A PHOENIX AND AN OAK LEAF: A CIGAR BOX GUITAR FOR ME

Owen wanted to give me a present. it isn’t my birthday. it’s not my anniversary. It isn’t any special day. He just wanted to get me a really great gift, better than any other he had ever give me. So months ago, he asked me to buy a wooden cigar box. Puzzled by the request, I did it anyway. It turned out that all real cigar boxes are cardboard, at least any that I could find. So I bought a box of the same size that was made of spruce and Owen said: “Good box!” He took it away.

My tattoo is a Phoenix

Four months (more?) later. he brought me a Cigar Box Guitar. On the front, it has a gorgeous Phoenix and on the back, an oak leaf varnished into the wood. It has designs all up the neck. Machines to tune its three strings and it’s set for the key of E because that is the key the I can generally sing in, assuming my voice feels like singing which it does whenever I’m not having an allergy attack. In other words, in the winter.

You can still see the hinges on the box and there is an actual yardstick is part of the neck which reprises the old version of these guitars.

It’s gorgeous. Completely and uniquely handmade for me. And yes, the designer and builder does take orders. Mine is the first non-electric one he has made. Usually, they are electric and have a pick-up, but I’m such a folky, Owen assumed I would want an acoustic instrument.

Until this gorgeous piece of musical art arrived, I had never seen or even heard of a Cigar Box Guitar which players refer to as a CBG. They come with anywhere from three to five strings. They are bigger or smaller, have various length necks and many don’t have frets or tuning machines. Some are almost guitars and have six strings, but most have three or four string. The majority seem to have three.

This is a genuine American folk instrument, made by poor people who couldn’t afford to buy a guitar, but found a way to make one from spare parts. I ordered a case that’s a little bit big, but is as close as I could get. It doesn’t need a case, but I don’t want the Duke to decide it’s a chew toy. That would be heartbreaking.


Mike Brown — the designer — takes orders and if you get in touch with me, I will give you his contact information. He suffers from serious diabetes and has infections in both feet, so he wasn’t able to come over to present it himself. But he would love to get business since he is too disabled to work.


I took someΒ  pictures. It is truly a work of art. When I get the book I ordered I hope I can play it though i can sort of already play it. It isn’t difficult. I want to see what tunings are used for what kind of songs. Also, I ordered a brass slide. You can actually tune Cigar Box Guitars any way you want. There’s no set style, so be prepared to retune to match whatever song you want to play.

Owen, you’ve done it. This really IS the best present you could possibly have given me!

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Opinionated writer with hopes for a better future for all plus a big helping of cynicism.

51 thoughts on “A PHOENIX AND AN OAK LEAF: A CIGAR BOX GUITAR FOR ME”

  1. It’s weird, I got a whole bunch if your uploads all in one go…. and most of them I must have seen and commented upon. With this one I am no longer sure. It’s such an incredible work of art, but also a declaration of love and “,listening” to what gives you joy…. very artful and touching at the same time. Have much joy and happiness with your cigar box guitar. Much love

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    1. And today I restrung it. I ordered two more sets of strings because I don’t like these. It turns out there are special strings made JUST for cigar box guitars. Who’d have thunk it? I’m really enjoying it. I don’t know if I’ll ever play it well, but I’m having fun trying πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve dropped you a line. That is so fabulous!! Such a treasure! What a great son you have, and that designer is making the most of his situation which is so admirable too! Wow!

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    1. I’m hoping to actually MEET him one of these days. As it is, Owen texts him and then reads me the return text. He lives around the corner, but on the bank of the Blackstone River, so he apparently has some gorgeous photographs too. I suspect he is kind of agoraphobic as well as disabled. But talented.

      The carving of the Phoenix is as nice a piece of woodwork as I’ve EVER seen. It’s gorgeous. I suppose Owen picked up on that I have a huge Phoenix on my left leg. A subtle hint?

      P.S. I already wrote you back. Twice, actually. Look in your email!

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  3. if he got a web site, you should put it out there The Cohiba guitar box guitar, always better when your in Havana, cheers, keep on strumming in the real world….all cigar smokers with taste might be tempted….

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    1. Owen has to ask him if that’s okay with him. He’s disabled and shy and even though he lives around the corner from us, I’ve never met him, though I think he’s going to come over (or let ME come there) because I want different strings. I picked these myself and i should have let HIM pick the right strings. Fortunately, a full set of Mandolin strings costs just $6.49 from Amazon. I need a brighter sound.

      If he will let me, I’d gladly post him on my site. But he has to decide if he’s ready to actually talk to people. Not exactly outgoing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Owen has an iPhone tape of him playing MY guitar, but the quality is pretty bad. I think we can do better. Garry even has a decent microphone.

      I had never seen one either, though I’d probably heard of them. But the people who played them are so much early American poor plains people … and they sang a lot of gospel and hymns, as well as much of the classic country to which i don’t know many of the words. Remember, I was raised in New York city, so my country roots are just the past 20 years πŸ˜€

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    1. It’s an interesting instrument, more like a dulcimer than a guitar, but it’s played more like a guitar. Not plucked, but strummed. It’s about the same length as a dulcimer too. It really is gorgeous. If I could find a way to hang it up where everyone could see it, it would be great, but I can’t find a big enough piece of wall and I’m afraid Duke will decide to eat it. He has a thing for wood. It’s 30″ long — but many of them are much longer and a few are shorter, but they are usually considered “ukuleles” rather than guitars. It turns out there are a lot of folk instruments I’ve never heard of and each one is hand-made by someone. This one was made with love.

      Liked by 1 person

            1. No more room! I have literally huge containers of art from people I know who are artists and many of my own prints — and NO WHERE to put them. this house is all doorways and windows with very few walls. it’s nice and open, but it’s hard to find room for things.

              Liked by 1 person

    1. I ordered a book which basically gives lyrics and various tunings for songs, but it’s really DIFFERENT than anything I’ve used. You definitely need a washboard, harmonica, and some nasally singers to join in. Are you nasal?

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    2. It turns out that Mike, the creator of the instrument and his friends who also play (apparently there are a lot more of them than I imagined!) will send me sets of chords that they’ve invented and I won’t find in any book. I mostly ordered the book for chords, but also for lyrics. We were all raised in New York, so our country roots are just the past 20 years … and New England is not THAT part of the country. I actually did some research on this and they play a lot of blues, hymns, gospel, as well as folk and country. If you have music in your soul, you’ll find a way to make that sound!

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    1. They are whatever strings you decide. Tuning is by ear and you can make it a chord. Mine is set to low E, B flat. higher E making it a fifth — but you can play around with the strings to produce other chords. I can also get different strings if I want it higher or sharper. Precision isn’t the name of this game. In some ways, it’s more like a drone than a “real” guitar, though apparently there are players who can do all kinds of stuff on it.

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          1. Nope.. I barely know how to play a six string and I have two of them. Bought a third but gave it to my gardener. I need to check to see if he has learned how to play it yet. They serenaded me last year on my birthday with him just strumming it.. ha.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. The carving of the Phoenix is amazing. It doesn’t have much volume which is probably why they are usually electric. I might try steel strings at some point, but they really hurt my fingers so we’ll see. But beautiful? It sure is that!

      Liked by 1 person

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