august 2009

If you have a humbucker in the bridge of your strat and want to get a traditional mid/bridge position sound, this mod is for you.

Hello and welcome back to “Mod Garage." The auto-split mod can help you avoid a common problem when using a humbucker together with the typical single-coil pickups in a Stratocaster. As you know, the H-S-S configuration (humbucker in the bridge position and two traditional single coils in the middle and neck positions) was introduced in the '80s with the superstrats, and is still very popular today. You can also find Strats with a H-S-H or even H-H-H configuration, but the H-S-S is still the most common.

Humbuckers usually have a lot more output compared to traditional Strat single-coil pickups—in other words, they're louder. As long as you use the bridge humbucker or the two single coils alone, everything is fine. The humbucker provides a hot output signal to easily drive your amp into saturation (which is exactly why it's there) and the middle and neck positions give you the traditional Strat sounds we all love so much, as well as the in-between position of middle and neck pickup together. The problem occurs when you use the bridge humbucker together with the middle pickup. Instead of the famous in-between sound we all know from our Dire Straits, Chris Rea and Eric Clapton records, you'll receive a loud tone, not much different from the bridge humbucker alone.

The solution for this is very simple: split the bridge humbucker to make it a single-coil pickup. For this, you need a humbucker with a four-conductor cable, so you have unlimited access to both coils, giving you the ability to shut one of them down. You can use a push/ pull or push/push pot for this, but a little 2PDT toggle switch works well, too. I'll stick with the basics for now, since I don´t want to turn this into a column about coil splitting. We'll do that in a future installment.

Wiring diagram courtesy of Seymour Duncan Pickups and used by permission. Seymour Duncan and the stylized S are registered trademarks of Seymour Duncan Pickups, with which Premier Guitar magazine is not affiliated.

A lot of humbuckers sound great when used as full humbuckers, but not very good when shutting down one of the coils. On the other hand, there are some that sound great when split (e.g. Seymour Duncan SH-3 “StagMag"), but not so powerful when used as a full humbucker. It´s always a compromise, and many players don´t need coil splitting, since the single-coil sounds are often not worth it. So, this is the point where the “auto-split" mod can help you.

Auto-split just means that when you have the 5-way switch in the middle/bridge position, you'll only be getting one coil of the bridge pickup, rather than the full humbucker. It's supposed to be closer to the traditional Strat “notch tone" than having the full bridge humbucker active. In the bridge position, you still have the full humbucker active, so this mod can give you the best of both worlds.

Let's Get Started

To start, you can download the standard Strat wiring scheme directly from the Seymour Duncan website to get a better understanding of the differences compared to the autosplit mod. Here's the Strat wiring with the auto-split mod performed:

As you can see, the black wire from the humbucker goes to the normal input lug for the bridge pickup, the red and white wires are soldered together to the lug of the output stage and green together with the bare wire are going to ground. Keep in mind that these are the colors Seymour Duncan uses for their humbuckers. Other companies use different colors, and you need a chart to translate those colors. For an overview, you can use the chart from Seymour Duncan:

For a deeper look, I highly recommend this one:

If you're more experienced, you can also use a DMM to verify the colors, but a color chart is always a good starting point. For a better understanding, it's crucial to know what the colors mean and what they correspond to. Humbuckers have two coils, looking like two single-coil pickups in one package. The bottom coil is always the coil with the adjustable screws, and it's named “South." The coil on top is the one with the non-adjustable slugs and is called “North." Each coil has a start and an end. So, using the Seymour Duncan colors, we have:

Black = North Start (hot output) / White = North Finish / Red = South Start / Green = South Finish / bare wire = Ground

With this knowledge and the color charts above, it should be easy to do the autosplit mod with any given humbucker. We'll talk about this subject again, and of course dip in deeper, when we switch over to Les Paul, 335 and SG mods. That's it! I hope you find this mod useful, giving you the best of both worlds: powerful humbucker sounds from the bridge position side by side with the traditional Strat “notch tone" with the bridge and middle pickup together (aka the “in-between" position). Stay tuned for more Strat mods coming next month. Until then, keep on modding!

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Steve shows us why options are such a good thing when figuring out your bass sound while playing live.

Options. The idea of being able to adapt, change, or just have a different path is a comforting notion, and one that is so very important in the never-ending search for great tone. As live players, we search for the best possible tone on stage every night, but are we giving the people out front the best tone possible? What do you do if the tone you like onstage isn’t the best-sounding tone in the house system? What if your ears aren’t hearing the same thing the audience is? How are we supposed to sound good when we’re not out front listening? There is a solution—a happy medium if you will—to getting both a great tone out front and in your ears. It’s about having options.

