Handmade Music Clubhouse

Cigar Box Guitar Headquarters - CBG HQ

This question was asked by someone in the comments section, but I thought it was worth a discussion:

I started out writing a very long post about this, but decided to cut it back to a few short ideas with some questions:

Basic CBGs - like the typical first build: fretless, 2 or 3 string, through neck, bolts for nut and tuner, a piezo,...  run about $10 in parts and take about an hour to build once you've built your first one.  But the question is, does anybody really sell these?  I don't mean does anyone try to sell them or have them up for sale, but really sell them?  If so, to whom?  In what venue? For how much?  I couldn't imagine buying one, or if I did, I couldn't imagine paying more than $20 for it.  But that's me.  Is anyone's experience different?

The better ones - decent tuners, bone nut, well-placed and well-dressed frets, good intonation, good action, decent electronics ... take more money and time to build.  My last couple of builds cost somewhere between $30 and $50 to build, and took a good week of after work and weekends.  And a lot of experimentation to get them to sound and play the way I wanted them to.  I love them - play them all the time as "real instruments" in my band and on my own, and they stand up to that use, i.e. they're not just novelties or "rootsy". 

But I don't think that, even if I could bear to part with them, I could sell them for enough to get my time and materials out of them.  And I didn't go all-out on materials - I could have easily made these cost much more in parts, and I don't believe that would increase their market value by a cent.

So I guess the basic questions are:  What kind of CBGs actually sell?  Who buys them?   Where do they buy them?  And what are they willing to pay for them?  Is selling parts and kits the only way to get this hobby to be self-sustaining?

I think I'd be happy to get enough back to pay for the hobby, but I don't have high hopes of that.  Luckily they don't cost all that much to build, and they're tons of fun ... so it's probably ok if the hobby doesn't become self-sustaining.  But I am curious...

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Replies to This Discussion

I've sold "basic cbgs" at my first show.  That's pretty much all I had and the two I sold went for $50 a piece. :)

I am building and selling the better models as you mentioned to friends and acquaintences. I have had some of my builds in a small music store, they generate a lot of interest, but most guys who shop in music stores usally only "finger the lingerie", so to speak, they're not ready to buy. If they won't part with hard-earned cash for a "real" guitar, they seem even more reluctant to buy one of these. But these are so "one-of-a-kind", that when you find someone who falls hard for it, you won't have to work hard to sell it. I'm getting anywhere from $125 - $175 for a build, depending on what I've got into it. It costs me an average of about $60 to do a decent guitar; I try to price them so I get at least $100 for my labor, which isn't even minimum wage when you figure how long it takes to do a good one, but, it's a hobby and I enjoy doing it, so why not get paid? I intend to "busk" with them this summer, and have one or two on hand to sell to anyone interested. I think another issue with trying to sell them is "how to play the darn thing?" That's a challenge and a whole new learning curve for either a beginner or an established player. If you can demonstrate the guitar, and teach a simple ditty, you've got the best chance to move them. I also find that trained players tend to give them a pass as "unworthy" of their talent, while newbies seem eager to get ahold of a guitar they can master without much effort! You've got to kind of approach this as a vacuum cleaner salesman, with a lot of enthusiasm and some hands on encouragement!

I believe you, but I have to admit, I still find it amazing.  I figured they'd go for pocket change, purely an impulse buy...  but maybe pocket change isn't what it used to be....

Arnold Kelly said:

I've sold "basic cbgs" at my first show.  That's pretty much all I had and the two I sold went for $50 a piece. :)


I think one of the issues with the ones I build is that they aren't the super gentle and short learning curve things that people put a slide on their finger and play "da bluez" on.  I'm not trying to say that mine are so special or wonderful, they're just not "rootsy" at all.  One of them is a cbg version of a Greek baglama, which is a half-scale trichordo bouzouki.  Another is a 4 string tenor guitar (or thereabouts - the scale, at 18.8",  is a little short for a tenor guitar). Neither of them is something someone who's never played will pick up and be playing tunes in a few minutes.

What you said about experienced players is interesting.  I've been playing for a long time, but had to stop about a year ago because of degenerative disk disease in my neck that makes it painful to hold a violin or a full-sized bouzouki, or even a full-sized guitar.  So I started building short-scale versions of my full-sized instruments, because I can play them without pain, and I didn't have the money to replace everything with custom-made stuff.  I wonder if relatively economical, short-scale instruments that play well and sound pretty good is a worthwhile niche.  (They've saved me from having to live without playing - something I'm really grateful for.  There must be others out there in the same boat...)

