Bo Diddley was born Ellas Bates. He had his name changed to Ellas McDaniels when he was adopted. He took his stage name from a one-stringed Deep South instrument, the Diddley Bow. Diddley was trained on the violin as a child, but switched to guitar (to emulate John Lee Hooker) when his sister gave him one for a Christmas present.
The diddley bow is a single-stringed American instrument which influenced the development of the blues sound. It consists of a single string of baling wire tensioned between two nails on a board over a glass bottle, which is used both as a bridge and as a means to magnify the instrument’s sound.
It was traditionally considered a starter or children’s instrument in the Deep South, especially in the African American community and is rarely heard outside the rural South, but it may have been influenced to some degree by West African instruments. Other nicknames for this instrument include “jitterbug” or “one-string”, while an ethnomusicologist would formally call it a “monochord zither”.
One notable performer of the instrument was the Mississippi blues musician Lonnie Pitchford, who used to demonstrate the instrument by stretching a wire between two nails hammered into the wood of a vertical beam making up part of the front porch of his home. Pitchford’s headstone, placed on his grave in 2000 by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, is actually designed with a playable diddley bow on the side as requested by Pitchford’s family.
Other notable traditional players include Lewis Dotson, Glen Faulkner, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Compton Jones, Eddie “One String” Jones, Napoleon Strickland, Moses Williams, James “Super Chikan” Johnson and “One String Sam” Wilson. Willie Joe Duncan was also notable for his work with a very large electrified diddley bow he called a Unitar. Some members of the Motown band “The Funk Brothers” are said to have learned to play the guitar on the diddley bow. Great bluesman Buddy Guy learned to play music on a two-string homemade diddley bow before getting his first guitar (a Harmony acoustic).
Recent performers who use similar instruments include New York City-based jazz pianist Cooper-Moore, American bluesman Seasick Steve, Samm Bennett, Danny Kroha, One String Willie, and blind musician Velcro Lewis. Jack White makes one at the beginning of the movie It Might Get Loud, then after playing it quips “Who says you need to buy a guitar?”. Seasick Steve recorded a tribute song to his diddley bow on his song “Diddley Bo” from his 2009 album, Man From Another Time.