One String Willie
DIY Philosophy

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcel Proust and Homemade Music



Have you ever read the essay "Self Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson?  I think that he, and possibly his buddy Henry David Thoreau, would understand and applaud making your own instruments and making your own music with them.  If you haven't read this essay, or haven't read it in a while, try to find a copy--it says a lot about being your own person (including artistically). 



Several years ago I read "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust (all 4300 pages of very convoluted language--it took two years).  I remember somewhere in these books, probably in "Within A Budding Grove," that Proust wrote about Beethoven's later string quartets having created and enlarged an audience for his later string quartets.  In other words, art creates its own audience--once a work of art is in public view, it will affect how the public thinks about other art, and how artists think about their own work.  In a parallel vein, our expectation and hope is that homemade music will fashion and enlarge a public interest in homemade music.

Why make and play a homemade traditional instrument?

Curiosity from the musician's point of view

What does the instrument sound like?  Since these tended to be beginner instruments:

Not many people have heard of diddley bows or cigar box guitars

Fewer have seen one

Fewer still have heard one played--very few recordings exist

Fewer still have built one and played it

What can a musician (i.e. guitarist) learn from:

Working with fewer strings

Working with no frets—ear training?

Working with different tunings (if more than one string)?

Curiosity from the audience point of view

Unusual—attracts attention—what the heck is it???

Audience expectations are low—it is therefore extremely entertaining to hear one in the hands of a good player.

Working within musical tradition and extending it

Some of the very best players started on Cigar Box Guitars

Lightnin' Hopkins

Carl Perkins

Jimi Hendrix

Or diddley bows:

Blind Willie Johnson

BB King

Electric instruments for modern performers

Very little recording of these primitive instruments

Amenable to experimentation and innovation—number of necks, strings, DIY pickups, playing techniques, etc, etc.

Fun Factor

Enjoyable to make music on an instrument you made yourself for less than the list price of a CD.

It is incredibly satisfying to make your own instrument and make music with it.  To me, people that buy a diddley bow or cigar box guitar without having made one are missing some of the magic.

Is it the instrument or the player?

The cigar box guitar or diddley bow answers this question—you can make good music from junk.  This makes every subsequent trip to the guitar store much more amusing, because it breaks the gear-habit.

Inexpensive, egalitarian, rugged, and portable

A person that gets up in front of an audience with a diddley bow or cigar box guitar has to some degree discarded pretentiousness.  This is just me doing this—this is not my $3000 guitar.

The guitarist does not worry about leaving his guitar in the car on a hot day, or taking to the beach. 

You can take it anywhere. 

Except for the board, you can carry the stuff you need to build a diddley bow in a grocery bag, and you can build one in 5 minutes.

Artists are always self-taught:

Remember that the music is in your head—it is up to the musician to bring the music in their head out of their instrument.

The cigar box guitarist must teach himself—there are very few instructional materials.  This is doubly true for diddley bow.

The guitarist can bring his "regular" guitar chops but they must be adapted.  This is a fun and interesting challenge.

The music is hard to label—the player will likely not sound like anyone but himself, and should not expect to.

The player is forced out of his normal musical pathways (rut).  Again, this is doubly true for diddley bow.

Frees up creativity—the logical progression is that if you make your own instrument, you might as well write your own songs.

There are no rules to playing a homemade instrument—you must work out your own way to play it.