My projects are gradually getting more complicated.  I just finished a replica of an Anglo-Saxon Lyre for my son, and the next thing I'm planning is a tenor harp-ukelele or something based on one...  basically 4 strings over the fretboard, and then 6 bass strings that act as sympathetic strings, and also allow you to have a bottom or a walking bass under whatever you're doing with the 4 melody strings.  That CERTAINLY won't be in the "pick it up and be playing in 10 minutes" category...  but I wonder if that's another niche...

I agree with you about this being a hobby.  Honestly, I don't care if it never even pays for itself - it's loads of fun to do.


Tim LaFave said:

I am building and selling the better models as you mentioned to friends and acquaintences. I have had some of my builds in a small music store, they generate a lot of interest, but most guys who shop in music stores usally only "finger the lingerie", so to speak, they're not ready to buy. If they won't part with hard-earned cash for a "real" guitar, they seem even more reluctant to buy one of these. But these are so "one-of-a-kind", that when you find someone who falls hard for it, you won't have to work hard to sell it. I'm getting anywhere from $125 - $175 for a build, depending on what I've got into it. It costs me an average of about $60 to do a decent guitar; I try to price them so I get at least $100 for my labor, which isn't even minimum wage when you figure how long it takes to do a good one, but, it's a hobby and I enjoy doing it, so why not get paid? I intend to "busk" with them this summer, and have one or two on hand to sell to anyone interested. I think another issue with trying to sell them is "how to play the darn thing?" That's a challenge and a whole new learning curve for either a beginner or an established player. If you can demonstrate the guitar, and teach a simple ditty, you've got the best chance to move them. I also find that trained players tend to give them a pass as "unworthy" of their talent, while newbies seem eager to get ahold of a guitar they can master without much effort! You've got to kind of approach this as a vacuum cleaner salesman, with a lot of enthusiasm and some hands on encouragement!

My g/f attended a 'build your business' weekend seminar and used my fledgling, sometime/part time building hobby as a model. As part of the info needed for this she grilled me about how many I had sold (about 25 or a couple more), who had brought them and where etc. It broke down like this.

Of all sold, nearly half went to women.

Of all sold just more than half were already musically inclined to some degree, mainly guitar but piano/keyboard/uki got a mention.

None already played slide. All wanted to.

Most were adult ie 20+ years old with a median of about 35-40.

CBG type sell about twice as well as fully electric 'paddle' type. Genuine cigar boxes were the most popular. Diddley Bows sold slowly but steadily.

'Novelty' type body boxes, promotional tins, liquor boxes etc mostly sold to non players.

Fretted and non-fretted sell about evenly. Nail frets sell slightly better than 'pro' frets.

Type recognition (Hey cool, a cbg/3 string/old school blues guitar!) is effectively zero. They are not part of the New Zealand musical scene. Yet. Once they are explained/demonstrated it's '**** me! I can do this!'

Prices range from NZ$125-300 for a cbg type depending on frets (if any), pickup, neck material and box type and size.

Full electric 'paddle' type range from NZ$220-350.

Remember, all of the above applies only to New Zealand and my personal experience. Your mileage may vary.

Hi Michael

Nice post.

I started building CBG's about 4 years ago and up to press have built and sold more than a 100.

In 2004 I was diagnosed with severe rhumatoid arthritis which due to the nature of the condition prevented me from playing conventional guitar, I can't even make a simple D chord, as you can imagine this was very frustrating. I had never really played wiyh a slide but after seeing a TV program which featured 'Seasick Steve' I started to play with one. Then built my first CBG. 

I've had a good deal of success selling on 'eBay' and sold them all over the world, but you probably know that on 'eBay' items can sell for very little, although on one occasion one sold for £230.00 but I would say an average would be about £70.00 each sale. Aswell as the CBG's I sell parts, the best selling part is piezo pickups which I sell for £3.99 - £11.99 depending on size of piezo disc, single or dual piezo, with or without volume control etc., these I make and I double my money.

The best sellers seem to be 4 String CBG's and the well decorated ones (1, 2, 3, & 4 String), the use of metal corners on the box etc. I also make & sell Stomp boxes these go for £15.00 to £25.00 depending on size - a good seller and very easy to make, fitted with a piezo pickup.

I don't sell on 'eBay' very much now but it was a very good place to start, and has given me a good amount of regular customers. I sell at flea markets/car boot sales once a week, go to a jam night at a pub sell and get orders, this jam night is run by a good friend and is held 2 times a month so it was easy to organise sales, here I have a table to display my items. My main sales come from Guitar Shows, there are 5 of these a year all within 1.5 hours drive, they are open to the public and are usually very busy, the stands cost £50.00 to £75.00 depending on the venue.

