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The Diddley Bow 

Makej Projects 

The Diddley Bow 

Written By: David L Williams, Jr. 


Build the elemental slide guitar, from just a board, a wire, and a jar. Maybe you saw Jack 
White playing one in It Might Get Loud; now make your own for pennies. 

About the Diddley Bow 

After reading Alan Lomax's excellent book The Land Where the Blues Began, I developed an 
interest in the diddley bow, a primitive one-string guitar rarely heard outside the rural South. 
Shane Speal, founder of the current cigar box guitar movement, suggested that I get the CD 
One String Blues, which featured nine cuts by diddley bow master Eddie "One String" Jones. 
The performances were stunning — raw, percussive, and deeply compelling. 

After just one listen, I knew I needed to build and learn to play this instrument. On the first 
track of the CD, Jones described how he had built his diddley bow; a drawing of his 
instrument and two photos were included in the CD insert. With this information, I built my 
first traditional diddley bow. 

In the South, the diddley bow is considered an informal practice instrument, built from found 
or recycled materials. Here's how to build a stable, good-sounding instrument in about 10 

Traditionally, the string is struck in a rhythmic manner with a finger or a stick or some other 
implement, and the pitch of the string is altered by using a slide made of glass, metal, or 
some other hard substance. The diddley bow is slide guitar stripped down to its most 
elemental level. 

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Materials and Tools 

WARNING: If you build a diddley bow, be aware that the wire is of unknown tensile strength 
and is being brought to unknown tension; in addition, the board and the glass jar bridge are 
both under compression. Use face and hand protection when tensioning up the diddley bow. 
Please use good sense when building, tuning, and playing these instruments. 

Materials and Tools 

Wire for the string. Get a couple of pieces. 

Board, about 3' long for the body 

Short piece of pipe, or a sturdy, straight-sided glass jar or some other fairly rigid object, 
for the bridge. Do not use a baby food jar — they're too fragile. 

Scrap of wood for the nut 

16-penny common nails (2) 

6-penny finishing nails (2) 

Flat glass bottle, half pint for a slide 

V2" stick about 6"-7" long to beat out a rhythm on the string 



Side-cutting pliers 

Combination (half-round) rasp These are round on one side. 

Permanent marker 

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Materials and Tools 

Step 1 — Choose the right wire. 

• The main criterion for the wire is 
that it should not stretch much 
when put under tension. 

• The traditional diddley bow string is 
broom wire, the wire that holds the 
straws onto the handle of a 
discarded broom. The rust can be 
cleaned off the wire with Nevr-Dull 

• Music wire from an old-fashioned 
hobby shop that sells model trains 
and planes (0.032", 0.039", 0.047", 
0.055", or 0.056") is a good 
substitute; I used it to make the 
diddley bow for this article. Hobby 
shops carry 36" lengths good for 
about a 27"-30" instrument; for 
longer diddley bows, you can order 
72" lengths from . 

• Guitar strings, which come in a 
variety of gauges, are a reasonable 
alternative, but are shorter than the 
music wire. Note that the larger 
diameters of wire are difficult to 
bend and cut (try heavier pliers or 
a Dremel), but sound better. 

• Galvanized fence wire from the 
hardware store is a poor substitute, 
as it stretches as you play, which 
causes the pitch to drop. 

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Materials and Tools 

Step 2 — String the wire on the board. 

• Cut a piece of 2x4 or 2x6 lumber to 
about 3' long (or about 4" shorter 
than the length of your string wire, 
if you're using music wire or guitar 
strings). Drive two 16-penny nails 
into the face of the board about 1" 
in from each end, angling the nails 
upward toward the ends of the 

• Wrap one end of the wire around 
one of the nails for a couple of 
turns and then around itself. Wrap 
the other end of the wire around the 
other nail for a couple of turns, 
keeping it fairly tight, and then 
around itself, and cut off the 
excess on both ends. Keep the 
wire close to the board at both 
ends, and try to get it as tight as 
you can. 

• To keep the wire from slipping up 
on the 16-penny nail once the 
bridge goes underneath, drive a 6- 
penny finishing nail into the wood 
beside the 16 penny nail, and then 
hammer it down over the wire. 

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Materials and Tools 

Step 3 — Install the bridge. 

• For the bridge, I have used small 
jars or bottles made of thick glass 
with cylindrical, not tapered sides, 
such as jelly jars, instant yeast 
jars, or hot sauce bottles. A large 
pipe coupling or an Altoids tin also 
work well. 

♦ Slip the jar under the wire at the 
center of the instrument, and slide 
it toward one of the nails, pushing it 
as far as it will go. When you've 
pushed it as close as you can to 
the nail, mark where the jar rests 
on the board. 

Step 4 

Slip the jar away from the nail, past your mark, and then use a half-round wood rasp to 
rasp out a shallow groove across the board for the bottle to fit into. 
Slip the jar back so it snaps into the groove. 

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Materials and Tools 

Step 5 — Add the nut. 

* 1 

• Once the jar is in place, the nut is 
installed. Slip a small scrap of 
wood (e.g., 1 x2) under the string 
and push it as far as you can 
toward the other nail. 

