One of my fondest memories from my childhood was creating a diddley bow. It’s a plank of wood, essentially, with a string nailed on. I used an old tin box for the bridge, and slightly ruined the beaten-up aesthetic by attaching a spare guitar tuning peg. Here’s me with it, when I was about 13, I think. Hence the long hair. My head, mercifully, has been digitally severed:
It was a father-son creation, and later I made a second ‘baritone’ diddley bow, as I liked to pretentiously call it, with both my dad and my grandad. The diddley bow is (or was) a predominantly African-American invention, a sort of beginner’s instrument for black Southern kids. You adjust the notes with a bottle or slide — that metal thing on my index finger — and hit or pluck the string with the other hand. Given the right choice of bridge, which also functions as a resonator, it is much louder than a normal acoustic guitar. In many ways, it’s much more like the dobro, the metal acoustic guitar also popularised by African-American musicians.
Here’s the diddley bow in its entirety (you can tell the age of the photo by the positively archaic stereo in the top right corner):
If anyone wants to make one it really is so simple: plank of wood, couple of nails and a tin box or bottle. I added some wooden ‘barriers’, one might call them, to stop the boxes moving, but that’s only because I wanted to be able to reliably tune it. If you want to be adventurous, I don’t imagine it would be too difficult to build a very crude fretboard.
There is something uniquely delightful about creating your own musical instrument. There are so few things left to tinker with. The digitisation of all things means that the age of fiddling with radios and cars and so on has long past. A musical instrument is a rare device in that we can understand its construction — and do it ourselves. Anyone can get some string, make it taut, and pluck a note from it. Anyone can get a bottle and blow into it, to hear a note reverberate through the glass. And anyone can add liquid to change the note.
From these fundamentals, an inventive mind, especially a child’s mind, would see limitless possibility. Get some garden hose tubing and a funnel and you’ve got at trumpet. Wrap elastic bands round an open box and you have a harp (of sorts).
With a friend, I once built, or rather rebuilt, an electric guitar from spare parts. We did almost everything, from the tuning pegs to the wiring to the makeshift tone knobs. (Thank God the frets were still in tact is all I can say.) It was by no means easy, and far from safe — we never quite completed the ground wiring — but quite possible, a testament to what I’m trying to say: creating instruments, even complex ones, is so accessible and so fun. In what other area can the laymen still tinker and experiment away so easily? It strikes me, moreover, as being a wonderful way to introduce children to music and, more importantly, the mechanics of music: to plant in them a fascination with the creation of music.
Let’s end with a very short youtube video of a boy playing a homemade trumpet he made for school. In what suggests a delightfully American imagination, he decided to call it ‘The Wizz Popper’: