Cigar Box: Make a Guitar Pickup in Less Than Five Minutes for Under $2

by Brian Saner
Posted Nov 13, 2012 at 11:48am

Can you make your own pickup out of a wall wart plug in under five minutes and less than $2?

Yes, it can be done! I saw a clip on YouTube a while ago where someone made a pickup from pieces of a plug, so I thought I'd give it a try. The method described in the video is a bit dangerous, including separating the metal plates from the coil (I stabbed myself with a screwdriver attempting to do so), so here's a safer, faster way.

If you don’t already know, pickups are made with electric magnets. The string vibrations interfere with the magnetic field around the pickup, and that sound is transferred to your amp. Don’t worry, this is about as technical as I'll get for this part, but it's pretty neat how it works.

Note: See the sidebar article below on the live-rig secrets of several pro cigar box guitarists.

In terms of parts for this project, here's your recon mission:

• One wall wort plug. You know those big, clunky plugs that seem to be on just about everything nowadays. I suggest scoping out your local thrift store for one. That way, you don’t destroy a plug you might need later. I picked up some for 50 cents. Yep!

• Three or four (depending on how many strings you have on your CBG — cigar box guitar) Rare Earth Neo Neodymium disc magnets. I used a N35 12mm-by-3mm magnet I got on eBay for less than 40 cents.

• Some bits of wire and solder

• 1 1/4-inch jack

Tools you'll need

• Proper safety gear, including work gloves and protective glasses

• A hammer

• Soldering Iron

The photo gallery below will walk you through the steps to make your own pickup in under five minutes (and less than $2). Note that if you use this pickup in your CBG, you should probably cut hole the size of the metal plates so only the plates will be exposed above the guitar body, leaving the coils hidden under the top of the box. Also, make sure to ground your negative wire to your bridge to prevent unwanted noise.

Check out the videos below of testing out our DIY guitar pickup. Also Elmar Zeilhofer of The Original-Flatpup made one as a test video as well from one he made (He separated the coils on his DIY pickup).

SIDEBAR: RIGS OF SEVERAL PRO CIGAR BOX GUITARISTS

Let me talk about the gear some cigar box guitar artists used at this year's Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival.

I had a chance to talk to Glenn Kaiser, Shane Speal and Justin Johnson. Playing a cigar box guitar for a gig can be tricky. Cigar box guitars have a great lo-fi sound, but playing them cranked up can create problems with feedback. Here are the amplifiers and effects they prefer.

Glenn Kaiser (Former frontman of REZ Band & Kaiser/Mansfield)

Amp: ”Trimmed & Burnin' Spanky model mostly (a small, 3-watt amp with a Weber speaker) and an original Pignose. I have a lot of amps, but at this point, those two."

Effects: “For non-cigar box or found-object guitars, I always use a Korg tuner and a Blackstone Appliance Mosfet Overdrive. For CBG's, I usually prefer a small amp cranked.”

Most of Kaiser's live cigar box guitars are loaded with piezo buzzer pickups, giving him a more acoustic tone. However, he gets some extra buzz, grind and distortion from the Trimmed & Burnin' tube amp.

Shane Speal

Shane was kind enough to send us a photo of his live rig. Check it out in the photo gallery below.

• As for his gear: homemade electric stomp board; provides percussion for Speal's show. It's just a couple pieces of plywood sandwiched together with a large piezo disc inserted in the middle. The piezo acts as a contact mic.

• Pre-amp for the stomp board. Speal used an inexpensive acoustic guitar preamp/EQ that is attached to the piezo so he can control the tone of hs stomp board.

• An old Ibanez digital delay set for slapback echo only

• Arion Octave pedal: Used sparingly in concert, usually during his one-string diddley bow songs or when he wants to kick into a total funk-infused fury.

• Fender tuner

• Jay Turser Classic 25 amp. Although it's covered with tweed and sports a classic radio wooden face, this amp is just a cheapo solid state. “It has reverb, distortion and a goofy tremolo,” Speal says. “What more do you want?” Speal bought it on eBay for $85.

Justin Johnson

Amp: “Fender Blues Jr. When I am performing with cigar box guitars, I prefer to keep as much of the natural tone of the CBG as possible. There is something about the tone you get from the cigar box that really distinguishes itself from the electric guitar. They sound more open and unrestrained than a solid-body and more guttural and swampy than a standard semi-hollow."

Effects: “I generally just use a little reverb or some light overdrive before going into my Fender Blues Jr. It’s also a good a idea to have an EQ pedal on hand to make minor adjustments to the volume and tone when necessary.”

ONE LAST DOSE OF CIGAR BOXES...

You all know I couldn’t write one of these with out letting you hear some tunes. Below is a clip I put together of Shane Speal preforming a version of “Personal Jesus” at this year's SpealsTavern Guitar-b-Que. The photos are from The Cigar Box Guitar Museum in New Alexander, Pennsylvania, inside Speal's Tavern. More on the Guitar-b-Que and Speal's Tavern along with making winding our own single coil cbg pickup, next time ...

A big thanks to Glenn Kaiser, Shane Speal, Justin Johnson, Elmar Zeilhofer, Original-Flatpup and Speal's Tavern for being a part of this.

Stay tuned ... It's going to get loud!

Brian Saner owns Saner Cigar Box Guitars, which makes custom handmade guitars and amps using local dry-aged wood in every guitar. These guitars are handmade and might have imperfections, but that's what makes them unique. Once you hear the howl of a CBG, you might not want to play a Fender or Gibson again. Get one at sanercigarboxguitars.com, devildownrecords.com/guitars and Main Street Gallery. Check out his Facebook page.