Instrument Making at MusiCamp

Yes, these are real, playable instruments. They aren’t toys or kids’ versions. They are still played today and have an interesting social history worth telling. But best of all, they are fun to play and are excellent pedagogical tools for teaching musical concepts of tonality and harmony.


The Diddley Bow

The diddley bow is the instrument featured in the picture above on the left. As you can hear and see in the video below, the diddley bow is played with the neck of a glass bottle and a stick (though at MusiCamp we replace the glass bottle with a copper washer, it’s a little less dangerous). The result is very bluesy! No wonder the diddley bow is considered the precursor to the slide blues guitar.

The diddley bow is related to many different instruments found around the world (like the andibidi from the Congo, the umakweyana of West Africa, the dan bau of Vietnam, the gobichand of India). But this particular set up, a metal string expanded over wooden 2X4 (it used to be the wall or beam of house) with a metal or glass resonator, is of African American origin and emerged out of  the ugly social and economic conditions of slavery in the Southern United States.

More pictures of the diddley bow construction at MusiCamp can be found here.

The Bucket Bass

The featured image at the top of this post show three campers building/painting their bucket basses.

Below is a video of Andrea, MusiCamp’s director, and her son performing In The Highways Of The Hedges with the bucket bass. NOTE, you need headphones or good speakers to hear the bass because laptops and mobile devices tend to cut out the bottom end.

The bucket bass, closely related to the washtub or tea-chest bass, is not so different from the diddley bow. Both are one-stringed instruments and vary the tension on the string to alter pitch. The emergence and use of either the bucket, the washtub or the chest as a resonator is similarly linked to conditions of economic hardship.

For more information about the construction of the bucket bass visit our earlier post about making a washtub bass.

Cigar Box Diddley Bow

In 2015 we started making cigar box diddley bows as well (picture below).

cigarbox diddleybow


Diddley Bow Song

Must Hear! Especially the ending!!
Diddley Bow Song from the Rhythm & Stuff week at MusiCamp 2015.


A large part of MusiCamp is making instruments and the tin-can-2X4 diddley bow featured in this post is just one type of instrument campers can choose to make during their week at MusiCamp. This past week, these three campers decided to really explore the playing of the instrument and in particular drew from the instrument’s African origins. They based this song off of a Malawian song we heard from another Youtube video that discusses the history of the diddley bow – and it was so much fun to figure out and then play – and these guys did a great job getting the groove! Have a listen to them and make sure you listen to the end to hear their singing!


Malawi was probably used as an example in “The History of the Diddley Bow” video because Malawians were and are so successful at using recycled containers as resonators for homemade instruments and then creating music that is exciting and fun yet distinctly Malawian. I spent a few years in Malawi in the 1990s and especially recall the Malawian Chibuku beer box guitar!


The diddley bow, as seen in the above video, with tin resonator attached to wooden 2X4, is believed to be an African American origins, though it is related to many different instruments found around the world, like the andibidi from the Congo, the umakweyana of West Africa, the dan bau of Vietnam, the gobichand of India. More information on instrument making at MusiCamp can be accessed here.


By the way, in case you are wondering, the Rhythm & Stuff week was originally scheduled as West African Drumming Camp; however, because we didn’t have enough registrants (we needed 7 registrants to run the drumming) we ran an alternative program that involved lots of rhythm fun, including lots of body percussion as well as beatboxing, rhythm games and some hand drumming and singing.


West African Drumming Camp


This week is all about the GROOVE! and making ancient West African Drumming fun, accessible and challenging, all at the same time.

  • explore polyrhythms on djembes and dunun (a series of double headed drums played on their side)
  • build instruments (diddley bos or bucket basses) and explore aspects of rhythm and acoustics
  • sing songs and learn dances relevant to the rhythms
  • and tap into the ancient knowledge of the West African Mande musical tradition

This goes way beyond a drum circle! Campers will not only learn patterns on djembe and develop skills to solo but will also learn the interlocking patterns on the dunun – the soul of the West African Mande drumming tradition. These rhythms can be extremely challenging, even to pro drummers!

But with the guidance of guest instructor Anna Melnikoff, West African Drumming week at MusiCamp is set up to engage and teach the absolute inexperienced while at the same time provide on-going challenges for advanced drummers. And of course, at the end of the week, campers will perform for friends and family!

End of Week Performance 2013

Below is a slightly edited video is from our 2013 week-end performance of the children-composed rhythm “Timbaraba.”

NOTE: Because the speakers of computers and portable devices aren’t designed to capture the bass, to hear the dunun pattern you need to listen to this video with headphones or good speakers.

Although it is difficult to see, at the back left are 3 double headed drums known as dunun. The dunun play a complex interlocking rhythm upon which the djembes play another rhythm or solo.

Check out our MusiCamp Flickr Gallery for more pics of MusiCamp


Serious Groove at MusiCamp 2013’s West African Drumming Week

This slightly edited video is from our 2013 week-end performance of the children-composed rhythm “Timbaraba.”

Although it is difficult to see, at the back left are 3 double headed drums known as dunun. The dunun play a complex interlocking rhythm upon which the djembes play another rhythm or solo.

NOTE: Because the speakers of computers and portable devices aren’t designed to capture the bass, to hear the dunun pattern you need to listen to this video with headphones or good speakers.

Making a Washtub Bass at MusiCamp?… hmm…

As I mentioned in previous posts, MusiCamp was considering the possibility of campers making washtub basses as well as diddley bos this summer. So, this past Victoria Day my partner and I attempted to make a washtub bass.

For those of you who don’t know, a washtub bass is a one-stringed bass made up of a stick, a string, and an overturned washtub as the resonator (or better understood as what amplifies the sound of the plucked string).