• At this point, the wire should sound 
"bright" when struck with a stick. If 
it still gives a dull thump, the wire 
needs to be tighter. Use a tack 
hammer (or a regular hammer with 
a dowel) to whack the nut (not the 
jar!) toward the nail. 

• CAUTION: If you're using a 
glass jar for a bridge, wrap 
the whole bridge end of the diddley 
bow in a towel when tensioning up 
the wire in case the jar shatters. 

• If the string is as tight as it will go 
with the current block of wood and 
still sounds dull, try a larger (taller) 
block of wood to increase string 
tension. If this doesn't help, use a 
larger diameter jar, or restring, 
getting the wire a little tighter to 
start with. 


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Materials and Tools 

Step 6 — Mark the position marks. 

• This diddley bow is played slide- 
style, resting across the knees. 
The pitch is changed by pressing a 
glass or metal slide against the 
string. When playing slide, I rely on 
visual cues (position marks) to get 
close to a pitch, and then on my 
ear to get it exactly. Position marks 
are similar to fret markers on a 
guitar. Not every fret has them — 
they're there to help you know 
where you are along the string. 

• You could use an online fret 
calculator (see ), set for 24 
frets, to mark the string at fret 
positions 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 15, 17, 19, 
22, and 24. But here's the easy, 
traditional, low-tech method for 
laying out the position marks and 
double-checking them by ear. 

• Start by measuring the open string 
length, from the far edge of the 
wooden nut (the edge closest to the 
nail) to the top of the bridge. 

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Materials and Tools 

Step 7 

• From the far edge of the nut 
measure 1 / 4 , 1/3, 1 / 2 , 5/8, 2/3, and % 
of this length along the string, and 
mark the string at these points with 
permanent marker. 

• Now check your marks. Hit the 
string with a stick, and very lightly 
and briefly touch the string (damp 
it) with your fingertip at exactly the 
1 /2 mark while the string is 
vibrating. You should hear a 
chiming sound, which is a higher 
harmonic of the string. If you damp 
the string lightly a small distance 
away from this point, the chiming 
sound will not occur, and you will 
simply stop the vibration of the 
whole string. 

• If the harmonic is more pronounced 
when you damp the string at a 
slightly different location from your 
mark, this means the original mark 
is in the wrong location; change the 
mark so it's at the point where the 
chiming sound is loudest when you 
touch the string. Mark the board 
directly below this point. 

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Materials and Tools 

Step 8 

• Once these steps work for the 
midpoint mark, proceed to the 1/3 
and 2/3, and then to the Va and % 
marks. Do the 5/8 mark last — the 
chime here will be difficult to hear, 
but if the rest of the points are 
marked properly, we can take this 
one as validated by the others. You 
should have 6 marks on the board. 
Going in order from the nut toward 
the bridge, number the marks 5, 7, 
12, 17, 19, and 24. 

• Once the first 6 marks are 
established, proceed to mark the 
3rd, 10th, 15th and 22nd positions. 
Measure the distance between the 
far side of the nut to position 5 
(preferably in millimeters to make 
the math easier), multiply this 
distance by 0.63, and mark the 
calculated distance on the string 
from the lower numbered position 
(0, far end of the nut) to the higher 
numbered position (5), and finally 
on the board. This will be position 

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Materials and Tools 

Step 9 

• Do the same between 7 and 12 (the 
distance between these two will be 
shorter), multiply by 0.63 to get 
position 10, mark it, and continue 
between 12 and 17 (shorter still) to 
get position 15, and between 19 
and 24 to get position 22. There are 
no harmonic "chimes" at these 

Step 10 — Play your diddley bow. 

• The position marks form a pentatonic scale over 2 octaves, important for blues and rock. 
Remember that there are notes between the marks (a diatonic scale would be: open, 2, 4, 
5, 7, 9, 11, 12, etc.). 

• Pick out a song you know well, and find the notes for it on the diddley bow. Work on finding 
one note at a time, then one phrase at a time, and finally put them together as a song. 
When working out a song, if the open string doesn't work for you as a starting place, try 
starting on position 7. With practice, you'll be able to play almost any kind of music on 
your diddley bow. 

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Materials and Tools 

Step 11 

• One of the secrets of rhythmic 
playing is using both hands to 
develop rhythmic drive, by using 
the left hand to stop the vibration of 
the string. The stick in the right 
hand beats out a rhythm as a 
timekeeper, while the left hand 
touches the string at different 
points in the rhythm to stop the 
notes from sounding, allowing a 
percussive "thump" to sound 
instead — this is a powerful 

• These homemade instruments 
bring back the fun I had teaching 
myself to play guitar many years 
ago. I hope they give you the same 

• [+] More on diddley bows, wire, 
and playing, plus concert video, a 
discography, and a bibliography, 
can be found on my website . 

This project originally appeared in MAKE Volume 22 . 
Related Posts on Make: Online: 

Make a 3-string slide guitar out of junk 

Guitar slide from a glass bottle 
© Make Projects 

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Materials and Tools 0/03. . 

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