I have spent a lot of time sourcing parts and have now got it down to a fine art, the main problem for me is getting hold of good cigar boxes, but a build can be successfully achieved by building your own box and calling it a ,Cigar Box Type Guitar'.

These instruments are quite new to us in England so there isn't that much call for them just yet but I'm sure, as it is going along quite nicely, that the call for them will increase.

Hope some of this helps

All the best

I'm really amazed and encouraged by the responses I'm hearing. This once again teaches me the lesson that, just because I wouldn't buy something, it doesn't mean that nobody would.

Proudly1959, your story is particularly encouraging, and it reminds me of the fact that, when I started building, I couldn't make chords or finger the frets without a lot of pain, either.  Thankfully, physical therapy has helped to the point where I can now play fretted short-scale instruments without a slide again, and have started working with my band again after nearly a year's hiatus, using mostly these short scale instruments that I've built.  I rarely use the slide nowadays (though I've played slide on "normal" guitars for many years) - the band I play with currently does mostly Middle Eastern and Balkan influenced music, as accompaniment for belly-dancers.  So slide doesn't really fit our music (I did try, though...:) ).  But your story reminds me that a slide can make the difference between being able to make music on your own and ... not.  It also reminds me that I shouldn't sneer at diatonic fretting - it brings music within reach to people for whom it might otherwise be out of reach...

So, to swing my ramblings back on topic, sort of, ... This is giving me an idea for a target market.  I wonder if CBGs of various configurations - shorter scale, or slide, or harp-like, or diatonic  - wouldn't be a great feed into some kind of music therapy or rehab program... Playing music has always been part of my life, and I don't think I was ever as depressed as I was when I thought I wouldn't be able to play anymore.  I think it would be really satisfying to help bring the gift of music to people who are precluded from it by physical conditions like yours and mine. 

i just started reading this. i came the same conclusions. unless you are set up{tool wise} where you can do most of the "Grunt" work, you're going to be spending too much time[ time has to equal money, even if retired}. How much do you ask for them?. I live in Miami. There is a huge Latino pop., the cigar business is huge, when they see these they are floored. But how much do you charge someone who is going to hang it on a wall. Also you are right about the uppity pro guitar player who somehow looks down on these. They don't get the part of it beign a throwback to the past, and if you can actually make music with it then it's really a joy. I guess i,m lucky that i can find the time to "explore" and also reguarding the basic fretless cbg's, i,m lucky i can play slide

I think this belongs in this discussion, but maybe not.  What's the value of "weird"?

I figure that, once you get above the $10 in parts and 1 hour in time basic CBG, you're in an area where you're in competition with "legitimate" instruments.  I'm totally ignoring the "historical throwback" angle for now, or the rootsy cachet element, and only considering the CBG as a musical instrument.  Those other factors may actually be the most important, even though they're totally unimportant to me.

If you buiild sort of straight CBG guitars or banjos or other common instruments  that you try to make playable and decent sounding  (at least when plugged in), you're in competition with their cheap mass-produced analogs that you can get at GuitarCenter or online.  An hour with a mill file can probably turn almost any $129 special from GC into an instrument that is at least as playable and sounds at least as good as most straight CBGs.  So you have to work hard to be either better or cheaper if you want to compete on pure musical instrument quality, which puts your price point at something under $100 - again, ignoring the "irrational" motivations people might have for wanting a CBG, which might add a few bucks.

Unless you change the game.  I've mostly focused on "weird" instruments, ones for which $129 specials just don't exist.  For example, the CBG version of a Greek baglamas that I built actually sounds like a Greek baglamas, even unplugged.  A "real" Greek baglamas is not only hard to come by in the USA, you'll probably have to pay more than $500 for one.  And that's just where they start.  So, I figure my price point would be a couple of hundred bucks less than that.  Which more than pays for time and materials, even though I spent a fair amount of time getting it just right.

The next thing I want to build is a either a harp guitar or a baritone harp uke, CBG style.  I just saw a baritone harp uke on eBay this morning, for $2500.  I don't even know where you'd go to get one, other than to a custom builder.  So maybe the price point for something like that in a CBG version might also be $200 - $300, though it's only marginally more expensive to make (time and materials) than a straight CBG.  Of course, nobody's going to be playing it decently in 10 minutes...