Bass players generally get neglected by sound engineers at shows. Keeping it simple is important, but too often they run your bass directly into a stock DI, let you do your thing on stage, and be done with it. Do you ever wonder why this is? It’s simple: what sounds good to us onstage may not be the best solution for the overall mix, so the front of house (FOH) engineer gives himself an “out,” a way to shape your sound independently of your adjustments. The bass tone coming directly from your fingers to the PA should sound great, but that isn’t always the case. This means we need to explore other, dare I say, options.

So where to start? First, look at your signal chain. The ideal setup to keep everyone happy is this: your bass plugged into a preamp (which serves as your DI), which is then plugged into your amp. Put a mic on your cabinet as well (more options). Run the DI and mic to FOH, and poof! Instant flexibility. This simple setup allows the engineer to dial in your tone, and you can shape your amp sound independently as needed.

I am on monitor wedges, not in-ears, so my situation is constantly changing. We play different sized rooms every night. The sounds I get from my wedges are the same as what’s going to FOH. I make small adjustments on my amp, depending on the surroundings, and get a nice blend of tone onstage to maintain my comfort level. If you’re on in-ears, then your tone stays the same night after night, so kudos to you for eliminating that problem.

Now we go back to the components of the signal chain. Many modern amps and combos have an XLR out, so why invest in a separate DI? I’m glad you asked. There is the pre/post EQ feature on most amps, giving you the option (there’s that word again) for sending your signal before your tone-shaping modifications hit. This is a simple and great feature, but to me it’s only half the battle. Personally, I think a separate preamp that’s dialed in for FOH and then set in stone is the best alternative. Warming up your signal with a tube preamp is even better. This goes one step further than the bass-to-DI theory, and it allows the signal that is being heard by the audience to be the absolute best it can be. Blending this signal with the mic’d cabinet can bring about some wonderful results. The key to this is working with whoever is running the show out front and dialing it in. If you don’t have a regular engineer working with you, then set the preamp with someone you trust at FOH once, making tiny adjustments as needed from gig to gig. Different engineers will have different ears, but good tone is good tone, no matter who you are.

We were out with a major artist last year, and while awaiting our sound check, I sat and watched the bass player run through his pedalboard, making slight adjustments over and over. It seemed unnecessary and a bit pretentious at the time, and because it was getting late in the day, the crew was getting a little tired of the whole thing. The FOH engineer said to me, “It doesn’t even matter what he does, because what he’s fixing doesn’t even go to the PA.” The whole thing made perfect sense to me. He was getting his tone set in his ears, because the separate signal to the PA was set. The tone you’re comfortable with in your ears may be polar opposite of what the band needs. Let the preamp take care of that for you, and dial in however you want.

I was told a long time ago something very simple and important about a live show. Let the PA do the work for which it was intended. This means we turn up as loud as we need for our tone, and let the mains and monitors do their work. Your rig is not there to fill the room with bass. Your rig is for you. Your tone is for you. You need to maintain a certain comfort level while playing, and having great tone makes that happen. If you’re spending the whole set adjusting knobs, then your mind is not on the music. Get dialed in and ready for the magic, and keep those options open.

See you on the road!

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Bob Cianci takes us on an investigation into the culture surrounding the guitar in its most stripped-down, primal form - the homemade cigar box guitar.

A nagging question has been bothering me for some time now: have we, the guitar-buying public, lost sight of the joy of making music on a rudimentary, inexpensive stringed instrument? I’m not referring to your first Silvertone or Danelectro either. I’m talking about a guitar that almost anyone can make for a few bucks, with simple, everyday materials easily found in your neighborhood hardware store and smoke shop. 

Most of us who read this magazine like to ogle, purchase and play high-end guitars, of both the boutique and mass-produced variety, treating them as precious objets d’art, often missing the satisfaction and discovery of creating music on a simple, inexpensive instrument. While high-end guitars have their place, there’s a lot to be said for getting deep into something with a raw edge, just as the Delta blues pioneers did. There’s one thing Muddy Waters, Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Jimi Hendrix, and many others had in common: they started playing on homemade cigar box guitars, fashioned with materials that were readily available in their humble circumstances.
Shane Speal, photo: Rob Gibson, taken with Civil War-era camera and equipment

Think of it this way—can you really imagine playing raw, feral Delta blues on a $3000 custom-shop guitar and a handwired boutique amp? There’s something painfully wrong with that picture.

