With the right amount of skill, practice and some genuine talent, you can make music with nearly anything you have around the house. The diddley bow is a perfect example of people taking ordinary household objects and combining them in a way that can make a noise that is instantly recognizable as music.
Home Made Instruments: Diddley Bow
The diddley bow is a single string instrument. Traditionally this single string is a piece of baling wire, but guitar strings are more common now. The single string will be tied to two nails that are hammered into a wooden board and placed under tension. A glass bottle is used as a bridge, and can also serve to amplify the sound.
Another method used to amplify the sound is a guitar pickup. This can be seen in the film It Might Get Loud where Jack White, of The White Stripes fame, builds a diddley bow and plays it in a manner which makes it sound almost exactly like an electric slide guitar. “Who says you need to buy a guitar?” he plainly says. This may bother purists who do not want electricity used and you will have to plug the guitar pickup into an amplifier.
The origins of the diddley bow
The first examples of instruments like the diddley bow can be found in West Africa. Children would play an instrument much like a diddley bow with one hitting it with a stick and the other moving a slide to change the pitch.
From its origins in West Africa, the diddley bow came to the southern USA via the slave trade. This has lead the diddley bow to being one which is not often heard outside of the south, except by those who are particularly interested in this type of music.
Many children still learn to play the diddley bow before graduating to the guitar. It is now played much like a slide guitar, with a glass or metal slide being moved up and down the string to change the pitch, rather than a percussive instrument. It is not heard often on recordings as many people move on to play the guitar and consider the diddley bow to be a child’s instrument.
The diddley bow in modern music
Besides the aforementioned Jack White, many people still make music with it in recent times. Current musicians who are still using the diddley bow include:
If you want to hear a modern recording of a diddley bow, try out Seasick Steve’s 2009 album Man From Another Time where he has a song that is titled “Diddley Bow,” which is a loving tribute to the instrument.
Past musicians who have made music with the diddley bow include Lonnie Pitchford, who is famous for having his headstone include a playable diddley bow on it. Other well known players include James Johnson, Moses Williams, Willie Joe Duncan and his electrified Unitar, Compton Jones and Jessie Mae Hemphill.