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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Yeah, the African influence can't be denied.  I've always kind of felt like 3 stringers (and even 4 stringers) could be considered a member of the banjo family or the guitar family.  The Akonting is a good example, so is the oil can instrument of our buddy Wessah. 

The Fender ad is interesting.  That would be the oldest 3 string CBG so far.  It looks like a pretty good one too with the tapered neck and fret markers.  I wish you could see whether or not it's really plugged in ;)

Well there are two amps. Can't really follow the cable but it looks like the Grown fellow might be using the Showman and the CBG player using the smaller (Champ?) amp but that's just guessing.

I think you also have to bear in mind that during those early time periods, the guitar was not a popular instrument, or at least, not as popular as the fiddle or banjo.

This may account for the number of pictures and other documentation that show fiddles and banjos, and not guitars.

Another good point here Dan.  If nobody is playing a guitar, why build one?  I guess I wouldn't expect to see a CBG from before the turn of the century or so.   

Really good question turtlehead: among other sources I checked



for three-string homemade instruments: nothing we could compare with a nowadays typical cbg.

That sounds right.

Someone out there who owns Robert T. Teske's «In Tune with Tradition: Wisconsin Folk Music Instruments», to check for eventual fotos of CBGs?

I found some material about Wisconsin lumberjack cigar box instruments, but no sign of a three string cbg:



Great links there, haven't seen those before.

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.

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.

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.


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