Intro: Backcountry Diddley Bow - Walking Stick (for Those Without a Backpacking Guitar)
I wanted a stringed instrument to take with me into the backcountry, one that could survive a full day of hiking in the sun or rain with minimal fuss, but that would provide music and fun around the campfire at the end of the day. AND, it had to be light weight for long multi-day trips.
This variant of the classic diddley bow does the trick - all the pieces fit in an Altoids tin, and the stick itself is a great walking stick. If you play guitar and know your way around a pentatonic blues scale, you'll be good to go for hours at camp. If you're a guitar newb, probably fun to mess around on too. It's a one stringed wonder you play like a slide guitar, and this design allows you to assemble it in a few minutes and play it with your dinner spoon.
Step 1: What You Need to Get Busy
Most of these materials you probably have lying around at home (like mismatched old guitar strings) - putting it together from scratch probably will cost you $15.
Materials to build it
An acoustic guitar string (I used the thickest string, the low E, from a set of Martin Extra Light acoustic strings)
Two hose clamps with a diameter large enough to fit around your walking stick
A walking stick (I bought a replacement rake handle at the hardware store for $7 - I like these - they're strong and light weight)
Something to act as the bridge for your guitar (I used an Altoids tin, but an old tuna can or some such works just as well)
A spare nut from a nut/bolt set*
A rubber band
A couple scraps of wood or sturdy sticks from camp
*Note that the part of the guitar that the string rests on is also called "the nut" - I've tried to be clear in this post when I'm talking about "the nut of the guitar" vs this piece of hardware used to fasten the string to the hose clamp.
Tools to build it
Screw driver for the hose clamps (I used the flat edge of my spoon, a pocket knife screwdriver would work too)
Pliers for tying off the end of your guitar string to a nut
Tools to play it
A guitar slide (This can be anything, from a store bought slide, an old bottle neck, a length of pipe, or what have you)
Something to hit the string with (I use my dinner spoon - any nice piece of metal will do)
Step 2: Putting It Together - Stringing It Up
The big picture: stretch a guitar string taut on your walking stick using a hose clamp on each end; wedge your bridge down on one end and your nut on the other (in my case the Altoids tin and a scrap of wood) to stretch the string even farther and get a nice loud twang; balance it on your lap and play it like a slide guitar.
1. Stretch a guitar string taut on your walking stick. I threaded the guitar string through the first hose clamp using the bead at the end of the string as a stopper to hold it in place. For the end of the string that's usually fastened to the tuning device, I tied a knot in the string around a spare nut with some pliers. When putting these guys on to set up the instrument, I try to stretch them pretty tight and then fasten them with a screw driver by tightening the hose clamp.
Step 3: Putting It Together - the Bridge and the Nut
2. The bridge should be 2-3 inches tall. It serves the function of stretching out the string even further. I inserted the Altoids tin and then squeezed it down the string towards one of the hose clamps until I had a nice twang from the string. I inserted a scrap of wood to serve as the nut of the guitar down near the other hose clamp. Once these guys are in place, you should have a string with a nice twang to it!
You're almost ready to play...
Step 4: Putting It Together - and Playing It!
3. Now that you've got your diddley bow assembled, the last step is to balance it on your knee and play it like a slide guitar. A few pointers. First, since this is a walking stick instead of a traditional diddley bow made of a scrap of lumber, it won't balance in your lap the same way. I solved this by rigging a rubber band to a spare stick of wood and thus attaching a cross piece perpendicular to the walking stick and the string. Something like this ought to keep your instrument balanced in your lap.
To play it, you've got to get the hang of where the notes are at. David J. Williams Jr gives a great description of how to find all the notes you'd have on a guitar in this post ( http://make-guide-pdfs.s3.amazonaws.com/guide_14_en.pdf ), but for a quick crash course...
- Open - when you pluck the string without touching it, you'll play some note - unfortunately I haven't figured out how to tune this baby up to any specific key.
- One octave up (what would be the12th fret on a guitar) - if you measure the length of your string in the section that has free play (from where it touches the nut of the guitar to where it touches the bridge), you'll get some measurement (mine was 60 CM). Exactly half this measurement (in my case 30 cm) will give you the spot that when played gives a note one octave up from the note when played open. By eye balling it and listening, you should be able to find this mid-point and get oriented from there.
-Two octaves up (24th fret on a guitar) - this note can be found 3/4 of the way up the string, half way between your bridge and the center of the string
With a little putzing around, you can find the basic notes of a major scale or a pentatonic scale. From there, it's all about messing around by the camp fire and finding your way around the instrument. I'm guessing that tapping your foot helps. Good luck!
I'll plan to update this post with some notes from the field and some video of it playing once I give it a go.