What is the Diddley Bow?
Learning about homemade musical instruments
My son recently took a "Hybrid Musical Instruments" class with Mark van Gulden and Ben Fox at ArtisTree and came home with a homemade “Diddley Bow.” This instrument has been a popular item in our household, commonly being played with by all the kids. The origin of this instrument struck my curiousity, so I did some research.
The diddley bow derives from instruments used in West Africa. There, they were often played by children, one beating the string with sticks and the other changing the pitch by moving a slide up and down. They were first documented in the rural South by researchers in the 1930s. This video explains some of the history of the diddley bow as well as some other primitive instruments.
The diddley bow is typically homemade, consisting of a wooden board and a single wire string stretched between two screws, and played by plucking while varying the pitch with a metal or glass slide held in the other hand. A glass bottle is usually used as the bridge, which helps amplify the sound. Traditionally considered an "entry-level" instrument, it was commonly played by adolescent boys, who then graduated to a "normal" guitar if they demonstrated promise on the diddley bow.
There are some musicians today that continue to utilize these simple one-string instruments. Notable traditional players include Lewis Dotson, Glen Faulkner, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Compton Jones, Eddie "One String" Jones, Napoleon Strickland, Moses Williams, "One String Sam" Wilson, and James "Super Chikan" Johnson.
The "Dog Chow" custom guitar case