The diddley bow is a single-stringed American instrument which influenced the development of the blues sound. It was traditionally considered a starter or children’s instrument in the Deep South, especially in the African American community. Other nicknames for this instrument include “jitterbug” or “one-string”.
A local teacher has received significant acclaim for a folk instrument unit study he has implemented in his classroom. As a result, he has also coordinated with the local art museum to share his knowledge and skill with the local community. We were recently able to take part in his diddley bow workshop and what a treat!
What is a Diddley Bow?
The lineage of the diddley bow goes back thousands of years. The first prototype diddley bow (in the style also known as a Musical Bow) was painted on cave walls in France upwards of 15,000 years ago!
Here’s a video of American blues musician, Seasick Steve, doing what he does best on a diddley bow:
How Does it Work?
The parts of the guitar change vibrations from the string into sound. The string diameter, length, and tension determine the note that is played.
Guitar strings come in various diameters. Thick strings produce low notes, thin strings produce high notes.
String tension is adjusted with the tuning peg. String length is measured from the nut to the bridge.
On a conventional guitar, the string length is changed by pushing the string against a fret. On a diddley bow, a slide is used to change the string length while playing.
Make Your Own
A Diddley Bow is traditionally made of spare parts and a wide variety of parts can be used. We started by choosing an old fence board as our base. We used a cookie or candy tin for the resonator. The instructor shared a few he had made that utilized a glass bottle and as Steve demonstrated in the video, even an old tin can will work.
We used a bulldog clip for the spacer, other workshop participants used a bottle cap and a screw. We also used guitar strings that were donated by a local music store but I’ve read that traditionally, the wire from an old straw broom were preferred. Lastly, a corner bracket, an eye-screw, and an old fence board were all we needed to attach the string. Two 16-penny nails will also do the job.
- Screw a small corner bracket onto one end of a recycled fence board, a couple of inches from the end. Screw an eye-screw onto the opposite end.
- Center the cookie tin atop the board just a few inches away from the corner bracket.
- Thread the guitar string through the center hole of the corner bracket and lay the string across the cookie tin.
- Thread the string though the eye-screw at the opposite side of the board and continue to twist the screw until the string is tight across the length of the board. The cookie tin will be held in place by this tension.
- Place a bulldog clip atop the cookie tin to lift up the string a bit. It is okay if the string touches the tin on the side closest to the corner bracket (the bottom side of the board). You don’t want it to touch, however, on the upper side. The bulldog clip is a spacer designed to lift the string up off the tin.
- Use a permanent marker to make marks on the board to indicated the different notes. This is done by ear. As you pluck the strings and slide a metal object (a small metal cylinder, for example) along the string, you can hear the pitch change as the string vibrates.
- Make a mark with a permanent marker to record the position of the bulldog clip. If it gets bumped and moved, it will change the position of the notes.
You can gather scrap materials yourself as we did or purchase a ready-to-assemble kit. There are several to choose from online, here are a couple to get you started:
Complete Cigar Diddley Bow Kit – This is a complete, ready-to-assemble cigar box diddley bow kit designed in the C. B. Gitty workshops to allow just about anyone to build a fun, easy-to-play instrument. $24.99
Complete Cigar Box Guitar Kit – This kit contains all of the parts you need to complete your cigar box guitar – the box, neck, hardware and strings. Everything is pre-drilled and pre-marked, so that all you have to do is put in the screws, tap in the string ferrules, string it up and start playing. $79.99
Handmade Music Factory – Intrigued? Learn how to make eight of the most creative, unique-sounding, handmade instruments you’ll find anywhere with this fully illustrated guide. $17.57