Cigar Box Guitars (CBG) are as you picture them—an instrument made with a cigar box, a wooden neck and steel strings attached.  The instrument has grown in popularity as DIY kits, and building plans became readily available for hobbyists. However, the first mention of a cigar box instrument dates back to the mid-1860s.  The oldest known reference to the instrument is from a drawing during the American Civil War at the “Siege of Charleston.”
The oldest known drawing of a Cigar Box instrument (1865 - Siege of Charleston).
Civil War sketch of a Union soldier playing his Figaros Cigar Box Fiddle (1876)
May Newman playing a Cigar Box Guitar she made in the 1909
1920s Cigar Box Guitar Player with a 2-String
Soldier playing a Cigar Box mandolin and what looks like a mini-cello.
Today, many refined luthiers are producing highly crafted instruments available for custom order.  The modern Cigar Box Guitar continues to be made from authentically sourced cigar boxes, though many luthiers also make a custom-built box with similar dimensions. The 3-String Cigar Box Guitar is more common than the 4-String version, with GDG or GDGB as the preferred tuning.  Both versions typically come with at least one electric pickup for amplification.
3-String 2-Pickup Electric Cigar Box Guitar with F-Holes
3-String Cigar Box Guitar with f-holes.
4-String Resonator Cigar Box Guitar with Dual Electric Pickup
4-String Resonator Cigar Box Guitar
3-String Cigar Box Guitar with 2 Pickups and Custom Built Box
3-String Custom Built Box
4-String Guitar (Cigar Box) Solidbody Electric Tuned GDGB
4-String Solid-Body Electric

Your First Cigar Box Guitar Lesson Starts Here

No offence to lefties, but I will refer to your strumming hand as the right hand, and the hand that forms chords and notes as the left hand.

The first question would be: is your CBG set up to be played with a slide with a higher action (the distance of strings to the neck), or does it have a lower action and played with the fingers?

High Action Cigar Box Guitar Set-Up for Slide
Cigar Box Guitar with high-action set-up for slide playing.
Lower Action Cigar Box Guitar Set-Up
Cigar Box Guitar with lower action set-up.

The Left Hand

A higher action is perfect for playing with the slide but can go out of tune when fingering or pressing down notes or chords on the fingerboard.   Slide playing requires a higher action and works best with an open tuning.

A lower action is also good for slide, provided the action isn’t too low, and the string height is suitable for both slide and fingers.  The notes and chords should remain in tune when you press down on the strings similar to an acoustic guitar.  The string gauges range in diameter between an acoustic or electric.  A typical gauge for a bluesy sounding 3-String is .042″, .030″ and .022.”

The Right Hand

There are at least three options for the right picking hand on the CBG.  My guess is that playing with fingers or fingerstyle is the most popular approach, the guitar pick as second, and a hybrid pick and fingers approach as the third.  Thumb picks and finger picks are also frequently used, especially with resonator cigar box guitars as seen below.

Cigar Box Guitar Resonator with Thumb and Finger Picks

The Slide

Finding the right slide is a challenge of its own!  For many years, slide players would have to conform to commercial slides that are often too big or too narrow.  Fortunately, there are now more slide manufacturers that cater to different finger sizes and materials (glass, metal, ceramic, bone).

Try different slide materials and listen to the tone produced.  Some players prefer a raspy sharp sound with a steel slide while others like a round smooth sound with glass.  Of course, the slide you choose will also depend on which finger your wear the slide.    Most players put the slide on the 3rd or 4th finger, which allows other fingers to play along with the slide.  There are no rules, so try the slide on different fingers and do what feels natural to you.

Here are two tips to learn how to play slide: 1) keep the slide in line with the fret to play in tune, and 2) practice playing single notes with the slide on a tilt.


How to Read Tablature on the Cigar Box Guitar

As mentioned earlier, GDG is the closest to a standard tuning currently used on the 3-String Cigar Box Guitar, and GDGB the standard for the 4-string.  Tablature is the quickest way to learn tunes and riffs, although some books include standard notation for players with experience reading music.

Ask yourself the following four questions to help you understand and read tablature:

1) What tab number is the string on?–Strings are thin (1st) to thick (4th).

2) What is the fret number?–The number is the fret the note is on.

3) Which finger do I use?–This question is more difficult as fingering constantly changes.  As a general rule, keep your fingers in position where possible, meaning the fingers are evenly spaced between frets (1st finger on 1st fret, 2nd finger on 2nd fret, etc.).  When playing chords, use the most functional position to allow a simple transition when switching chords.

