From Bo Diddley to Björk, musicians have often created their own homemade musical instruments. Such bespoke pieces of equipment may sometimes be bizarre, but they’ve helped artists realise the sounds in their head when nothing else on earth could.
Here we present 10 of the most iconic and interesting homemade musical instruments of all time. Let us know in the comments if there are any other favourites you like…
The Double Zither (Washington Phillips)
Blues and gospel singer Washington Phillips recorded 18 songs for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1929. In these sessions he used a complex instrument that he had made by reconfiguring two fretless zithers. In an article published in the Texas newspaper, in 1907, Phillips’ equipment was described as “homemade” and “the most unique musical instrument we ever saw. It is a box about 2 x 3 feet, 6 inches deep, [on] which he has strung violin strings, something on the order of an autoharp. He uses both hands and plays all sorts of airs. He calls it a Manzarene.”
Hear: ‘Take Your Burden To The Lord And Leave It There’
The Cigar-Box Guitar (Bo Diddley)
When The Beatles arrived in the United States, in 1964, John Lennon was asked, “What are you most looking forward to seeing here in America, John?” He replied instantly, “Bo Diddley!” Diddley, who had hits for Chess Records in the 50s, fashioned homemade guitars from cigar boxes (something sharecroppers had done to make a cheap instrument), an old blues tradition that gave his signature instrument its distinctive rectangular shape.
His first version was made in 1958 (the cigar boxes were good acoustic resonators) and was known as the one-string diddley bow. The blues star then asked the Gretsch company to produce commercial editions of his homemade musical instruments. One of Diddley’s first versions was stolen; he later found it on display in the window of a second-hand shop. He later made new six-string versions, sometimes covered with fur or leather.
The Cigar-Box guitar became an indelible part of his image. Diddley, who was known as The Originator remained an individualist, even working as a deputy sheriff in Los Lunas, New Mexico, late in life.