Hear the guitars
Free downloads of tracks from Shane Speal's self-titled album:
Tunnel Rat
Guitar: 3-string electric CBG by Cigar Box Slim
I Don't Live Today
Guitar: 3-string resonator CBG by Pat Cook
Contrary to popular thought, cigar box guitars did not die out with the onset of “better quality” instruments and CAD/CAM technology. Indeed, the CBG, as I will hereafter refer to it, is alive and quite well, thank you, among a small but extremely dedicated group of near-fanatical followers—a “cult” if you will, though I use that word in the most positive sense—many of whom consider themselves musical outsiders who revel in their non-conformity, eschew mass-produced instruments, and sometimes the trappings of modern society itself. The music made on CBGs can vary wildly, from acoustic and electric slide guitar blues, to folk songs, murder ballads, avant-garde noise, Middle Eastern drone, drunken sing-alongs and junkie laments, to jazz/rock instrumental fusion, and even metalloid hard rock. Pretty much anything you can play on a “store bought” guitar can be played on a CBG. 

A Little History Lesson
According to Bill Jehle, the foremost collector of antique cigar box guitars, and curator of the Cigar Box Guitar Museum, cigar box instruments date back as far as 1840, as mentioned in the biography of a Mr. Charles A. White. Sketch artist Edwin Forbes published one of his works in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1864, depicting two Civil War soldiers entertaining themselves with a cigar box violin. The founder of the Boy Scouts, Daniel Carter Beard, published plans for a cigar box banjo in his 1890 edition of The American Boy’s Handy Book. Cigar box ukuleles were also popular back in the early days.

Bill comments, “Cigar box guitars made their appearance about the same time as the invention of the radio. Broadcast music featuring the guitar was critical. Folks could finally hear the guitar as a lead instrument, and that made the guitar cool. It follows that people wanted to play the guitar, and not being able to afford one naturally lead to building one out of whatever was handy.” It’s notable that cigar box guitars were not just a phenomenon of African-Americans. Rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins, the son of a dirt-poor tenant farmer, started on a CBG, and he wasn’t alone by any means.

Modern electric cigar box guitars, courtesy of Bill Jehle. From left to right, they are: made by Ed Vogel; Bill Jehle’s Quintero Esquire Tele (short scale; note the converted hex bolt volume knob); made by “Hitone,” founder of (with homemade whammy bar fashioned from cabinet hardware); prototype “Red Dog” by John McNair; made by Jim “Frets” Ferris featuring a hand-wound CigTone pickup by Phil Eggers.
Bill possesses the world’s largest collection of vintage CBGs and related instruments.

“When I first started researching cigar box guitar history,” he says, “I had a few I bought on eBay. Shane Speal [more on him later] and I were both working on the history in parallel, so we would frequently exchange information. He emailed me one day to say he was selling the Cigar Box Museum, and I jumped at the offer. There were around 65 different cigar box instruments and all sorts of ephemera. I’ve added more to the collection since then, and it’s up to around one hundred cigar box instruments now. Finding additions to the collection is getting more difficult since more folks know about them now. Any vintage cigar box instrument on eBay is really hard to win, but I’ve also had people willing to sell me instruments for the sake of building up the museum collection. Some people just send me these things because they know it’s going to a good home.”

The King of the Cigar Box Guitar
Shane Speal, a native of York, PA, is the self-appointed King of the Cigar Box Guitar. While he’s certainly not the only practitioner of the instrument, he is universally recognized as the prime mover of the CBG cult, a man who has made it his life’s crusade to spread the word and promote the popularity of CBGs.

“I’m a habitual musical hack,” he told me [Writer’s note: he’s being modest]. “I started on piano and guitar at an early age, played drums in school and played bass in metal bands in the late ‘80s. I discovered blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix in college and it was all downhill from there. I soon discovered Muddy, the Wolf and Hound Dog Taylor, and slowly worked backwards to the Delta stuff in a quest to find something deeper. Once I hit Blind Willie Johnson, my mind exploded. It was gritty, raw, and meaner than any heavy metal I ever heard. By the time I entered that Delta blues phase, I was playing a beat-to-hell Stella guitar with bad action and a bottleneck slide. Then, in 1993, I came across an interview with Carl Perkins where he described the simple two-string cigar box guitar he learned on, and I just had to build one.” “I got fancy and gave it three strings, and used a spark plug socket as a slide. Just a few weeks prior, I had been killing myself trying to play Sylvester Weaver’s ‘Guitar Rag’ on my acoustic. When I finished the three-stringer, that song just flowed out. It had the sound of grit, dirt and sweat of the Delta.”

