Scroll down to the bottom for the video demo!
Back in 1998, I was in the lowest point of my life: My marriage was over. I was living in a tiny apartment above a vacuum repair shop with no TV, no internet and no one around. All I had was my music collection and a desire to play like my heroes. One particular weekend, I found myself desperately wanting a metal bodied Dobro guitar so I could play slide guitar blues like Son House.
It was 2am on a Saturday night when I found myself wide awake, nothing to do and $15 in my pocket. I decided to go to Walmart, the one place in town that was open 24 hours, and find materials that I could build an instrument using the cash I had. After trolling around the empty store, I walked past a cheap metal mailbox in the hardware area and the voice inside my head screamed, “There’s my dobro!” It was $12 on sale, so grabbed it and made a bee-line for the counter.
The next morning, I sacrificed an old Kay acoustic guitar I owned. It was the perfect corpse to extract parts: bolt-on neck, floating bridge and trapeze tailpiece. Within four hours, the mailbox guitar was complete. It was perfect. It sounded just like a metal bodied dobro and it was mine!
After 20 years, this guitar still plays and sounds fantastic. It’s been used on many of my albums and appeared in my concerts.
The following steps aren’t exact instructions to build your own Mailbox Guitar. They simply show my improvised building method to make this unique instrument. Sometimes there isn’t an exact science to making a poor man’s guitar. You just have to make it up as you go along.
A look inside the Mailbox Guitar reveals an extremely simple bracing system made from poplar scraps. The wood was leftover from some cigar box guitars I was building and served as the perfect primitive material.
Here's a rundown of the bracing system:
1. Body brace - A 1x2 piece of poplar runs the entire distance of the mailbox along the back. It is secured simply with sheet metal screws.
2. Neck block brace - Sits next to the neck block that was taken from the old Kay guitar. Glued to the bottom brace, screwed in from the top of the mailbox.
3. Bridge brace - Placed directly underneath the area where the floating bridge would go. Again, glued to bottom, screwed in from the top.
4. Butt brace: Placed at the very rear of the guitar and glued to the bottom brace + additional glue against the back of the mailbox. Screwed in from the top and back of the mailbox. The trapeze tailpiece is screwed into this brace.
I really should have placed another brace between the neck block and the back brace for better stability. Oh well...the guitar has still played fine for the past 17 years.
I cut, hacked and ripped out the neck block from the old Kay guitar. I originally thought I could just bolt the neck itself to the mailbox, but I was wrong.
As you can see, the neck block is wider than the neck. This enabled me to run a few sheet metal screws from the top of the mailbox into the top of the neck block.
COMPONENTS AND TOP OF GUITAR
The guitar's main components came from an old Kay acoustic guitar that was nearly dead.
The Kay had a bolt-on neck that I originally thought I could just screw to the mailbox. After some trial and error, I found that I also needed to cut out the entire neck block.
What made the Kay acoustic a perfect candidate for this build was the floating bridge and trapeze tailpiece. (A standard acoustic guitar has a bridge that is glued to the top and wouldn't have worked on this project.) These features meant that I could just add them to the mailbox "body" and, with sufficient bracing, had a working guitar.
Here are the next steps in the process:
1. I used a rotary tool with a cutoff bit to cut a rectangle "neck pocket" into the top of the mailbox. Because I used the entire neck block from the Kay guitar which was wider than the top of the neck, I was able to connect the top of the mailbox with the 'wings' of the internal neck block.
2. I used the cutoff wheel to carve a big X where the sound hole would be. I then bent back each section of the X to reveal a square sound hole that contained no sharp edges.
3. As mentioned above, I used sheet metal screws to hold the internal bridge bracing. This left the screw heads exposed right where the floating bridge would go. I had to use my rotary tool routing bit to remove a little wood from the bottom of the floating bridge to get around the screw heads.
A quick shot of the butt-end of the Mailbox Guitar. The trapeze tailpiece has one simple screw that goes through the mailbox and into the rear brace. Simple. Effective.
Oh...and one more secret: The flag was originally made to go on the opposite side of the mailbox. I, of course, placed it prominently on the front of the guitar because, why the hell not...
The amount of string tension started to warp the door of the mailbox, so I added a small block of poplar to the base of the door.
It give just enough reinforcement to keep the guitar solid. You can see it in this picture. (I used a wide Sharpie marker to darken the poplar.)
ONE MORE DETAIL... About a year after I created this, I had a chance to meet B. B. King after a concert and I had him autograph the Mailbox Guitar. Of course, I had him sign the door so it looked like I stole his mailbox and made a guitar out of it. I think I freaked the blues legend out that night.
If you’re gonna freak someone out, might as well do it to the King of the Blues.