As if the revival of acoustic instruments weren’t enough, we’re also in a bit of a do it yourself (DIY) renaissance regarding homemade instruments. Not only that, but there is a plethora of brands of cigars that come in some downright fancy-looking boxes, and other containers that range from cookie tins to turpentine cans can yield some pretty impressive acoustics…and electrics, too!

Several books have been published on helping any fumble-thumbs come up with some sort of instrument—ranging from a washboard to a zither—all using discarded boxes or other antiques (or let’s just be honest: junk!). Check out the site for Cigar Box Nation (cigarboxnation.com). And there are even manufacturers like Saint Blues that have gone one better and taken to creating professional-looking beauties out of cigar boxes.

Couple this revived trend with the fact that a lot of guitar (or other stringed instrument) players just like to modify, customize, home-repair and fidget with their existing instruments, whether they use a fully loaded shop in the garage or their dining room table. Think of it as the musical equivalent of the shade-tree mechanic. A musical instrument shop that specializes in such merchandise for the DIY community would seem to have a marketplace they could call their own….

So, where to find the kinds of bits and pieces you need for a hot hobby like this? Smoke about 20 cigars and you have the box; grab some old necks from discarded guitars or banjos, or hunt down decent wood to make your own neck and fretboard. These kinds of things may be found in antique shops, junk shops, hardware stores and tobacconists.

The challenge comes with things like tuning gears (packaged individually—not all homemade instruments have six strings), bridges, nuts, bridge pins, tailpieces and maybe some fret wire for the seasoned pro. Plus, you might need other sets of strings that go beyond standard acoustic/electric/steel/nylon string packages. That’s what one needs for this hobby, and one would hope to find a decent selection of these accessory items at an MI retailer.

A store that boasts a decent selection of these items could serve the cigar box trend without a lot of overhead cost, right? This sleuth checked out a few retailers in the greater Dallas Ft. Worth Metroplex to see what was available.

First town to visit: Denton, home of University of North Texas, one of the premier music schools in the country. From Al DiMeola to Brave Combo, it’s been home to some notables. It was bound to have something, right?

Sky Guitars
531 N. Elm St.
Denton TX 76201

This store has a nice Web site, and it includes a tab for parts and accessories offered. As we’ll soon find out, the Web site just scratches the surface as to what it offers in that regard. When phoning the store to verify if it did indeed have stock on the goodies we’re after, the associate answered in the affirmative.

The store is on a one-way street going southbound and it has a small but sufficient parking lot. Upon entering the store, I was greeted immediately by an associate working at a neat, orderly repair bench in the front corner; it seemed obvious that the store did repairs. (What an exception it was from the usual repair desk tucked back further in the store, upon which most retailers usually rely!)

I told him what I was looking for and he directed me over to a wall behind the counter (but accessible to customers) that looked around 10 feet across or more. It was loaded nicely with various parts for both acoustic and electric instruments. Most of them were carded and from the brand AllParts out of Houston TX. There were somewhere between eight and 10 different varieties of tuning gears alone.

I wanted individual gears (rather than two pairs of three joined together for either side of a headstock), and he pointed out a bag of six for about $40. He also mentioned he had some spares he could sell one by one, if needed—a very nice offer since cigar box creations can run from single diddly-bow “guitars” to three-, four- or five-string variants…or banjos with the same variety. I just wanted to have some on hand, so I opted for the whole bag.

There were strap buttons that ranged from the standard variety to those having a decorative cap-screw sporting emblems like stars, Maltese Crosses, skulls or other icons. These decorative cap versions, by the way, require no strap-lock and, depending on the cigar box you get, they could be a very nice touch. (Skull strap buttons near the Surgeon General’s warning, for instance.)

Sky Guitars had just about any sort of nut, saddle or bridge you could think of. I didn’t see fret wire for seasoned cigar box builders, or spare necks for fumble-thumbs like myself…but it wouldn’t surprise me if the store could help in those categories, too. The two associates to whom I spoke mentioned other customers who had built and played their own creations, so it’s obvious the store was tapping into the DIY market the best it could.

To the left of all the hardware and spare parts were the strings. The store had among the biggest variety of strings this writer had ever seen…way beyond just acoustic guitar, electric guitar, nylon or steel, and bass. It had plenty of those, but it also had mandolin, churango, cuatro, uke, dulcimer and bouzouki…and not just five-string banjo but also tenor (four-string) banjo strings. It also had tenor (four-string) guitar strings. Finding strings of non-standard gauges is a definite plus for cigar-box aficionados.

