Monday, September 7, 2020

The monster he built

I occasionally pull George R. White's 1995 biography of Bo Diddley off the shelf to marvel at passages like these, in which in the capable hands of The Innovator, junkyard automobile parts, the guts of an industrial wind-up clock, and toilet-chain copper weights create the sound of a freight train:
I never actually built an amplifier, but I would take the guts out an’ put ’em in larger boxes, an’ stuff like that. I also spent years tryin’ to develop a clean speaker that I could use. What I did was, I’d take two Fender Bassmans—which has ten-inch speakers inside—I’d take ’em out an’ build ’em into one big cabinet, because I needed eight or ten or twelve speakers to handle all that stuff I was puttin’ through ’em. Ten-inch speakers are very clean an’ clear. They take a whuppin’, you know.‘ This was before monitors, so I also put two speakers in the back of each cabinet, so the drummer could hear what was goin’ on. I spent twelve years tryin’ to develop a good, clean sound because I hate distortion. You know what happened? Some guy built a fuzz-pedal! [laughs] Busted my bubble! That was the beginnin’ of a new sound.
I was lookin’ to get a bigger sound, an’ I came up with that “freight train drive”—that’s what I call it. There were three of us, an’ I developed a style that would make us sound like six people at least. That’s the monster I built!’ [laughs] If you listen to the stuff I’m playin’, you won’t find any gaps in there: I play first an’ second guitar at the same time, an’ the minute I start playin’, you know it! It’s power-packed all the way. Pure energy."

Chess Studio, Chicago
Then, I came up with the idea of breakin' up the sound. I went an' got me a great big ol' wind-up clock that had a good, strong spring, an' I attached separators an’ stuff. I got me some automobile parts, an’ made it so it would break this circuit an’ connect this circuit, break this one, connect this one. Then, I wired it in-between my guitar an' amplifier, so that everythin'. that came from the guitar had to go through this bullshit that I had hooked up on the floor. It was noisy as hell, but it worked
About six or eight months later, Diamature came out with a tremolo with some kinda crap in a lil’ ol' bottle that shook around an’ broke the circuit. This was exactly what I was lookin’ for, so somebody else was on the same wavelength, but they knew what they were doin’. It was on the market, but I didn’t have enough money to buy one, so I kept on usin’ mine. 
Later on, Jody Williams bought one, but he didn’t like it an’ I bought his offa him. He couldn’t use it, but it was just right for what I wanted. It was a trip tryin’ to play with the sound disappearin’ an’ comin’ back—you get all out of step—but I learned to play with it, an’ when I learned that, that was the greatest thing in the world, an’ I made that sucker work for what I needed it for.
Bo with Jerome Green

Now, I needed more rhythm for what I was tryin’ to do but couldn’t carry a set of drums up an’ down the street with us—there's too many of ’em—so I got me some maracas. I got this idea from listenin’ at Sandman [a street performer who carried "a bag of sand, a plank of wood and a broom. He’d set up on the corner, cover the board with sand and dance, letting the sand–which sounded like a maraca – accentuate the rhythms of his feet. Then he’d sweep it back into the sack and move on to the next corner"] sandin’ on a piece of board. I’d sit up in the house an’ shake ’em an’ create rhythm patterns with ’em. I changed the whole thing that calypso dudes do, because that didn’t fit in with what I was doin’. I needed somethin’ that sounded like a cat playin’ with brushes, an’ I finally struck upon that pattern. 
“The first maracas I had, I took two of those copper weights off a bathroom—you know those pull-chains they used to have, with copper weights in there to let the water go down? I took one an’ cut me a hole in it, right at the top, an’ filled it up full of black-eyed peas. I had no money, man, to buy nothin’, so I’d go round junkyards an’ find old water tanks an’ stuff, an’ screw things out of ’em.  
After I’d figured out about as many rhythms as I could on ’em an’ taught myself, I hit Jerome [Green] with it. I bought him a brand new bag of maracas an', surprisingly, I picked the right dude. That cat could shake the hell outa them things! He was better than “great”; Jerome was fantastic!

Top photo via Pinterest, middle photo via Crain's Chicago Business, bottom photo via Pinterest


cuthbert said...

The "Diamature" tremolo he referred to was manufactured by DeArmond, named the "DeArmond Tremolo Control". It had a small motor in it that would shake a can of fluid that would short out the signal, giving it that classic tremolo sound.

I had one of these that needed a tune-up that I ended up giving to a good friend skilled in electronics work. He passed away nearly 20 years ago - no idea of the fate of the tremolo unit, but they're worth a small fortune now if you can find one.

Joe Bonomo said...

So cool. Thanks for posting.