Hey, Bo Diddley!

Few things sound as cool as a loud, electric guitar pounding out a Bo Diddley beat. The pioneering Mr. Diddley—a.k.a. Ellas McDaniel—played a pivotal role in transforming blues into throbbing rock and roll. Inspired by Afro-Cuban rhythms, Diddley perfected his trademark beat (which was often accompanied by extreme amp tremolo, maracas, and wailing blues harp) in the 1950s, and used it to power such classics as “Bo Diddley,” “Pretty Thing,” and “Mona.” A short list of songs that feature variations of his pulsing groove include “Magic Bus” (the Who), “Not Fade Away” (Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead), “Desire” (U2), “I Want Candy” (the Strangeloves, Bow Wow Wow), and “Willie and the Hand Jive,” (Johnny Otis, Eric Clapton). Bo-inspired beats still find their way onto the charts, as evidenced by Scottish songwriter KT Tunstall and her recent hit, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.”
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To get a handle on this essential rhythm, set your metronome or drum machine to click quarter-notes at a relaxed tempo. Next, on muted strings, scratch out Ex. 1’s unbroken eighth-notes using alternating downstrokes and upstrokes. Finally, add the accents, digging into the strings to emphasize the down or upstrokes, as shown. Gradually raise the tempo, and hear the beat take shape.

Ex. 2 adds major triads—played on the second, third, and fourth strings—to the mix. Fret the chords on the accents, but otherwise relax your fingers and strum muted strings. For an authentic vibe, crank up the tremolo.

Now try the variation in Ex. 3. Though the accents remain the same, we’ve souped up the first measure with a slide, and we’re using two different major-triad voicings.

Once you’ve got a firm grasp of the rhythm as notated in these examples, try eliminating some of the muted scrapes. Just skip a few here and there—nothing formal—to create a more fluid, jivey sound.

Next time: We continue exploring the world of rhythm with a trip to the swamp.