I wonder if this is a good strategy, or if it completely misses the boat.  Maybe the "irrational" motivations are indeed the most important, and it would be better to maximize the instrument's appeal in that dimension...  But I have to admit I'd find it totally unsatisfying to build a bunch of through-neck, rustic 3-strings with nail frets and bolts for nuts and bridges.  That would start to be way too much like work, and I'd have to be paid much better than what I could make to do it...

Hey Michael!

You have echoed my thoughts. I don't build or play CBGs but I love them all the same. I build electric solid & semi solid guitars. And I play them. 

I don't know why I like CBGs... I just do. Maybe it's cause Bo Diddley got at me while I was very young... or deep down I love cigars... anyway they are kewl!

I would buy one purely for its appearance then it's tone... and I would go for any level of quality. I would probably have to play it... and maybe mess with it's electronics but I would not tell the builder in case I insulted him/her...

The downside for me is I live in Australia and all the best CBGs are made in the Americas or Europe or a long way away thus the shipping usually costs far more than the CBG!!! So this makes them quite pricey considering what they are.

All the same when I see the "gem" I will buy it!

I suspect that the real market for CBGs is other crafts persons, musos, instrument makers (experimental), artists/artisans & collectors.

In many ways they are seen as "toys" so unfortunately some hard work in re-educating the market is needed!!! I think when people hear them thay are really surprised at how musical they are. 

We had an ad on TV down here recently with Pat Rafter (of tennis fame) *briefly playing a CBG at the start of the commercial . *It was an ad for "undies" ...ahem. He can actually play it, so maybe he's the ambassodor CBGs need!!!???

Hi Tim!  

I agree with your point that people will pay for what they like, really, really like. Price is not the issue as I see it but how to play one!

Busking (demos) and having them on hand to sell is a brilliant bit of marketing! Cell phones will now allow you to take credit cards as well... I think!!! You can be a "Flash" store!!! Kewl! Got any music sheets or CBG books on hand to sell? 
Go for it!
Tim LaFave said:

I am building and selling the better models as you mentioned to friends and acquaintences. I have had some of my builds in a small music store, they generate a lot of interest, but most guys who shop in music stores usally only "finger the lingerie", so to speak, they're not ready to buy. If they won't part with hard-earned cash for a "real" guitar, they seem even more reluctant to buy one of these. But these are so "one-of-a-kind", that when you find someone who falls hard for it, you won't have to work hard to sell it. I'm getting anywhere from $125 - $175 for a build, depending on what I've got into it. It costs me an average of about $60 to do a decent guitar; I try to price them so I get at least $100 for my labor, which isn't even minimum wage when you figure how long it takes to do a good one, but, it's a hobby and I enjoy doing it, so why not get paid? I intend to "busk" with them this summer, and have one or two on hand to sell to anyone interested. I think another issue with trying to sell them is "how to play the darn thing?" That's a challenge and a whole new learning curve for either a beginner or an established player. If you can demonstrate the guitar, and teach a simple ditty, you've got the best chance to move them. I also find that trained players tend to give them a pass as "unworthy" of their talent, while newbies seem eager to get ahold of a guitar they can master without much effort! You've got to kind of approach this as a vacuum cleaner salesman, with a lot of enthusiasm and some hands on encouragement!

@Robert & Michael

There is no pricepoint for wall hangings!!! I'd pay $100 for a mirror... so why not $150-200 for something of beauty that actually does something (makes music) other than reflects my ugly dial... yikes!!!

Those cigar boxes are the key I think... they look so attractive just in the raw.

A CBG with a fretted guitar neck moves it's price point dramatically I would think due to the work in making that component or buying it as a quality part from Warmoth or wherever. Even a good Chinese neck is around $50-70 and needs a little work to get it perfect.

I'd love to see multi string CBGs... like mandolins etc.

To me cbg's are stringed instruments regardless of their components so the sky is the limit. After all, the cigar box is just the "body" for sound generation - it doesn't have to have a piezo or pickups if the "box" is big enough does it?


Robert De Haemers said:

i just started reading this. i came the same conclusions. unless you are set up{tool wise} where you can do most of the "Grunt" work, you're going to be spending too much time[ time has to equal money, even if retired}. How much do you ask for them?. I live in Miami. There is a huge Latino pop., the cigar business is huge, when they see these they are floored. But how much do you charge someone who is going to hang it on a wall. Also you are right about the uppity pro guitar player who somehow looks down on these. They don't get the part of it beign a throwback to the past, and if you can actually make music with it then it's really a joy. I guess i,m lucky that i can find the time to "explore" and also reguarding the basic fretless cbg's, i,m lucky i can play slide

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