A diddley-bow is a catch all term for a homemade one-string instrument. Traditionally, they were attached to the side of a house and consisted of found objects like broom wire, glass bottles, and cans. Over time, diddley-bows have seen many forms- some that are played in the lap, some that are played like guitars. Diddley-bows were used often as an alternative to guitars because they were extremely affordable to make as well as training instruments for children. However, many adults played the diddley-bows and some even preferred the sound to a traditional acoustic guitar.
All stringed instruments need a kind of mechanism that vibrates the strings. That could be a finger, a pick, or in this case, a slide. When musicians move the slide, they are affecting the length of the vibration. The shorter the vibration, the higher the pitch. The same happens in guitars when musicians press the frets down to stop the vibrations. On a diddley-bow, there are no frets and musicians use a slider and pluck with their other hand. With that playing method, musicians can create sounds that are in between pitches in a standard twelve tone scale.
Diddley-bows contributed to the rise of blues music. Early blues musicians were freedman singing of hardships in the reconstruction era American South. Their songs were inspired by African American spirituals and call and response work songs. You can clearly see the influence of call and response songs on the lyrical structure of blues- AAB. The first line is often repeated and the third line answers. Additionally, the blues are traditionally in a 12 bar pattern which is a common musical structure today. Many artists of all genres use it as a guide for their songwriting. The blues are the mother of modern american music.
Blues music was first popularized by a musician named W.C. Handy who travelled through Mississippi and heard a black man playing a steel guitar with a slide and knife. This was his first encounter with the blues. He then decided to record and popularize the genre, and is most famous for his 1914 hit, “St. Louis Blues.” Other early blues performers consisted of Bow Diddley, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and many more.