Ever since I read about the cigar box 'ukuleles built by Tom Guy in the FMM forums, I've been interested in one. It seems that the few people who have bought one all really like it a lot. Tom Guy sells his ukes on ebay and from my observations he puts out about 1-2 ukes per month. What's cool about his listings is that he posts a video on Youtube of the exact uke in the auction so you can see and hear it being played. I had tried to win one of his cigar box ukes a couple of months ago but lost out at the end of the auction. Since then his cigar box ukes seem to have climed in price a little bit and each new one he puts up seem to end up a little higher priced than the previous one. Regardless, when I saw another of his cigar box ukes (Tom has named his ukes Bluegrass Ukuleles) recently, I was ready to buy it. After asking Tom a few questions about the uke such as the materials used on it, I went ahead and got the uke pictured on the left.
This particular cigar box uke is a little bit different than the other ones Tom has sold before in that the cigar box does not have the usual grooves around it. He uses a "House of Windsor" brand of cigar box and all of the ones I've seen before had some grooves all around it. This one did not have any grooves. This uke also came with geared tuners, which is what I preferred for precise tuning. The last few I saw had friction tuners. Here are a list of specs on this uke:
-Redwood "House of Windsor" cigar box (Tom is pretty sure it is made of redwood instead of cedar)
-Bubinga fretboard and bridge
-Ebony nut and saddle
-Poplar neck with walnut laminates and carbon fibre reinforcement
-1.5 inch wide at nut
-Gotoh geared tuners
I'll go over the uke in several categories, beginning with looks:
This cigar box uke looks great. Other than the aged look of the cigar box, it certainly looks like a well made professional instrument. And the aged look of the cigar box actually enhances the appearance in my opinion. All of the parts of this uke have a quality look to it. The back of the neck has some tasteful walnet laminates on it. the position dots on the top and side of the fretboard are made of abalone. The simple rosette is well done. The fretboard and bridge, made from Bubinga, looks good, with the bridge being more reddish from the finish applied on it. All in all, it certainly looks like a fine quality instrument.
This is the first cigar box uke I have ever handled. It certainly feels a bit different than the normal figure 8 shaped ukes. I think the square body makes is a little more difficult to hold securely compared to a conventional uke. Not too bad, but definitely noticeable. This uke also has a really beefy neck with a very thick, almost guitar-like, fretboard. The fretbard is far and away the thickest one among all ukes I've ever owned. I personally don't have a preference when it comes to the thickness of the neck, and when holding this uke, the neck feels pretty good. The action is set at a fairly standard height. I compared it to some of my other ukes and the action at the 12th fret is about the same as my other good ukes. It does feel a little bit high at the nut, but I don't think it's anything I couldn't get used to so I have no plans to lower it. Overall, it's playability is about average for a tenor, comprable to the Pono Cedar top I have.
I feel the workmanship is very good on this uke, especially considering it is made out of an old cigar box. There are no slopply gluing job and everything fits together very well. The frets do stick out from the fretboard ever so slightly so you can feel them, but they are close enough and won't cut the left hand.
This is the most important area of any uke, and happliy, this is the strongest area of this cigar box uke. It initially arrived with a set of Hilo Low-G strings. My Pono cedar top tenor was also strung with a set of low-G strings (Worth BT) and I compared the two ukes a little bit. The cigar box uke didn't take a backseat on the volume front, but I thought the Pono had a deeper and fuller sound while the cigar box felt a little thin in comparison. I didn't know if it had much to do with the Hilo strings, but since I didn't really know any low-G songs, it didn't take me long to switch it to a set of high-G Worth BT's. Despite a slanted saddle, which I thought is more for low-G setup, the intonation with the high-G strings is nearly perfect. In fact I think it has the best intonation of any uke I own. As I played songs with the new strings, I began to apprieciate this uke more and more. It still had excellent volume, and the tone is very clear yet also deep. I think it's sound is actually similar to the Pineapple Sunday, but a little deeper and less harp-like. And I'm certain that it is superior to the Pono strunged with high-G. When I had the Pono strung with high-G strings, I thought it got pretty "plinky" when going up the fretboard past about the 10th fret. There are no such issues with the cigar box as chords high up the frets still had a nice ringing sound. Overall I'm really enjoying the sound coming out of this uke with re-entrant C tuning. I think it's in the class of the Pineapple Sunday, which for me is very high praise. Tom Guy told me that his own box opened up as he played it and actually got louder. I can't wait to have mine open up a bit more.
Well, I paid $320 for this thing which I believe is the highest priced paid for one of Tom's cigar box ukes yet. And I feel that's a bargin. I feel that the sound quality of this uke is at least at the level of the Hawaiian production uke makers, whose regular tenor ukes run upward $900. Plus you get the added mojo of it being made out of a cigar box. Sure, it doesn't take as much labor to build it considering it has a ready made body, but it still takes work to make it sound good. I'm not real sure how many $300 tenor ukes I would take over this one.
Overall, this Bluegrass Ukes cigar box is a definite winner. I'm really enjoying the sound it makes. With its current string configuration (Worth BT), it is clear sounding yet deep with a lot of volume. For me it rivals the Pineapple Sunday in sound quality. It doesn't play like absolute melted butter like the P.S., but then again it isn't bad at all and you have to keep in mind that it's only a fraction of the cost. It has funky cigar box style and mine is even personalized with my name on the soundhole label. It is just a great uke that should make anyone who owns it a happy camper (hey, it's probably one of the better ukes for actual camping situations!). I know I'm very very pleased that own this little treasure. I'm sure I'll be playing it for quite a while. If you have any interest in cigar box ukes, be sure to keep an eye out on ebay for one of these Bluegrass Ukuleles. They are fantastic!
Here is a file of me playing In My Life on the Bluegrass cigar box uke. The playing sucks but it gives you an idea what the uke sounds like.
Some pictures of the cigar box:
Side view of fretboard w/abalone position dots
Check out the Autobot inlay! (OK, it's actually a sticker)