Bo Diddley’s Original Guitars

Nicknamed “The Originator,” Bo Diddley was one of the most creative musicians of his time. He was the first person to try a number of innovations in the areas of guitar construction, amps and other effects, and style of play. The list of well-known artists influenced by him is long and varied, as is the number of times one of his songs was covered by another group or soloist. In particular, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Animals and Pretty Things all released songs written by Diddley. Dave Davies of The Kinks called him “an innovator,” and Tom Petty said, “Bo Diddley was a musical giant. His contribution to rock ‘n’ roll is too great to measure…”

Bo Diddley spent his youth on the South Side of Chicago and began his first music lessons studying with O.W. Frederick, the pastor at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. He played the violin for a dozen years and even composed two concertos for this instrument, proof that he was a master of music theory.

Diddley received his first guitar as a Christmas gift from his sister at the age of 12. He became passionate about the instrument, and eventually gave up the violin in favor of it. When he was in high school at Foster Vocational, he began making his own guitars. He had large hands and fingers and wanted frets and string spacings that would make it easier for him to play accurately. When he was only fifteen, he built the first of many guitars with a unique shape that became his trademark later in his career.

Bo Diddley was a huge fan of Muddy Waters, but he found that the fingerstyle picking favored by Waters was difficult for him to duplicate because of the size of his fingers. He also loved to hear the blues as played by John Lee Hooker and he was fond of the African-style rhythms he heard from his church’s gospel choir. Bo combined all these elements and began to combine percussive beats on his guitar’s body along with rhythmical strums to produce a style all his own. Known as the “hambone” rhythm of “shave and a hair cut…two bits,” Diddley was one of the first to bring it to prominence and it became his trademark in performances across more than sixty years in the music business.

In the early fifties, Bo and two friends formed a band called the Langley Avenue Jive Cats and they became well known around Chicago for their rhythmic, “freight-train” style of play. When Bo discovered electric guitars, he experimented with the amplification of many of his homemade instruments, producing a sound full of distortion and reverberation.

As Bo and his group landed a record deal and began touring, more and more musicians began imitating his hambone rhythm and unique style. He was especially popular in Great Britain where up and coming bands began making their own instruments in an effort to cash in on the Diddley mystique. Bo was one of the first rockers to play his guitar in all kinds of positions as he jumped, hopped, and skipped around the stage. He would hold his instrument behind his back, over his head, or between his knees while playing. Years later, Jimi Hendrix adopted similar moves.

In another innovative move, Diddley was one of the first to use female musicians in his group. Peggy Jones was his lead guitarist for years and could trade complicated rhythm licks back and forth with Bo. Norma Jean Wofford, played bass guitar in Diddley’s band, as well.

Throughout his career, Bo Diddley used an amazing array of unusual guitars. Many of them were custom made to his specifications by the Gretsch Company. Some were covered in fur or leather of every conceivable color. Others were shaped like rockets, cigar boxes, or ovals. Some were square, rectangular, or shaped like an asymmetrical star. Bo kept experimenting with amplifiers, pickups and pedals to produce an incredible variety of sounds.

Two Diddley-inspired guitars are still for sale from Gretsch. One, called the G6138, is a faithful reproduction of the red, rectangular guitar the company built for Bo in 1958. It is about 17” x 9” and is made from alder and maple with a wide, rosewood fingerboard. The body is Firebird red and is semi-hollow. It comes equipped with two FilerTron pickups and a Gretsch G tailpiece. There is plenty of gold hardware to make it eye-catching and it has a 1957 style head with Diddley’s signature on it.

The second guitar produced by Gretsch with a definite Diddley influence is the 21st century version of the 59 Jupiter Thunderbird designed by Bo. The new Gretsch is called Billy-Bo because it was also influenced by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame. It has a heavily chambered mahogany body and a mahogany neck with thin maple top. The Billy-Bo uses TV Jones PowerTron pickups and an Adjusto-matic bridge.

Throughout his years in the music industry, Bo Diddley was true to his own sense of style and the rhythms that appealed to him. If you would like some help developing your own guitar skills, you may want to consider some first rate lessons designed for home study. Learn and Master Guitar is a comprehensive course that covers all styles of play and is based on DVDs. Guitar Tricks is a highly rated online course. Metal Method is recommended for guitarists who want to polish their skills as a lead player. No matter which system you use for studying, be sure you keep your own originality intact like Bo Diddley did.