How to Play a 3 String Cigar Box Guitar

The Cigar Box guitar is an easy to play instrument and an excellent one to begin exploring playing with a slide. A little understanding of the music will help you to master this amazing little instrument. They are generally home made instruments though many craftsmen have perfected the art of creating these unique instruments.

It has but three strings and two are tuned to the same pitch (except one octave higher). This is both a limiting factor and one that opens up tremendous possibilities. Less is more, more or less.

An understanding of the tuning, a few scales, and a few simple chord progressions can ease your way into enjoying this complexly simple instrument.


  1. 1
    Tune the 3-string Cigar Box Guitar to the Key of D (My Father’s Tuning - DAD). There are eight notes between the low D and High D’ strings (an octave).
  2. 2
    For review: It is Every Good Boy Does Fine on the lines (EGBDF), and FACE on the spaces. On the Bass clef it is Good Boys Do Fine Again and ACE G on the spaces.
  3. 3
    The C Major scale has no sharps or flats. There is a whole step (skip a fret) between everything except B&C and E&F (1/2 step or next fret up).

    From C to C' there is a pattern: W, W, H, W, W, W, H, where W=Whole step (skip a fret) and H=Half step (next fret up).
  4. 4
    However, to maintain this same step pattern when starting on the D note, the key of D has two sharps; F# and C#. To play a D Major scale (from low D to high D') follow this second pattern. Practice this pattern with "finger fretting" and also with a slide.
  5. 5
    The key of G has only one sharp (F#). Similar to the above pattern, except the C is a natural - fret above the B. Start in the 5th fret on G, then play the notes up to high G.

    In Western music many chords are made up of a triad; the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a scale. Due to the limitations of this instrument (only 3 strings), a chord is made of the 1st and 5th notes in the scale. For example, an A chord is composed of A and E (and A’). This means a barre placed across the 3 strings will make a chord. Use a glass or steel slide to form the barre (or lay one finger across all three strings). Place the slide directly above the metal fret wire to make a crisp note. Keep the slide parallel with the frets when you move it. Pick a note, then slide a fret or two up or down the neck to the next note.

  6. 6

    Practice a progression in the key of G.
  7. 7

    G chord 5th fret

  8. 8

    C Chord 10th fret
  9. 9

    G chord 5th fret

  10. 10

    D Chord 12th fret

    Though difficult to see, there is a glass slide on the ring finger.
    Play G (5th fret), C (10th fret), G (5th fret), D (12th fret), G, C, D, C, G or variations thereof.
  11. 11
    A classic Chord Progression: Place the slide directly above the metal fret at the 12th position, strum or finger pick 1,2,3,4 beats and move the slide to the next position.

    Frets: 12th, 9th, 5th, 7th, 12th… repeat three more times; follow-up with a turn-around...
    12th, 14th, 12th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 12th.
  12. 12
    The progression is what the left hand would play on a piano. See if you can find the individual notes to a melody that may go to this familiar progression. [Hint: Heart & Soul or Silhouettes on the Shade.]
  13. 13
    Experiment to find other three or four chord progressions. G, C, G, D...

    The fret numbers are given for the key of D, figure out the fret number for the same progression in the other two keys. Play the 4 chord progression four times, then follow up with the turn-around.
  14. 14
    Many 3 Chord progressions (1st, 4th, 5th)

    Image titled 3ChordProgressions.PNG

  15. Image titled 4ChordProgressions.PNG
    Many 4 Chord progressions, with "turn-around" (8th, 6th, 4th, 5th).

  16. 16
    Tablature: There are probably few examples of Cigar Box Guitar tablature, here is one blues scale riff... The lines represent the strings (fat string at the bottom), the numbers represent the fret to put your finger or slide in.

  17. Image titled CBGtab 1.png

    This progression came from a guitar booklet called Basic Blues by Will Schmid.


  • Hit a note, slide up to the next note. Smoothly.
  • The instrument can easily be tuned to other keys. Tune all strings up to EBE or down to CGC that is another possibility for personal exploration.
  • Spend some time picking out scales with and without the slide.
  • Always start in tune (get a tuner if you ears are not trained yet).
  • Practice vibrato by wobbling the slide over a fret.
  • Gain a fundamental understanding of three-chord theory.
  • You can also play while seated, using a heavy steel bar for a slide.

    Playing while seated


  • At first this may seem difficult. Don't overanalyze; when played through a few times you will hear the musical steps repeating in the different keys.
  • Keep the slide parallel with the frets (move your whole hand).
  • This is not a complete course in music theory, only a sub-set of scales are shown. Once you grasp these fundamentals, it is up to you to explore other possibilities.

Things You'll Need

  • A 3-string Cigar Box Guitar.
  • A glass or metal slide which fits comfortably over your ring finger.
    The chrome slide in the picture is a toilet paper holder tube cut to size, you can use most anything.
  • A chromatic tuner will ensure you are in proper pitch.
  • Finger and thumb picks to save your flesh and to give a sharper sound.
    Picks and Slides

Sources and Citations

  • The pictured three string cigar box guitar was crafted by Arnold Finch aka “Cross Knives”. It came with no instructions.

Article Info

Categories: Guitar | Music Techniques