Musicologists consider the diddley bow to be the grandfather of the blues guitar, but what is it?
Apparently a cousin of the West African musical bow, the diddley bow (a home-made, one-string instrument) played a fundamental role in the development of the blues. Southern slaves and their descendants living in crude shacks managed to stretch a wire between a couple of nails on the wall and then played the instrument using a bottle neck slide that changed the sound pitch enough to produce the wailing, soulful sound that characterizes so many blues songs. Other variations included a “portable” diddley bow made from a plank, a wire, two nails and an old tin can for a bridge. A diddley bow is basically a slide guitar stripped down to its most elemental level.
However, at the beginning diddley bows were mostly viewed as primitive toys for children, who were the only ones playing them. As the blues started to come together from slave field cries and other sources such as prison gang work songs, some Southern black musicians began to take the instrument more seriously. They might not have had enough money to buy a bonafide guitar, but they could make their own diddley bow. Good diddley bow players were naturally seen as prospects for graduating to the more difficult guitar and other stringed instruments.
The diddley bow started to resemble a guitar more and more as black musicians used old cigar boxes attached to a variety of necks, such as ax handles. Later still, electric wires were attached to the cigar box model to produce a crude electric guitar. When connected to an amplifier and speakers the instrument produced a much higher sound volume. The wired model could thus be played more effectively in front of large, noisy crowds. Necessity is often the mother of invention, but poverty plays a leading role as well. Poor black musicians singing the blues started using diddly bows as accompanying instruments. The sound of a slide on the high E string of a guitar is hauntingly similar to the sound a diddley bow produces.
“One notable performer of the instrument was the Mississippi blues musician Lonnie Pitchford, who used to demonstrate the instrument by stretching a wire between two nails hammered into the wood of a vertical beam making up part of the front porch of his home. Pitchford’s headstone, placed on his grave in 2000 by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, is actually designed with a playable diddley bow on the side as requested by Pitchford’s family,” states Slideguitarist.com.
The same article says: “Recent performers who use similar instruments include New York City-based jazz pianist Cooper-Moore, American bluesman Seasick Steve, Samm Bennett, Danny Kroha, One String Willie, and blind musician Velcro Lewis. Jack White makes one at the beginning of the movie ‘It Might Get Loud,’ then after playing it quips: Who says you need to buy a guitar?”
Because the diddley bow is so easy to make, it was often the first musical instrument performed on by the legends of blues and rock music such as B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, “holy blues” player Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Elmore James, and Bo Diddley (who probably took his stage name from the diddley bow, though he suggested other sources). When Sears, Roebuck & Co. began selling mail-order real guitars for very reasonable prices in the mid-1890s, blues music began to enjoy a tremendous new wave of popularity as black performers could finally get their hands on the real deal. Fashioning a diddley bow from shovels, gasoline cans, washboards and other seemingly non-musical objects has become a hobby. Websites such as cigarboxguitars.com will gladly provide construction details.
In the old South’s Jim Crow days, blacks had to fight against stubborn racial prejudice.
At country stores, blacks often had to wait until whites had finished shopping before they were allowed to buy anything. The Sears catalog liberated blacks from such discrimination by allowing them to anonymously order via the mail, even though many could barely read or write. And the Sears Catalog was important to the development of the Blues, as well. The company has even been credited with contributing to the development of a unique genre of black southern music – the Delta blues.
“There was no Delta blues before there were cheap, readily available steel-string guitars,” musician and writer Chris Kjorness wrote in Reason, a libertarian magazine, in 2012. “And those guitars, which transformed American culture, were brought to the boondocks by Sears, Roebuck & Co.” By 1908, anyone could buy a steel-string guitar from the catalog for $1.89, the equivalent of roughly $50.00 today. It was the cheapest harmony-generating instrument available on the mass market, Kjorness noted.
“What most people don’t know is just how radical the catalogue was in the era of Jim Crow,” Louis Hyman, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, wrote in a Twitter thread that was shared over 7,000 times…in the wake of the [recent] news of Sears’ demise. By allowing African Americans in southern states to avoid price-gouging and condescending treatment at their local stores, he wrote, the catalog “undermined white supremacy in the rural South.”
Note: For an incredible display of the instrument’s versatility, access a song performed by Seasick Steve on a washboard diddley bow. Go to Youtube: Seasick Steve – Roy’s Gang en Session Très Très Privée RTL2.