Got myself a diddley bow today. And a small Marshall amplifier. Also a burgundy guitar pick, a glass finger slide, and a new record by Seasick Steve.
Pretty sweet, huh?
I can’t actually play an instrument, but I am laced with all kinds of obsessions, so that played heavily into the purchase. Plus, a man has every right to get all Appalachian from time to time.
The full cycle of this particular obsession manifested itself from a clip off Youtube. This went as far back as . . . a week, maybe less.
I was checking out clips of Jack White, a rock ’n’ roll messiah, and came across him building in less than 10 minutes a one-string guitar called a diddley bow out of a piece of wire, a 2×4, six nails, a small pickup box, and a Coke bottle.
The diddley bow is an instrument that originated in Africa, but became popular as a starter piece to the blues for Southerners hoping to Muddy Waters their way out of poverty. Or to just kill some time on the front porch after din-din.
Like lightning shooting ’cross the Tennessee skyline, the frenetic, electric, heavy twang, and slide of White’s diddley bow ran through me with palomino speed.
Constructing a diddley bow appeared easy enough. So little customizing to do. Nailing nails. Stringing stuff. Even I could . . . Hold on, I said. I’ll end up driving a nail through the meat of my hand. I haven’t built something since, since . . . forever. My father was awful with his hands; his father was even worse.
So I went on a hunt. I’d been driving around for three days listened to nothing but old mountain blues. It’s warming, those notes. Woody, smoky, deep, and lazy.
Then, as I was cruising through Boscawen, N.H., doing my thing, I pulled into Steve’s Stereo and Music Exchange on Main Street to find out if they were twangified.
“No diddley bows here,” said owner Steve Martin. “But I know a guy that makes and sells them up in Hill. I’ll give him a call.”
Before I headed to Hill, I purchased a small Marshall amplifier off Steve for $49 that is sure to drive my wife crazy. Diddley bows are cool, but way cooler when plugged in and filled with thunder.
Less than a half hour later, I arrive in Hill, N.H., at Mark “Dow’s Diddley Bows” on Route 3A. I entered the unassuming storefront and found Dow working on a nub of chaw he had parked in his bottom lip, chilling, spitting, listening to some easy mountain music. The store is stacked with homemade string instruments: tenor guitars, guitars made out of hub caps and cigar boxes. Cooler-than-cool stuff.
Was I in West Virginia?
Dow showed me various kinds of diddley bows, all handmade. I’m in for the board type of diddley, I tell him, something I can put on my lap, plug into an amp, and pick away at in my icebox of a basement.
“You want this,” said Dow, reaching for a diddley bow made of white pine, a guitar string, a couple of eye hooks, and an Altoids can used as a bridge. Then I grabbed a finger slide that I could use to blend the nasty grind I was looking for.
I walked out the store with my first diddley bow for $60. Just like that. No digging through a junk yard for spare parts. No nailing my fist to a board. No considering my hazardous musical abilities. It was perfect.
Later that night, when the house was quiet, when the kids were asleep, when the wife was on the couch fading off into her nightly slumber, I went down into the icebox, readied my mind properly, shook the grease out my hair, plugged the diddley bow (which I named “Missy”) into the amplifier. and started sliding and grinding up and down the neck.
Making sweet mountain music, right here in the heart of Manchester, N.H.
Rob Azevedo, a former longtime resident of Melrose, is a writer, filmmaker, and radio host now living in Manchester, N.H. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.