Blues History: Re-Creating Scrapper Blackwell's First Cigar Box Guitar

-by Shane Speal

"Ain’t nobody never told me nothin’ in my life, never showed me anything. And the first guitar I ever had in my life I made it myself... Out of a mandolin neck and a cigar box. That’s the truth, that’s the truth. Put six strings on it and played it. 

When I picked up my first one I played. Not only played it but
I made it."

- Scrapper Blackwell, from his final interview, Jazz Monthly Magazine 1960.  Read the entire interview with pics/video here.

Scrapper Blackwell was one of the true originators of the blues.  Clapton covered his song, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" almost note for note.  Robert Johnson covered his "Kokomo Blues" and changed the location to 'sweet home' Chicago.  His records with Leroy Carr sold thousands of copies back in the Twenties, making him a true star of his day. 

He also started out on a cigar box guitar.

In his final interview (excerpted above), Blackwell described his first guitar as something he cobbled together from a cigar box and a mandolin neck.  It also had six strings.  As a builder of these instruments, I was suspicious of his account, so I set out to build one, just like he said, to get a glimpse of what Scrapper's sounded like.

I started with an old, wooden cigar box and a 1920's mandolin/banjo neck. 

I chose the banjo mandolin neck because it had the attached wooden shaft that goes through the banjo rim.  This made the planning a lot easier.  All I would have to do is cut holes at each end of the box to insert the shaft:

I made sure the neck was mounted with a small degree of back pull.  That meant the shaft would be lower on the neck side and higher toward the butt end.

Once I got the holes cut out and filed neatly, I crafted a makeshift trapeze tailpiece from a 1928 license plate.  (This is the same year his song, Kokomo Blues was released.)  The #5 on the plate approximates an S for Scrapper.

My next step was to use a Dremel to make two primitive violin holes in the box.  I went with an S pattern again, using pictures of antique cigar box fiddles as inspiration for the look. (Yeah, I know Scrapper didn't have a Dremel back then...  I'm sure he wouldn't mind me cheating just a little bit.)

With the box now closed, I manipulated the license plate a little more, bending over the end to give it more strength.  I then drilled the holes that would anchor the strings.

Since Scrapper's original cigar box guitar utilized a mandolin neck (which was probably an 8-string), but only had 6 strings, I knew I'd have two holes to cover up on this.  I took an old sardine can, cut out a strip of metal to cover them up. 

A set of letter punches from Harbor Freight allowed me to put Scrapper in the metal, creating a cool looking headstock.

A note on the tuners:  I chose mis-matched tuners to keep the primitive, homemade appearance.

Strings & Doubting Scrapper's Story:  As I worked on this guitar, I constantly told myself that Scrapper's description had to be wrong.  You just can't fit six strings equally apart on a mandolin neck and expect it to be playable. 

I chose two wound G strings as the lowest strings.  The rest of them were some extra high B and high E strings.  I simply didn't want to exert too much pressure on this instrument by using regular guitar strings.

When I first strung the guitar up, I doubled the strings like a mandolin, making it a 3-string, double coursed instrument.

The guitar played great and sounded great!  BUT...This is not what Scrapper described!  He didn't talk about playing a cigar box mandolin.  He said "guitar" in his description.  

So I decided to space the strings apart and tune it to an open blues tuning.

THE VERDICT:  SCRAPPER WAS RIGHT!  IT WORKS!

The tone is high pitched, simply because of the short scale.  However, you can definitely play this like a 6 string guitar.  If you're a big guy like me, your fingers are smashed together.  However, a young kid like Scrapper probably wouldn't have any trouble. 

Here's a quick, unrehearsed video demo. 

Special thanks to C. B. Gitty Crafter Supply and the Cigar Box Guitar History and Preservation Group for funding the time needed to research and build this project. 

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Thanks for this great article and what a great instrument too!

Very cool Shane! Trying to duplicate the cigar box fiddle in that famous Civil War etching by Ed. Forbes is what got me started making CB fiddles. It's something that takes us on historical as well as musical adventures!

Nice one Shane. It sounds real good !

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