Few instruments are as important to modern American music yet as obscure as the diddley bow. Sitting on the very foundations of American music, this cheap, homemade instrument was the gateway to guitars for many influential blues artists, yet today, almost nobody can recognize one. Everyone should try, just once, to make and play a diddley bow, both as a tribute to the traditional African-American roots of today’s music, and as an experiment in simple acoustics.
The Diddley Bow
The diddley bow is an extremely simple instrument. Made with just string, a bottle, and a few nails attached to a piece of scrap lumber, this instrument allowed Southern African-American artists to demonstrate musical aptitude without the need for expensive instruments. Similar in design to many African instruments, it is technically a single stringed chordophone.
In essence, it is a piece of wire strung between two nails. A glass bottle is used as both the bridge and sound box, like a poor-but-simple resonator, and a slide of glass or pipe would be fitted over your finger to allow you to modulate the pitch. The wire string would be plucked, sending vibrations back to the bottle which would resonate. Sliding your slide up the string toward the bridge would raise the pitch, as would pressing down harder on the string, and you could reduce the pitch by doing the opposite.
Making Your Own
Making a diddley bow is extremely simple. All you need is a bottle, some wire, and a couple of nails. Detailed assembly instructions can be found at MakeProjects.com. While you can add pickups to electrify your instrument, it isn’t necessary unless you plan to record with it. The diddley bow demonstrates all of the mathematics and skills of more complex instruments.
With students or summer camp kids, this can be a great project. Be sure to do the nailing yourself, but let them experiment with painting the stick, choosing the bottle, and of course, playing the instrument. Maybe, like the Mississippi blues forefathers of our music today, a few will discover a lasting musicality from this simple design.