“A CBG is quirky and appears ‘broken’ from the start. They just don’t look like they should play any music. I love to see jaws hit the floor when I shove a socket on my finger and wail away.” According to Bill Jehle, “Shane sounds like Motörhead in a jug band!” When questioned why he named himself the “King of the Cigar Box Guitar,” Shane replies, “It’s a celebration of absurdity. Who would ever want to call himself the king of such a shitty instrument?”

“I have many normal guitars in my studio, but I only use them as backing instruments while recording. The rest of the CD is CBGs and my evil ‘Mailbox Dobro,’ which is made from an actual black metal mailbox. I am a cigar box guitarist. I’m just not interested in status quo instruments anymore.”

Shane Speal with his Mailbox Dobro.
Shane started the Cigar Box Guitar Forum on Yahoo/Groups in 2003 with the provision that members share everything they had on the subject: information, photos, playing tips and instruments. “There was a certain electricity with the handful of musicians who joined up back then,” he says, “an electricity that’s increased over the years. They joined in with info sharing and turned the forum into a family. With a positive and fun atmosphere like that, lurkers were drawn in like magnets. Was I responsible? Yeah, I was like an evangelist. I wanted people to experience a musical movement that wasn’t based on ego or rebellion, but on friendship and a fascination for new music. It worked. Go figure!”

But why has this cult formed around these primitive instruments? Shane remarks, “There are no rules as far as building or playing CBGs. If you can dream it, then do it. There is an army of CBG’ers encouraging new recruits to build their own. While the rest of the world is rehashing Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd tablature, we’re blazing new trails. We’re writing history as we go along.” Shane now runs a website called that boasts over six hundred active members at this writing. The old Yahoo/Group forum has over three thousand members. Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts are now building CBGs for badges. Tom Waits and P.J. Harvey have used CBGs on their albums. Billy Gibbons even plays them.

As to the future of the CBG, Shane proposes, “The future is friends… more friends. None of us expect to make ‘the big time’ from this. The ‘big time’ doesn’t exist anymore due to the destruction of the record business and the horrible conglomeration of the radio industry. Music has been thrust back into a more regionalized stage, where performers are their own booking agents and record companies. This is an amazing thing. With a home computer, we now control our own printing press, recording studio and networking system. I have my own record label,, and I sell my homemade instruments on The cigar box guys are using computers, and quite effectively. We have our own indie labels, magazines, festivals, social network, and a dedicated family that will do anything to help each other out. This is the future of CBGs and the whole music industry.”

Movers & Shakers & Cigar Box Heroes
Shane Speal, while the acknowledged leader of the CBG movement, is by no means its only practitioner.

Photo courtesy of John McNair.
David Williams is a research scientist by day and cigar box guitarist by night. Regarded as one of the leading CBG players, this mild-mannered resident of the Philadelphia area transforms himself into his alter ego, One String Willie, with a simple change of clothes, and performs on a homemade, one-string diddley bow. Williams/Willie has a new CD, You Gotta Hit the String Right (To Make The Music Swing), available on his website:

On the CBG phenomena, Williams comments, “Making and playing homemade instruments has allowed me to find my own musical voice, and to express myself without feeling the need to imitate an established musician. I don’t view the cigar box/homemade music community as a cult, but rather as a far-flung group of people from all walks of life who are passionate and supportive about helping others to make something that is uniquely their own...” Williams also records under his given name, and has also released two CDs of vintage, historical diddley bow recordings by other artists.

Ted Crocker is a luthier and guitar case maker in southern New Jersey. He constructed the crude but hip solidbody guitar used in the recent film Honeydripper starring Danny Glover as the owner of a failing juke joint saved by a young guitarist who comes with a homemade guitar offering to play. You can buy a Honeydripper guitar just like the one used in the movie. The shape is close to the famous Bo Diddley rectangular instrument with a couple of alterations. Ted also makes a guitar called the Six Banger (which slightly resembles a Telecaster) with one single-coil pickup. Shane Speal owns the prototype, and I have played it. It’s one badass slide guitar, and it’s priced right, starting at five hundred bucks.

