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 we have to ask another question: how a two- or three-string box was played? Early country bluesmen typically played the melody part on the high string and used the lower ones mostly as drone strings. An archaic example is Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Jack O' Diamonds", two takes from 1926, which could be played on a diddley bow with a drone string:


    A drone is most often placed upon the tonic or dominant, or on both, so not only a box tuned Gg, but also tuned GDg, could be considered as a diddley bow with a drone string or drone strings: same tunings, but totally different instruments, depending from how the box is played...

  • It seems to me that a few people here are from the Dulci world so 3 and 4 strings nothing new. But the number of strings game is a endless search, I think some of you people get wrapped up in the 3 string thing because of the challenge . 1-5-1 you can play a simple rhythm fairly easy but some of you guy's take it to the next level and that's addictive. Everything I do on 3 string is innovative to me because I have no clue of what I'm doing. If it sounds good with 1 string it will probably sound better with 2

  • Maybe you've seen this Egyptian wall painting from 1420 BCE. I don't know what they called it but it will be hard to find an older example I think. And I am glad to hear Mac Arnold's name mentioned. He still tears up that 3 string 'gas can'. He is an amazing player (and lives about 90 miles from me).

    Image result for earliest example of a guitar

  • Wow! Thanks for all that great information turtlehead. Thanks to Moritz as well for your informative comments. This is pretty interesting stuff to us CB instruments nerds and maybe to a few non nerds as well.

  • I'm still looking Moritz.  I've turned my attention to early banjos and I'm reading Dena Epstein's Sinful Tunes and Spirituals which I've always wanted to read.  So far, there is one reference of a 3 string from 1810.

    I started some spreadsheets from her table of references, David Evans' work and what I could find online on CBGs and what has been posted here.  I still have some work to do, but I put it all into a google map:


    Here's the link to the sheets folder:


    This is not perfect, but it's a start anyway. Tough to find the primary sources on a lot of the CBG stuff, but the Epstein and Evans work is both well researched and/or first hand accounts.  Termoking on this site has a ton of great pictures from Europe that I'd like to add to these sheets at some point too.

    As far as three strings go, I count the Fender ad, the stories from JoJo Williams, Lonnie MacDonald and also Isaiah "Doctor" Ross from the David Evans stuff, the one account (so far) from Dena Epstein, the 3 string fiddle that Charles Atchison references on his site, and these two pictures of 3 string banjos from www.3-string-guitar.com



    That's all I've been able to find. Most of these are indeed children's instruments, with the exception of the early banjo and possibly the first picture here. Dena Epstein notes that the accounts she discovered weren't made by musicians or ethno-musicologists, only to say that the instruments varied from one to six strings, so many on her list don't state the exact configuration. Mostly they were four stringed instruments: 3 and a drone.

    We can take it all the way back to Senegal and the Akonting, but I'm convinced that the modern three string CBG is just that.  A modern invention.  By Shane Speal, the King of Cigar Box Guitar.  Here's an interview from Premier Guitar:


    Shane says he built his first 3 string to get "fancy".  That turned out to be a Great Idea - the right tool for the job to make authentic sounds, but I don't think it is truly authentic to the Delta blues or even proto-Delta blues. The slide aspect is the connective tissue, but so far I'm not seeing the three string guitar as some kind of missing link or predecessor to early blues. 

    This is not to discount Shane at all, what he has done is remarkable, but I think it's a post-modern interpretation. I'm no bluesman, but I can sound like one on a three string.  If the 151 tuning plus slide can make this whitest of white boys sound like that, you've done something special.

    I'd like to be proven wrong with some instrument unearthed from a place like Senatobia or Como, Mississippi, or an archival recording.  I'd also like to see some more examples of three stringed instruments in the US - dulcimers, balalaikas, shamisens, etc, that could have contributed to the vast melting pot.  There is more to be discovered.

    This post has been brought to you by Thanksgiving leftovers.

    • Some left-hander around who checks how Mac Arnold has his gas can guitar tuned? I get crazy watching and mirroring his finger work... hear and watch:

      Blues in a Holler: Jam Session with Mac Arnold
      from 1:20

      Mac Arnold & Plate Full O'Blues: Cackalacky

      Mac Arnold Live: Sweet Home, Chicago

      Mac Arnold's musical journey began in the 1950s when he and his brother Leroy fashioned a guitar from a steel gas can, wood, nails, and screen wire.

    • Thanks turtlehead for your research, I think you are fully right. Remains the question about the predominant GDg-type tuning. I tried to check the video about the tuning used on the two gas can guitars


      but I'm not sure about it, I'll retry another time. Mac Arnold played on gas can guitars since his childhood: his musical journey began in the 1950s when he and his brother Leroy fashioned a guitar from a steel gas can, wood, nails, and screen wire.

      You intend to locate the photos on termoking's site, but I don't know whether it makes sense or not, as most of them show anonymous groups of solders or prisoners of WWI.

      To get comparative material, I'm still in contact with the Finnish Folk Music Institute about simple instruments played in lumberjack camps or in bomb shelters while Continuation War 1941-1945. For any type of instrument we find quite everywhere, we don't have to bother about african or other origins. Special features like the fifth string of the banjo seem another case. Till now I didn't find a photo, only a verbal description of a diddley bow built on a plank with a coffee tin as resonator, length 87cm, built by Paavo Pulkkinen from Sodankylä.

      A more actual example of parallel development: instruments built from a shovel. At the end of the sixties, among the instruments played by a finnish folkloristic band there was a «half-acoustic snow shovel».

      Just for joke: I expected to find instruments built on big lard tins, as lard - essential foodstuff in finnish lumberjack camps - was called in their slang «american lard» or «Wilson's skin», as lard [«Wilson's Pure Lard»] among other foodstuff was provided in big tins to Finland 1918-1920 and later as US food aid.
  • Back to Turtlehead's question where the 3-string CBG tuned root-fifth-octave with chromatic fretting comes from, we have little and only questionable evidence before the turn of our century:
    The Fender ad from 1963/64: the box played by the young man is not a functional CBG as you can see from the layout of the frets, with equal spaces between them from the nut to the twelfth and from the thirteenth to the eighteenth.
    The photo of Private Jake Reynolds from 1944, «playing a 6-string neck stuck into a can», but too fretted in a strange manner, clearly different from a 6-string neck, maybe diatonic, maybe irrelevant if Reynolds played it as a lap steel guitar. If diatonic it would to be identified as dulcimer, as there are some guitar shaped ones.
  • Someone out there who owns Robert T. Teske's «In Tune with Tradition: Wisconsin Folk Music Instruments», to check for eventual fotos of CBGs?

    • Shane Speal on Guitar World posted 04/02/2015: «This week, I’ve built a new axe to add to my live arsenal: the DeltaLectric cigar box guitar. Based on a traditional three-string fretless cigar box guitar (played with a slide), I’ve hot-rodded it with a vintage-style lipstick tube pickup in the bridge position. It’s a beautiful lie: It looks like a primitive blues instrument, but it screams like a bitch.»

      Seems hard to find specimens of some kind of «traditional three-string fretless cigar box guitar»...

      Maybe we should examine another myth of cigarbox revolution: boxes as «primitive blues instruments»...

      Rubin Lacy: «The blues is not sung for the tune. It's sung for the words mostly. A real blues singer sings a blues for the words». Samples of instrumental blues are extremely rare, an early example Sylvester Weaver's «Guitar Blues» from 1923.

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