4) How long do you let the note ring?–This depends on the song’s rhythm, but try to keep or retain your fingers on the fretboard as long as possible, to let the notes ring as long as possible.

Here is a numbered diagram of the 4-String Cigar Box Guitar with examples below:
How to Read Tab on Cigar Box Guitar 4-String
How to Read Tab on Cigar Box Guitar 4-String Examples

Let’s try a few simple riffs on the CBG

In riff one, practice taking the slide or finger on and off the first string.  Keep the finger close to the fret to avoid fret rattle.  If using a slide, keep the slide in line with the fret to play in tune.

3-String Cigar Box Guitar:
4-String Cigar Box Guitar:

Hammer Ons and Pull Offs

The hammer on and pull off are two frequently used techniques on the Cigar Box Guitar.  For the hammer on, play the open string then without picking the string again, place your finger or slide forcefully back on the third fret.  The hammer on is written with a slur (curved line) above or below the notes.  (Ex.1 – 2)

The pull off is the reverse of the hammer on.  This time, play the third fret with your finger or slide, then pull off without picking the string again.  Try to keep an even eighth note rhythm when playing hammer ons and pull offs (Ex. 3 – 4).

Ex. 5 and 6 combine both the hammer on and pull off techniques.


Ex.1, Hammer On – 3-String
Ex.2, Hammer On – 4-String
Ex.3, Pull Off – 3-String
Ex.4, Pull Off – 4-String
Ex.5, Hammer on & Pull Off – 3-String
Ex.6, Hammer on & Pull Off – 4-String
Ok, one last technique to learn-the slide.  The most important rule when using a slide is to keep the slide directly over the center of the fret to play the note in tune.  Apply an even pressure without pressing down too hard on the strings as the “slide should glide” over the strings.  A slide is written with a line between the notes.  Sometimes a grace note (smaller note) is played before the main note, as in the examples below.  The grace note shows which note to slide from and is usually a quick slide up or down.
3-String – Slide Up
4-String – Slide Up
3-String – Slide Down
4-String – Slide Down

Your First Cigar Box Guitar Song: Worried Man Blues

Alright, let’s put it all together and try a little tune called Worried Man Blues.  You can practice the three techniques you have learned so far:  the hammer on, pull off and slide.  Click on the links to download the PDF for 3-String Worried Man Blues, or the  4-String Worried Man Blues.


For more Cigar Box Guitar music, I recommend either 101 Riffs and Solos for Cigar Box Guitar or The Ultimate Collection How to Play Cigar Box Guitar. The 101 riffs book is excellent for beginners who want to learn the essential techniques by playing short blues, rock and country riffs, while the Ultimate Collection, which is also great for beginners, has a collection of short tunes like Worried Man Blues.  I gear both books for the beginner to intermediate level Cigar Box Guitar player.

Please post any comments on this lesson and suggestions for more free Cigar Box Guitar lessons below.

Vote in the CBG player poll below to see the results.  Good luck! Brent.



101 Riffs and Solos for 3-String Cigar Box Guitar

“101 Riffs and Solos” arranged for the 3-string fretted or fretless cigar box guitar tuned to GDG. An excellent resource for beginners and review of useful techniques for players of all levels and styles, including blues, rock, country, and popular. Audio tracks below.

Essential lessons for the cigar box guitar.

101 Riffs and Solos for 4-String Cigar Box Guitar

101 Riffs and Solos arranged for the 4-string fretted or fretless cigar box guitar tuned to GDGB. An excellent resource for beginners and review of useful techniques for players of all levels and styles, including blues, rock, country, popular and more. Audio tracks below.

Essential Lessons for 4-String Slide Cigar Box Guitar.

Cigar Box Guitar – The Ultimate Collection

Cigar Box Guitar – the “Ultimate Collection” is one the first books ever written specifically for the “3 String” cigar box guitar tuned to GDG. Songs, chords, scales, exercises and more. Everything you need to play cigar box guitar today. Audio tracks below.

How to Play Cigar Box Guitar

Cigar Box Guitar – The Ultimate Collection – 4 String

Cigar Box Guitar – The Ultimate Collection is one of the first books written specifically for the “4 String” cigar box guitar tuned GDGB. Great for beginners and players of all levels. 30+ tunes, scales, chord & fingerboard charts, arpeggios, riffs and exercises provide an excellent introduction to the cigar box guitar. Audio tracks below.

How to Play 4-String Cigar Box Guitar.

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