Recently, our pal Mike Keller came into the shop with an interesting object accompanied by an interesting request. The object in question was a solid rectangular slab of blue molded epoxy with a fragment of wood suspended within, like an ancient mosquito in amber. He told us the wood was a Native American artifact – a remnant of an old cypress dugout canoe, or “pirogue” as they’re known in the bayou region of Louisiana. The request was to make it into a Bo Diddley-inspired custom guitar. As a shop that isn’t really known for saying no to stuff like this, we welcomed the project with open arms.
Before we go any further, you might be asking yourself why we made a rectangular guitar, and who is Bo Diddley? Bo Diddley was an American guitarist and singer who played an integral role in the transition from the blues to rock and roll in the 1950s. He was well known for his early use of tremolo and reverb effects and distorted amps in an era when many players were going for a much cleaner sound. He also popularized the “Bo Diddley” beat, which is a variation of the 3-2 clave used in afro-cuban music, also known as the “hambone” beat in the American South (think “Who Do You Love?”). He was also known for the cigar box-shaped guitar he played and helped design with Gretsch Guitars.
So what does he have to do with a Native American dugout canoe? Bo Diddley, who was born in McComb, Mississippi, once said “My people are from New Orleans, the bayou country — French, African, Indian, all mixed up. That’s where my music comes from, all that mixture.” So for Mike, it seemed fitting to use this artifact to make a guitar for Bo’s grandson, Garry “Reese” Mitchell.
Before being preserved in a block of epoxy, this piece of 800-year-old bald cypress was part of pirogue found near Grand Isle, LA in August, 2005 after hurricane Cindy had washed it out of a marsh in Lafitte, LA onto a shoreline 30 miles south. The finding was published by the Louisiana Archeological Society and radiocarbon dating later confirmed by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette suggests that this is, indeed, a special part of history. When Mike got his hands on the artifact he had it blessed by Grayhawk Perkins of the Tribal Council of the United Houma Nation in preparation for its transformation into a musical instrument.
That’s where we come in.
We ordered a mostly pre-made All-Parts paddle neck, and Mike put us in contact with Hartley Peavey, who very graciously donated a bunch of gold parts for the project. We also ordered a set of TV Jones pickups, and then I was off to the races!
The first order of business was to establish a centerline and a scale length line, then I routed out the neck pocket.
I used a specialized router template to precisely cut the neck pocket.
Once the neck pocket was cut, I located and drilled the bridge stud holes.
Then, using a template specifically made for the TV Jones pickups, I cut the cavities for those.
With all of the main top cavities created I could then move onto the electronics layout.
Then I applied some electronic shielding paint to help insulate the components from electrostatic interference.
Once the paint was dry I wired the whole thing up.
With all the wiring done I moved onto the neck. I decided to make a reclaimed cypress veneer for the headstock using an old New Orleans porch column that I had laying around. It was a great aesthetic match for the body.
I shaped the headstock similarly to what the original would have been, but changed it enough to be its own thing.
Then I finished the face of the headstock with clear lacquer so it would shine like the body.
For the final touch I made some shiny black control plates using vinyl pickguard material.
After leveling the frets with our Plek machine and making a new bone nut it was time for the final setup!
And there ya have it! Bo Diddley would be proud!