Two cigar box guitars on a table.The three string guitar, sometimes known as a cigar box guitar (as they’re often made out of a cigar box), is a fun alternative to the standard guitar. However, it can be a bit tricky, even if you’re used to the normal six string variety of the guitar.

When you’re used to six strings on a guitar, going down to three strings can feel a bit restrictive. With that in mind, the three string guitar has a different tuning from standard guitar tuning. Of course it will be different, there are only three strings! But it doesn’t even follow the intervals that you find in standard tuning.

Throughout this article, I’m going to be using the term three string guitar rather than cigar box guitar. A lot of people use them interchangeably, but a cigar box guitar can also have four string, so I feel saying three string guitar is more clear.

Take me to the chords.

How Is A Three String Guitar Tuned (Cigar Box Guitar Tuning)

Guitar chord diagram for a power chord on a three string guitar.A three string guitar is usually tuned, from lowest string to highest string, 1-5-1. That is to say, the lowest string is the 1st degree of a scale, the middle string is the 5th, and the highest string is the 1st again.

“Standard” tuning for three string/cigar box guitars vary, because there’s very often nothing standard about scale lengths of these guitars. However, they’re generally tuned 1-5-1.

I own a couple three string guitars, one is a proper cigar box guitar (made out of a old cigar box), and one is a guitar with the box made out of a wooden box. They’re both tuned differently.

But if you’re looking for a relatively “standard” tuning for the three string guitar, it’s often D-A-D, which is easy to remember. G-D-G is also common.

Although this tuning may seem strange, it can be quite handy. What this means is you can easily play power chords up and down the neck as a simple barre. Just place your first finger across all three strings and you have a power chord!

The diagram shown here, as well as the other chord diagrams throughout this article has finger positions with the scale degree shown at the bottom.

Understanding Three String Guitar Tuning

If you’re used to standard guitar tuning, it can be hard to get used to three string guitar tuning at first, but it’s actually quite simple. As with note finding on a six string guitar, use what you know as a reference point.

You know where the ones are and the five, then just go up and down from there.

You can easily find a 7th or a flat 7th going down from the 1st, or up from the 5th. Find a 3rd is just up four frets from the first, or down three from the 5th.

Here’s a diagram with a major scale:

Three string guitar diagram of a major scale.

You can see that the 7th degree of the scale occurs twice within the “box” on both the first and the second string. I’ve highlighted this in green.

Although it take a bit of a shift to hit the fourth, you can get most of the scale within a few frets. So if you just want to noodle a bit on a three string guitar, skip the 4th of the scale and you’re pretty safe!

When you’re talking about minors, things actually get a bit easier. The three string guitar lends itself well to Bluesy sounds, so rather than make a diagram of every minor, here’s a diagram with flat 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths added in relation to the naturals.

Look at that! If you’re playing Blues, it’s almost like you can’t hit a bum note… well, you could because Blues isn’t just about playing all the notes, but it’s easy to recover.

How To Play Chords On A Three String Guitar/Cigar Box Guitar

Unlike basic guitar chords, there’s not really¬† system for three string guitar chords, but they’re easier to understand. As mentioned, doing a barre chord across all the strings just gets you an easy power chord. Any “system” that exists is based on this basic power chord.

With that in mind, I’m also skipping open chords and just doing barre chords for the three string guitar. Well, they’re not really barre chords, they’re just chords… These chord shapes also work open, just use the nut as the furthest back fret.

5 Chords On The Three String Guitar

The first, and easiest find of chords to play on the three string guitar are 5 chords. These are basically jut power chords as they don’t contain a 3rd, just the one and the 5.

Guitar chord diagram for a power chord on a three string guitar.
Three string guitar chord diagram showing a 5 chord.

Knowing these two chords is pretty convenient, as it allows you to switch between playing the root chord up to the V chord relatively quickly; you don’t even need to change positions, just fingering. And if you want to play the IV chord, you just need to slide back two frets. That’s easy Blues right there.

Although you may not have the muscle memory to easily and quickly play the 5 chord as per the diagram, just think back to when you were first learning to play guitar. Practice!

Major Chords On The Three String Guitar

Major chords aren’t to tough to play, but, like the other chords on the three string guitar, you’ll have to train your fingers again to get used to them. These chords have an actual 3rd in them so have a much fuller sound than the power chord sound you get with the more basic three string guitar chords.

Three string guitar chord diagram showing a major chord variation.
Full Chord 2
Full Chord 3
Full Chord 4

Here you’ll notice that three string guitar chords are completely symmetrical! This makes sense because the tuning is symmetrical.

Although the third version of the chord can be a bit of a stretch for your fourth finger, get used to it. You can get some nice basic melodies going if you free up that pinky!

Minor Chords On The Three String Guitar

Minor chords on the three string guitar are just like the major chords, you just drop the third by a fret. Again, they’re symmetrical.

Minor 1
Three string guitar chord diagram showing a minor chord variation.
Three string guitar chord diagram showing a minor chord variation.
Three string guitar chord diagram showing a minor chord variation.

While some shapes here are easier, others are a bit more of a stretch. Versions 3 and 4 aren’t always terribly practical, but they’re worth trying.

I encourage you to get comfortable with all versions of the chord. This way you can get some nice chord inversions going and play some interesting bass.

7th Chords On The Three String Guitar

7th Chords couldn’t be easier on the three string guitar. Here I’m only presenting chords with a flattened 7th. Why? Well, the three string is really more of a Blues instrument. Plus you can figure out the major 7th pretty easily with these diagrams.

Flat Seven 1
Flat Seven 2
Flat Seven 3

If you want, you can probably modify figures 1 or 2 to replace the 5th degree of the chord with a 3rd, but it wouldn’t be the most comfortable fingering. Get these going first.

And That’s Chords On The Three String Guitar

Whether you call it a cigar box guitar or a three string guitar, the chords are the same (assuming you have it tuned 1-5-1).

As I mentioned, these chord shapes may seem foreign at first, but, just like it was when you were first learning guitar chords, just practice them and you’ll be fine. You may have forgotten, but I always learned new chords by:

  • Fretting the chord and playing each note individually to make sure it rings out.
  • Fretting each string while saying the note out loud so I could remember what degree of the scale I was playing.
  • Starting with simple guitar songs to get used to the changes. Choose something you know well.

One you’re comfortable with the chords, move on to more complicated playing. And remember to have fun!

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