Sunday, March 6, 2016

Memphis Cigar Box Guitar #313 Review


I have bought and sold hundreds of guitars and basses over the past 30 years, and out of all of them there are only two that I consider “keepers” – a Gibson Explorer that a friend of mine custom painted for me, and my Memphis Cigar Box guitar.

Memphis Cigar Box is owned and run by Matt Isbell, frontman of the incredible Ghost Town Blues Band. He hand builds cigar box guitars, bottleneck slides, and cigar box amps, and there is nobody else you would want to do this for you. Not only is he a craftsman, but also a real-live gigging musician so he will not sell you a guitar that does not play right or sound good. If you want a feel for what he does, there is an award-winning documentary that gives a nice summary of Matt and what he does.

The cigar box guitar we are looking at today is number 313, and it was build by Mr. Isbell last year and I picked it up from him at the 2015 Blues Blast Music Awards. For starters, it is a smart-looking instrument, with the inherent uniqueness that comes about from using an old cigar box for the body. He hand-shapes the necks and headstocks, so it does not look like something that I would have built in my garage, though I will build one some day – I already found a suitable box…

This guitar is a 3-string with a single pickup that is controlled through a volume and a tone control. The neck appears to be oak, with sealed black tuners, a galvanized bolt for the nut and a chunk of steel rod set into the bridge. The strings are anchored at the end of the neck that sticks out through the other side of the body. Matt did a great job of putting this one together: everything lines up nicely and is straight, and it is definitely a player. He would not sign him name on the back if this was not so!

When I got it home I started messing around with it, and was blown away. It is fun to play, and it sounds fantastic with just a little fiddling around with the tone and volume knobs. I picked up one of his bottleneck slides with the guitar, and though I have experimented with some old deep sockets I have out in the shop, I like the sound of glass better, to be honest.

If you want to pick one up for yourself, sometimes Matt has some in stock, but it is probably best to give him a call and tell him what you want so he can build one for you. They start at around 200 bucks for a basic 3-string with no electronics and go up from there. And when you think that these guitars are built by a small businessman who is supporting his family, and not a big company that is exploiting little kids in a third-world country, one of these is the real bargain and it is the most ethical and logical choice you can make.

Trust me on this – you do not need to try before you buy. Check out to see what Matt can do for you.



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