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How to Play the "Bo Diddley Beat" on Guitar

One of the biggest influences in bringing the R&B sound to rock guitar was Bo Diddley. One of Diddley’s best-known songs was an anthem he composed for himself, he named after himself, and that used a syncopated rhythm that became synonymous with his name. He immortalized the “Bo Diddley beat” and was copied by everyone from Buddy Holly to the Rolling Stones.

Bo Diddley was born Ellas McDaniel in McComb, Mississippi. Diddley grew up in Chicago, where he moved at age five. He was a self-invented phenomenon who played a homemade rectangular-shaped guitar with his teeth and behind his back, and he brandished it in a sexually suggestive manner — all techniques that would be brought to high art by Jimi Hendrix.

The following figure is a rhythm guitar passage that employs the “Bo Diddley Beat.” To play the "Bo Diddley Beat," use left-hand muting, syncopated strumming, scratches, and sounded notes to create the implied syncopation effect.


Note how “scratchy” the sound is, and how the left-hand mutes are actually written as X-shaped noteheads in the notation. Above the music are rhythm slashes, which show what the rhythm section does to accompany the guitar figure below it.

The rhythm Bo Diddley popularized is not some obscure, ineffable entity that only he knew how to create. It’s a definite 16th-note-based pattern, consisting of a dotted eighth note followed by a 16th tied to an eighth note, followed by an eighth note and ending with two eighths on beats 3 1/2 and 4. Then the sequence repeats. The whole pattern is only two beats long.

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