some qualities of the home-made guitars and the one-stringed instrument, but these are used mostly by white players who are trying to sound «authentic». There are three basic tuning models for the 6-string guitar used by blues musicians:

1. Standard tuning - E-A-D-G-B-E (low to high) played in several different keys.  Sometimes one string is modified, usually the low E tuned down to D.

2. «Spanish» tuning (open G or open A) - in G this would be D-G-D-G-B-D(low to high).

3. «Sebastopol/Vastapol, etc.» tuning (open D or open E) - in D this wouldbe D-A-D-F#-A-D (low to high).

Sometimes the third degree is slightly lowered in the open tunings, or even is a minor third (F in open D tuning).  Other tunings are extremely rare and can be understood as variations of these three tunings.  The two open tunings especially facilitate slide (bottleneck) playing as well as the general »hill country» sound.

You mention dulcimers. There are some interesting parallels in playing techniques and tunings, but I don't think they had any direct influence on blues guitar. Dulcimers were played almost entirely in mountain regions where there were few black people and little blues music.  (For example,you almost never hear blues played on a dulcimer.) I know of no black players.

Last but not least: Enjoy his performance of «Big Road Blues» on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V0PBv21_30

Very cool info Moritz but I take exception to one comment. Take a look at my favorite mountain dulcimer player Bing Futch. He may change a few ideas!


Thanks for the hint Jim, sounds great, but the comments of David Evans relate to the time of his field work during the sixties in a traditional rural ambient around Drew in the Delta, without evidence for simple cigar box guitars nor 1-5-1-type tunings neither.

P.S. it seems to me the terms «Spanish» or «Vestapol» and the like are not very common in Europe: a lot of guitar players familiar with open tunings never heard about them or learned them from english texts: an argument that they really have their origin in Henry Worrall and the tunes from his «Worrall's Guitar School».

All very interesting to me. I thought you might enjoy a black guy playing blues on mountain dulcimer. Granted, Bing Futch is one of a kind and one of the few black mountain dulcimer players that I know. The beauty of American traditional music, for me, is the way each tradition came here from it's original country and became blended with music from other countries. Irish fiddle tunes got mixed together with African banjo music and became something very different and distinct.

I don't play the dulcimer, but I have watched a ton of Bing's videos and learned a lot from him, he's great. 

Yep, it's that confluence of ideas that make it so good Jim.  This is the first time I've really taken a deep look at some of this history and it's so interesting to see how it all fits together not only musically, but alongside the history of America.  I can't get enough of it right now.

Moritz, I'm glad you mentioned David Evans.  In doing some more research this week, I came across a paper of his from 1970 called Afro-American One-Stringed Instruments, which covers the same ground you're talking about here. There is a mention of a 3 string diddley bow from JoJo Williams who tuned it to an open chord, but no description of the tuning.  He said he "found the arrangement unsatisfactory" and moved on.  There is another recollection from Lonnie MacDonald who said children would occasionally attach 3 or 4 strings to a board.  Williams said this was to emulate a guitar.

This is fascinating stuff.  I always assumed there was some kind of evidence for a 3 string guitar as we know them today, but I'm becoming convinced that's not the case.  I've been going back as far as the gourd banjos that came to the US with slavery, and can't find any real evidence of 3 strings, only 4.

Interesting question turtlehead. As a guy who played dulcimer long before discovering CB instruments the 3 string 1,5,1 CBG was instantly familiar to my fingers. There is plenty of evidence of CB instruments years before what we now think of as the blues developed. I never considered CB instruments to be strictly for blues and it's possible that this open tuning may have been so useful for many types of music that it was borrowed by early CBG makers. Now we need Shane Speal or Bill Jehle, who've already done a ton of research, to let us now when the earliest 3 string CBG came along. I'm gonna go grab my Jehle book right now!

I'd be interested to hear if there's anything in Bill's book.  I did find a reference on Charles Atchison's site about a 3 string cigar box instrument from 1845, but it sounds like it was a kind of fiddle - nothing on a guitar yet.  I'm with you that CB instruments aren't just for blues, but I was always under the impression there was a precedent for 3 string guitar and the Delta Blues.  At this point, the earliest evidence I can find of a 3 string guitar built for that sort of purpose is the first one Shane built in 1993!


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