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The History of Bo Diddley’s Famous Guitar, The Twang Machine

Bo Diddley with The Twang Machine, 1965. Photo: Shutterstock

From his music to the instruments that he played that music with, blues legend Bo Diddley was a pioneer in many ways. His influential style helped mesh together the genres of rock and roll and the blues, a crossover that became the basis of classic rock music.

His song “Bo Diddley” invented The Bo Diddley beat, which became one of the foundational building blocks of rock and roll and is still relevant to the world of music today. You can hear clearly hear Bo Diddley style in “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly (made epic by the Grateful Dead), as well as much of the music of the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, the Clash, and many more.

Bo Diddley made a name for himself playing rectangular guitars, starting with one that he built himself in 1945, and continuing on through his entire career. According to a 2008 interview with Vintage Guitar, Bo Diddley’s first guitar was made from whatever materials he could find, including the pickup from an old Victrola record player.

These guitars later became known as “cigar box guitars” after music promoter Dick Clark first referred to Bo Diddley’s handmade guitar that way, and are still popular among folk and blues musicians today, some of whom claim that they are the “most comfortable electric guitars ever built”.

In 1958, after Bo Diddley had already popularized the rectangular hand-made guitars and built a couple dozen of them himself, he approached the Fred Gretsch guitar company to request that they build a custom guitar for him.

This made Bo Diddley one of the first guitarists to work with a guitar company on a custom electric instrument, and led to a collaborative effort between Diddley and the luthiers at Gretsch and resulted in three guitars being built. First, the famous rectangular guitar called The Twang Machine, plus two Jupiter Thunderbird guitars.

The Twang Machine guitar was styled after the rectangular cigar box guitars that he and other blues musicians had been playing at the time, except it was filled with state of the art electronic guts. Diddley played The Twang Machine and other rectangular and odd-shaped guitars for the rest of his career, all the way up until his death in 2008 at the age of 79.

Bo Diddley with a few of his guitars.

Today, the original 1960 Gretsch Twang Machine guitar is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, alongside other famous guitars like Jerry Garcia’s Wolf and Tiger.

Several other rectangular guitars that Diddley owned are on display in various places, including some locations of the Hard Rock Café, which has a vault in London filled with various classic rock memorabilia available for franchisees to use in their restaurants.

Gretsch also still makes a variation of the Twang Machine called the Gretsch G5810 Bo Diddley, and it has been played by notable musicians such as Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Kim Larsen, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, and Tim Vanhamel of Eagles of Death Metal.

Enjoy below a video of Bo Diddley doing his famous song “Hey, Bo Diddley” live in 1973, armed with none other than the Twang Machine.