1940's Electric Diddley Bow from Quincy, Illinios
The Electric Diddley Bow is a homemade one-string slide guitar that features a pickup made from an old radio headphone earpiece wired in reverse. The solitary string runs over two slotted screws and is tightened by a wing nut.
The discovery of this instrument started one night with an eBay search for "homemade instrument." This simple, two-word search is a daily routine for me as I look for strange, unusual or historic instruments that time may have forgot. That night, a simple one-string instrument caught my eye. It was nothing but a string over two screws and an unidentified pickup screwed to a piece of floorboard and looked straight out of the 1940's.
I've been doing these searches for decades and it's how I've been able to create The Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's Tavern and I've spent thousands on my collection. In all my years, I had never seen an instrument like this. It was the pickup that astounded me. In the eBay photos, it looked to be a mini-humbucker inside in a circular housing. I knew that Gibson Guitars introduced the PAF (Patent Applied For) humbucking guitar pickup in 1955, but this was obviously much older!
I camped out beside my mailbox for a week as the instrument traveled in a long skinny box from its original home in Quincy, Illinois, to my office. When it arrived, I tore open the top and pulled out what appeared to be one of the oldest electric diddley bows in existence. The body of the one-string guitar is a 28" piece of floorboard contained the original manufacturer's name, LONG-BELL KANSAS CITY. A quick Google search showed me that the Long-Bell Lumber Company had been out of business since 1956, giving me a cut-off point for dating the instrument.
The floorboard appears to be a leftover piece from a job. There are no nail holes, scuffs or general damage to it. The builder probably had a few spare pieces after building his house and used one to make the electro-diddley.
The pickup is attached by two bent coat hanger pieces which grasp the circular housing and are screwed to the board with flathead screws. (Guitarcheology tip: if you see an instrument with flathead screws in its construction, it's most likely pre-1960's. Although Phillips head screws were in use decades before, most hobbyists and DIY builders didn't start using them until the 60's.)
My next step was to test the guitar and see if it still worked. The hardwired cord had a 5/8" round connector, just like old Astatic harmonica mics. I didn't have an adapter, so I simply cut the end off a cheap guitar cord, exposed the two wires and touched them to the positive and ground points on the pickup's connection.
And it worked! It actually worked! This strange alien instrument from the Roswell Age was singing through my amplifier. My mind exploded.
I had to find out the pickup's secret. Gently, I removed the coat hanger arms and turned the pickup over to expose the manufacture's name on the bottom. "BRANDES SUPERIOR MATCHED TONE" was inscribed. Again, I raced to Google. The pickup was actually from a set of Brandes headphones from the 1920's, used by the US Navy in radio and communications. Originally measured at 3000 ohms, these headphones used the magnetic coils inside to excite a thin piece of metal placed in front which would convert the signal to sounds in the listener's ear.
Wired in reverse, it became a guitar pickup for some curious tinkerer!
Other details on the guitar include a poorly designed wingnut "tuner mounted to a door latch. The .011 guitar string is held to the butt with a nail through the string ball and is fed over two slotted screws serving as nut and bridge. The scale length is 26" long.
So is this the oldest electro-diddley? And what creative ideas can we do with this crude technology? While guitar geeks will boldly claim the first electric guitar was invented in 1933 by Rickenbacker or the more obscure Stromberg-Voisinet electric guitar of 1929, the truth is, the possible knowledge to create a guitar pickup existed earlier than 1920!