Ted also makes various cigar box guitars, plus the Terraplane footboard stomper, wooden guitar picks, and his own Stonehenge brand pickups, which are available in one to six string configurations. You can find Ted’s pickups and accessories on Ebay, or you can purchase them directly through his website:

Ben Prestage is a one-man-band who plays CBGs and is also an extremely busy artist who tours constantly, keeping up a punishing schedule that includes a trip to Europe this summer. His five rootsy-bluesy CDs are available on his MySpace page, and he has numerous videos up on YouTube. Prestage is also considered one of the leading CBG exponents.

The Hound Dog from Red Dog Guitars. Photo courtesy of John McNair.
John “Red Dog” McNair is a CBG builder who typifies the renegade spirit of the CBG. Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, McNair wound up in Puerto Rico with his family, where he builds some of the flashiest CBGs in existence. His quirky website,, is a veritable treasure of information, and the photos of guitars he has built are stunning.

Richard Johnston is a Memphis street musician and one-man band who plays his own brand of traditional northern Mississippi hill country blues, in the style of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Johnston has been tapped as the next young musician capable of turning young people on to the blues, as Stevie Ray Vaughan did years ago. Johnston was the subject of a recent film, Richard Johnston: Hill County Troubador, directed by documentary filmmaker Max Shores.

Max Shores also recently completed another documentary on CBGs, Songs Inside the Box, which features many of the musicians mentioned in this article. “I really didn’t have much appreciation for CBGs before I heard Richard Johnston play one,” Shores remarks. “I am amazed by the wonderful music people are making with CBGs, and the level of expression many builders display. I am also deeply moved by the joy people have found through these instruments and the camaraderie that has developed as CBG makers and players have networked through the Internet…. When they play their CBGs, many of them expose eccentric characteristics that might otherwise remain hidden, because the CBG gives them license to do so. These are great people making great art and music and having the time of their lives doing so. My life has been enriched by getting to know these folks.” Learn more at:

Gerry Thompson is a singer, songwriter and guitarist, and another leading light of the CBG movement. Gerry lived life on the edge in an alcoholic haze for twenty years before getting clean in 1989. He has settled down, gone to college, married, and has survived two liver transplants. Gerry stumbled onto the CBG after trying to play a poorly made mando-banjo. He attended the first CBG festival in Carrolton, KY, in 2000, and was coaxed onstage by CBG builder Kurt Schoen. Thompson, who had never performed in public before and only had three songs prepared, was a hit. His music is reminiscent of early Bob Dylan, and is lyrical, poignant and very melodic, with lyrics drawn from his life experiences.

“I quit drinking a year before I got sick,” he says. “The doctors said I had less than a year to live. I’m in a weird state of grace, I guess. The transplant changed me. I started having dreams that were mine, but I wasn’t in them. A decade after the transplant, I just started (playing)… they all started coming out as songs. It’s simple, primal. I just tell stories about my life. Freedom. That’s what the cigar box guitar gave me. That’s what it’s all about.”

Dave Gallaher, aka Microwave Dave, is a talented Alabama-based bluesman who effectively incorporates CBGs into his electric and acoustic shows, as well as an instrument called the Lowebow, invented by Memphis music store owner and guitarist Johnny Lowe, better known as “Johnny Lowebow.” The Lowebow is a doubleneck CBG with one bass string and three guitar strings. Played with a slide, the Lowebow is a deadly weapon in the right hands, allowing the player to be both guitarist and bassist at the same time.

The Dolorosa 6-string model from Daddy Mojo. Photo courtesy of Lenny Piroth-Robert.
Eric Baker of Cleveland, OH, makes several different models of Joker brand CBGs in his shop and features a podcast on his website:

And finally, Daddy Mojo, aka Lenny Piroth-Robert, of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, makes custom-made, professional-quality CBGs in his shop, along with his partner and two employees. The Dolorosa model in particular, with its screenprinted heart/cross/barbed wire artwork is an absolute stunner, as are the Vargas-inspired pinup models. Visit their website:

Wrapping It All Up
Admittedly, this writer comes from the traditional school of guitar thought. You go to a music store (or eBay), buy a guitar, plug into your high-quality tube amp and stompboxes and play, usually imitating your axe-wielding heroes. All that changed to a great extent after I became aware of the CBG movement and began to dig deeper in preparation for this article. I’m not saying that cigar box instruments are going to force me to put all my treasured guitars up for sale, but CBGs now have a place in my arsenal of sounds, and I have made several new friends in the process. Visit the websites. Listen to the music, talk to the players and builders. Open your mind and soul to the world of the cigar box guitar. You may never be the same.

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