I’m pretty new to the whole CBG scene. I only joined The Nation in January of 2012 so at the time of this writing, that’s right at 9 months. In that time, I've built a total of 6 guitars, and number 7 is on the bench. None of them are anything you’d call a work of art - the first 6 are fretless, 3-string, slide guitars that stay in tune (or not) at their whim. In fact, my 5th build has earned the nickname Bartleby for the simple reason that when it comes to staying in tune, it would just prefer not to. Melville fans will get that.
I digress easily, so please forgive me.
My whole point in this blog post is addressing something that I had (and still have to a much lesser degree,) and that I’ve noticed is a common trait in most beginners in this wonderful new hobby we’ve all discovered. Something I call Newbie Anxiety - basically the overwhelming, almost obsessive, compulsive need to do absolutely everything right the first time.
I’m guilty as sin when it comes to this.
I’ve been doing wood work in one form or another for about 35 years, but most of it was cabinetry. I’m used to slinging around full 4’ X 8’ sheets of 3/4” plywood, ripping them to width, cross-cutting them to length, then assembling the various pieces - all with a 1/16" builder's tolerance. There’s more to it than that, obviously, but you get my drift. Something that I perceived to be as small and delicate (not to mention as exacting) as a guitar was way, way beyond me. I mean, the lines on my Lufkin 12' tape measure don't go smaller than 1/32 of an inch, and who uses those little lines anyway?
As I step back and look at it now, I was only partially right. Yes, building an acoustic 6-string that would rival Martin in looks, quality, and sound requires some very finely honed skills - not to mention a boat load of tools the average cabinet guy just doesn’t have. But building a CBG isn’t like that at all. In fact, once I got past my fear of screwing up, I found that it’s actually pretty durned fun, and can be done at the kitchen table with common hand tools.
I’m the kind of guy who researches something to death. I like to know something about what it is I’m attempting to do for the first time. That’s what I tell myself anyway. When I decided that I wanted to try to build a CBG, that’s exactly what I did - I researched them. That’s what led me to The Cigar Box Nation.
Soon I was totally immersed in learning about things like scale lengths, nuts, bridges, tuning heads - the whole deal. Talk about information overload! The problem was that I got so wrapped up in the minutiae that I forgot the entire reason for even contemplating a build. My Newbie Anxiety increased with every page I read.
I assembled the parts I thought I’d need for a first attempt. I thought I was going cheap and easy. I got a couple of boxes from a local cigar shop, bought some oak 1 X 2 from the local home improvement store, and some 5/16” all thread and nuts, along with some cool looking sink strainers from the hardware store. Where I messed up was in hitting the guitar shop.
I don’t play guitar. I’ve tried to learn several times, but I have 1 fatal flaw - I suck at it. Ok, no problem. I also know almost, but not quite, absolutely nothing about building a guitar. Ok, I’m trying to change that. So, armed with just enough knowledge to make me dangerous to myself, and every shop owner’s dream, I hit a local guitar shop to buy tuning heads and strings. Here’s where I spent way, way too much money on my first attempt. I walked out with a $60 set of Grover tuning heads and a $12 set of medium acoustic strings. Yep - they saw me coming, dangled the right bait, hooked me, and landed me. Ok, fine.
I had all the parts I needed to complete my first build. Then I just sat there looking at it. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know how to begin. Sure, I had downloaded all the plans, pictures, directions, and guides I could find, and had pored over them for countless hours before buying my first box. Problem was I was afraid to screw it up. I let my anxiety get the best of me. I just sat there staring at the parts, everything I had read running through my mind all at the same time. A jumbled up mish-mash of techniques, parts, methods, results, and measurements.
Finally, I spurred myself into action. I went to the chat feature on The Nation and talked to other builders about it. Well, it seemed like action to me. At least I was telling other people of what I had on my mind. One small victory at a time. So, instead of driving myself crazy, I drove other, more experienced builders crazy with my goofy beginner’s questions. The guys on The Nation were great - they not only answered my questions (repeatedly,) they actually put up with my odd-ball sense of humor, and some of them became good friends.
Suffice it to say, I did eventually talk myself into starting the build. And looking back on it now, I did it completely backward. The first thing I did was cut the box to fit the 1 X 2 I had chosen for a neck. I was about half way through the whole build before I realized that the box is secondary to the neck, but again I digress.
I stayed in that anxious state, hesitant and afraid of messing everything up during the entire build. And it bothered me at the time, but I just couldn’t shake it. I just knew that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I sweated the entire build, all the way up until the time I got it strung, tuned, and strummed the first open G chord on it.
It was only during my second build, when I was able to calm down enough to suddenly stop and realize exactly what I was doing to myself. I was working myself into such a frenzy with worry that I would mess it all up that I wasn’t able to just relax and have fun with it.
As I was cutting into the box on that second build, nervous as hell that I was going to cut the neck opening too big, I suddenly realized that I was worried to death about a $3 cigar box. That thought clicked into my mind and stayed there for a minute. I actually stopped, turned off the saw, and stood there with the box in my hand, doing some mental math. Ok, it’s a $3 box. It’s not rare, collectable, or an antique. There are literally millions of these things floating around out there. The neck? I think I paid $6 for an 8’ long oak 1 X 2, and I’m only using 3’ of it. The tuning heads? Okay, I overspent on them, but there’s nothing I can do to mess them up. I was using all-thread to make the nut and a piece of recycled stainless steel rod to make the bridge saddle - both essentially free. By the time the entire guitar was to be finished, I’d have a grand total of about $9 invested - not counting the tuning heads, but including the $2 Radio Shack piezo and $2 jack.
It came to me in a rush that even of I totally trashed the box, drilled the tuning head holes too big, put the nut on crooked, and wired the piezo wrong, that I would be out a total of about $9! What the devil was I working myself into such a dither about? It’s $9! I’ve literally pissed away more money in beer watching 1 football game!
And that’s where I am now. Sure, I get nervous about trying something I’ve never done on a build before, but I’m that way on every new thing I try on anything in life. But I now try to keep things in perspective. It’s a CBG - I really can’t screw it up because, by and large, there are no rules! If I cut the neck opening too wide, so what? It’s a $3 box - get another one! Use the “ruined box” for a parts box, or make a slightly wider neck for it. It’s no big deal!
So I guess that’s my message to the new builder - don’t sweat it. Don’t worry about messing it up. You’re going to make mistakes - it’s inevitable. It happens. Learn from those mistakes and move on. Your first build probably isn’t going to be perfect. If it is, good for you. If it isn’t, so what?
I’ve kept my first build, and plan to keep it forever. I like the sound of it, and I’ll admit a bit of sentimental attachment to it. It’s far from perfect - I can point out at least a dozen mistakes I made on it. The difference is that now I don’t care. I learned something from each of those mistakes, and now I don’t make them anymore. I’m finally able to admit after 35 years of working with wood that I’ve never learned a ding-donged thing from my successes - but I’ve always learned from my failures.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You almost can’t do it wrong. Sure, there are some things you have to pay attention to, but overall it’s a stick and a box - don’t forget that. Relax, keep it all in perspective, and have fun with it.
It’s a CBG - don’t over-think it!