The Bo Diddley Beat

HEY LOCO FANS – We lost Bo Diddley on June 2, 2008. Diddley produced greater and more influential music than all but a handful of the best early rockers. The Bo Diddley beat — bomp, ba-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp — is one of rock & roll’s bedrock rhythms, showing up in the work of Buddy Holly , the Rolling Stones , and even pop-garage knock-offs like the Strangeloves ’ 1965 hit “I Want Candy.”

Diddley’s hypnotic rhythmic attack and declamatory, boasting vocals stretched back as far as Africa for their roots, and looked as far into the future as rap. His trademark otherworldly vibrating, fuzzy guitar style did much to expand the instrument’s power and range. But even more important, Bo’s bounce was fun and irresistibly rocking, with a wisecracking, jiving tone that epitomized rock & roll at its most humorously outlandish and freewheeling.

Before taking up blues and R&B, Diddley had studied classical violin, but shifted gears after hearing John Lee Hooker . In the early ’50s, he began playing with his longtime partner, maraca player Jerome Green, to get what Bo’s called “that freight train sound.” Billy Boy Arnold , a fine blues harmonica player and singer in his own right, was also playing with Diddley when the guitarist got a deal with Chess in the mid-’50s (after being turned down by rival Chicago label Vee-Jay). His very first single, “Bo Diddley”/“I’m a Man” (1955), was a double-sided monster. The A-side was soaked with futuristic waves of tremolo guitar, set to an ageless nursery rhyme; the flip was a bump-and-grind, harmonica-driven shuffle, based around a devastating blues riff. But the result was not exactly blues, or even straight R&B, but a new kind of guitar-based rock & roll, soaked in the blues and R&B, but owing allegiance to neither.

As a live performer, Diddley was galvanizing, using his trademark square guitars and distorted amplification to produce new sounds that anticipated the innovations of ’60s guitarists like Jimi Hendrix . In Great Britain, he was revered as a giant on the order of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters . The British Invasion helped increase the public’s awareness of Diddley’s importance, and he remains a vital part of the collective rock & roll consciousness, and occasionally reached wider visibility via a 1979 tour with the Clash , a cameo role in the film Trading Places, a late-’80s tour with Ronnie Wood , and a 1989 television commercial for sports shoes with star athlete Bo Jackson.

You can’t judge an apple by looking at a tree
You can’t judge honey by looking at the bee
You can’t judge a daughter by looking at the mother
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover

Bo Diddley