I picked up a few of those items and had a pleasant conversation with the knowledgeable crew while checking out. The moniker “Sky Guitars” doesn’t tell the whole story here. This would be a good destination for any do-it-yourself luthier/instrument builder, whether cigar-box level or a bit more advanced.

Glen’s Pawn Shop
& Music Store
1801 W. University Dr.
Denton TX 76201

Glen’s relied more on a Facebook page as its online presence and, when phoning to ask if it did carry spare parts, I was told, “Yes, we have some.”

The store is on a main drag and stands alone like most pawn shops do…plenty of parking. Upon entering the store, though, it became obvious Glen’s is far more “Music” than “Pawn.” The fellow greeting me seemed also to be the repair technician. When I mentioned what I was looking for, he directed me over to the area where his repair bench was located.

Most of the parts and supplies surrounded the bench, with a showcase in front and to the right of his work area. This store also stocked a lot from the AllParts brand, although it wasn’t quite the selection Sky Guitars had: maybe one-third of it. There were only a few tuning gear selections. The selection of strings was mostly limited to those for guitar and bass…maybe some for mandolin and banjo. The cubbyhole drawers behind the repair bench might’ve held some goodies, but those were the tools of the repairman’s trade and weren’t available for purchase.

Since Glen’s is a pawn shop, too, per se, I asked if he ever gets in any instruments that might be a bit worn that he could salvage and consider selling for parts, such as for necks, fret boards and such. Alas, the answer was no.

This store was better stocked than most dealers calling themselves “_____Pawn and Music,” with good guitars, amps and such, but it didn’t really have a selection of parts for the fixer-upper or cigar box fan. Most of what the shop had seemed designated for the repairman’s bench.

In making calls to prepare for this shopping trip, I got a few referrals directing me to the next two retailers. They were referred to as sources other stores use occasionally when needing their own repairs, spare parts and maintenance work. It sounded quite promising to this sleuth!

Texas Guitar Workshop
1002 N. Central Ewy., Ste. 571
Richardson TX 75080

The Web site for this store didn’t have much detail on what parts and accessories it carried, but, when I phoned, I was told the store did carry “some of that” and that I was “welcome to come rifle through it,” which gave the impression it had bins and boxes…in other words, a scavenger hunter’s dream!

This store was in more of a warehouse/office type of complex, as opposed to a retail strip center, and it required a quick exit off a frontage road. When entering the store itself, there was a leather-worker’s workbench to the right and lots of nice guitar straps. Then, you saw a luthier’s work area halfway back in the store behind counters and showcases. An associate greeted me quickly and started showing me around.

As in the previous two stores visited, this one also stocked AllParts brand goods—but not as big a selection as I had hoped. It had lots of cubbyhole drawers that it didn’t quite let customers “rifle through,” but it did have assorted boxes and trays on countertops filled with miscellany to peruse.

The store also had various salvage parts: necks in particular. Not that I’m ready to build a 12-string yet, but I did inquire about a neck for a Fender Villager laying on the bottom shelf of a showcase. It had not been priced, but the fellow to whom I was speaking checked his smartphone and said he could let it go for $200, which seemed a bit steep.

At the yearly Dallas Guitar Show, it’s not unusual to see some dealers (local and national) selling assorted necks for $25 to $50 each. One wonders why the consumer has to wait a year (or travel to a specific show) for that opportunity. If a dealer has the goods lying around, then why not position them to sell any time of year?

Texas Guitar Workshop looked like a great repair facility, but, for a scavenger hunt on the part of a cigar-box luthier, it might not be the best destination. The store might be sitting on some real finds, however, and if it could consider reinventing itself to that market, this could be an extra source of income! Many of the things I asked about were almost hidden…and when an associate dug them out and dusted them off, he or she often wasn’t sure if it was actually for sale. Hint: if you have something on any square foot of your retail store real estate, then consider making money on it!

Musicians Headquarters
11935 Lake June Rd.
Balch Springs TX 75180

The Web site for these folks was very primitive…almost like a Yellow Pages ad. It didn’t give any details or offer the ability to shop online. However, on the phone, I was told the store had “a lot” of what I was looking for. I was also reminded the place is closed Sunday and Wednesday, which was helpful because not many stores close in mid-week.

Musicians HQ is located in SE Dallas county: not a real retail hotspot, quite frankly. It’s one of those odd addresses that can boast being in Mesquite (as the business card stated) but MapQuest.com puts it in Balch Springs. The store, which is freestanding, looks kind of like the aforementioned typical pawn shop, with plenty of parking off a main drag. This part of town has a lot of pawn shops, so a big sign reading “Musicians Headquarters” was most welcome.

As was the case in the other stores, I was enthusiastically greeted upon entry. The store was large and, more so than others during this trip, it carried far more than just guitars. It had amps, drums, band instruments, Tejano instruments (quite a few button accordions) and more. I was directed over to a counter with trays and drawers teeming with salvaged goodies. There were also items hanging behind the counter.

One associate showed me to the back room repair bench, where he told me anything I saw in the repairman’s trays were “for sale.” They’d figure it out when I was ready to settle. Whether in the back room or up front, some parts were priced: a violin tailpiece at $10.95 was a buck or two better than ordering from Stew-Mac. Some weren’t labeled with a price sticker at all, and with no signage on the tray/drawer/box nearby. Of the various other un-ticketed gewgaws I picked out (a few nuts for a four-string guitar or banjo, some odd hardware), the store charged me for some and gave me a freebie on others.

It was basically like buying at an antique store or flea market…but that’s not a bad thing! This store wanted to pay for its real estate by making anything and everything fair game to sell to the customer. As for the stuff the shop comped me…well…treating the customer right always helps. I just might go back someday as a result.

The store looked as though it never, ever would throw anything away. Again, for our purposes here, that’s not bad. That said, one would hope it would have many parts and pieces of guitars and instruments: necks, bodies, etc. It did have a few necks, but nothing I was really ready for. Most of the necks were for electric guitars, and my next intended projects did not include that category of instrument.

Summing Things Up
This month’s MI Spy subject matter might seem a bit odd. However, there’s a problem from the DIY customer’s standpoint in relying solely on Web-based and mail-order catalogs. The Stew-Mac catalog, cbgitty.com and other sources like them are a joy to behold, for sure. But, many times, cigar-box luthiers and “shade-tree” guitar technicians like to see and feel the goods firsthand. They might even have an instrument 75-percent done and find out the part they previously ordered online doesn’t fit. Now, then, they need to eyeball a few other selections to determine what parts will fit. Also: as with any type of online or mail-order shopping, some folks don’t want to wait. They want it now.
Add to those points a degree of the antique store/flea market/swap meet mentality among these hobbyists. Whether they see parts newly packaged on a wall or in a dusty tray filled with other rusty junk, it could inspire them to start a whole new creation.
So, the ultimate store for the cigar box instrument fan or DIYer would combine elements of the following:

  •  having a good selection of new parts and supplies
  •  having the foresight to save scraps and other salvageable items.

In other words, it’s a music store meets the old-style Radio Shack (when people built their own electronics) or hobby store, with a healthy dash of antique dealer and junk man mixed in. Take a typical NAMM-designated Retailer of the Year, and have him forge ties with David Green of Hobby Lobby and Fred Sanford….

There are many MI retailers out there struggling to compete with chains, with non-MI stores that have gotten involved with selling instruments and with other MI stores that are basically competing by doing the same thing: selling/renting instruments, offering lessons, doing sound system installations and making repairs.

In certain markets, that repair desk could easily morph into a hobby area of the store and become a nice little profit center. Last time I went into any auto parts store, I noticed the shade-tree mechanic was being served quite nicely. The guy who wanted to fancy up his interior, exterior or wheels thought nothing of paying for it. What’s the mark-up on wheel rims? You tell me…but it’s bound to be ridiculously great for the guy selling them.

The auto parts retailers have addressed it. So, why not MI? I can safely say most guitarists I know fix and modify their own instruments. Plus, the cigar box instrument fad is here to stay. Both have a market worth serving.

The Sale
The nod goes to Sky Guitars. If, however, that store merged with Musicians Headquarters, it would be awesome. (They are some 40 miles away from each other, but we can dream, can’t we?)

Sky Guitars gets the edge because the parts it carried are mostly replenishable, and I’d bet that, if the store didn’t have something, it would do what it took to special order it. Even though the supplier AllParts does sell online, as mentioned earlier, oftentimes a customer wants to touch and feel…and, perhaps most importantly, wants the item now. It wouldn’t surprise me if the account manager at AllParts speaks in glowing terms about Sky Guitars.

So, to browse and look for something specific, it’s Sky…but Musicians HQ would be a worthy second destination for spending an hour looking for a diamond in the rough.

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