Tin olive oil container on left and 5 gallon plastic bucket on right.

We tried two different containers (the resonator of the instrument), two different strings, and a variety of playing techniques. While we quickly resolved what physical equipment (resonator and string) worked best, the playing techniques is clearly a work in progress ;) .

One container was a food-industry size oil container. It was metal and so I figured it would resonate more like a traditional washtub than the other alternative resonator, the 5 gallon plastic bucket. But the plastic bucket had a way fuller sound and the one we much preferred.

The two strings we tried was a cotton rope and a plastic weed-wacker line. We liked the rope more but it busted before we even got a chance to properly savour the sound. Luckily, the sound of the weed-waker line wasn’t dramatically different from the rope.

The construction simply involved taking a rake or broom handle, indenting a groove on one end and drilling a hole in the other. We also drilled a whole in the middle of the container/resonator. We then tied the one end of the weed-waker line to the container/resonator and the other end to the stick (which involved wrapping it around the stick a number of times and then securing it with duck-taped). Then we inserted the groove/indent on the rim of the bucket, the string becomes taught, and we started to twang away.

I had assumed that playing different pitches/notes involved moving the stick back and forth; however, this seemed very difficult to keep in tune -as you can see in the youtube video below.

The playing technique that I soon adopted involved placing the stick a little closer to the centre of the bucket and using my fingers (usually just the index finger or the whole hand) to pitch the notes as well as moving the stick.

So, while I still need to work on the bass playing technique and possibly experiment with the instrument design to help secure the stick a little more (and thereby the intonation of the pitches/notes I play!) it is quite a simple thing to make and it makes a great bass sound!

Final say on the wash tub bass at MusiCamp? It’s definitely going to happen. I.e., if campers want to make one, it is very possible!

More Home Made Diddley Bos at MusiCamp

Diddley bos are the precursor to the slide guitar and arguably the first blues instrument. We had intended to make these instruments only during Blues summer camp session but the kids loved them so much we made them every week! Not only that, we incorporated them into the music making of each week – quite a satisfying experience!

Click the picture below to view larger gallery of pics and video.

MusiCamp Diddley Bo, summer camp, kids, music

MusiCamp’s Homemade Diddley Bos

Surprisingly, I got the pics of the DIDDLEY BOs up earlier than I thought. Enjoy! By the way, exploring the acoustic properties of these instruments, we played with different resonators (a bottle for the instructor versus different size tins for campers), using a wooden block as a bridge or not, as well as the placement of the resonator. As you can see, campers were spectacularly creative in how they painted their diddley bos as well!


Making A Diddley Bo

The video below (click the picture) demonstrates a MusiCamp homemade diddley bo, which is the precursor to the slide guitar and arguably the first blues instrument.

In a few days (or maybe a few weeks ; )  ), I’ll post the whole lot of diddley bos campers made at MusiCamp in its inaugural Blues Week!

diddley bo, musicamp, toronto, summer camp, music

click on the picture to hear what a didley bo sounds like

What are Soundwalks? Soundscapes?


And campers will use their found ‘sound’ treasures to construct their own soundscapes, following their own inspirations and creative instincts. 


One of the things we’ll be looking at every week are soundwalks and soundscape compositions. But what are these? Before I tell  you more about these things, have a listen to the following soundscape composition called “City Symphony” from the movie August Rush – a film about a young orphaned prodigy who uses his musical gifts to find his biological parents.


Soundwalks are exactly what they sound like: walks that explore sound. You can explore the sounds everywhere – whether it’s deep in the forest of the Toronto Ravine system or in the commercial semi-industrial space behind Dufferin Mall. But what’s really interesting about sound walks is how much more you are able to see when you take the time to listen. Often  soundwalks can even uncover hidden stories about a place or a neighbourhood…


“A soundscape is any collection of sounds, almost like a painting is a collection of visual attractions,” says internationally renown Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. “When you listen carefully to the soundscape it becomes quite miraculous.”

There are soundscapes that occur organically from our natural or urban environments – that’s what the composer R. Murray Schafer is talking about above. And then there are composed soundscapes.


This piece of art is actually the musical score written by world-renown Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. The instrumentation involves an orchestra, 7 singers, and electronic sounds.

Soundscape Compositions

Soundscape compositions are compositions that rely less on what we usually expect from music, like a regularly repeated melody and/or rhythm. Instead, it explores sounds and silence, and is more directly inspired by a specific idea and/or emotion. Often this results in a musical piece that boarders on theatre or performance art. You can even see from the picture (which is an actual score by the composer R. Murray Schafer) how the score of a soundscape composition defies conventions and looks more like a piece of art than the typical musical notation.

at MusiCamp

As mentioned, at MusiCamp, our soundwalks will work like a musical treasure hunt and campers will be:

  1. instructed to search for specific types of sounds
  2. encouraged to connect the dots between what they hear and what they see to makeup a story about the place or neighbourhood they acoustically explore.

Back at the studio, campers will:

  1. create a soundscape composition imitating the sounds they heard – perhaps to tell the story of the place or neighbourhood they just explored
  2. and if campers wish to, they will also be given the opportunity to create their own score for their creation

Mande Traditional Music

During the West African Drumming Week, we’ll be exploring the Mande musical tradition – more of which can be read (and seen in videos) just below this introductory section on the history of Mande drumming.

In 1235, the Mande warrior king named Sunjata Keita rose to power and united many kingdoms in West Africa to establish the Mande empire and what would be a 200-year golden age of peace and prosperity in the region.

Musicians at this time were more than just musicians. They were highly valued as negotiators, praise singers and historians. This history and its musical tradition lives on in a large part of west African countries, including Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Guinea Bissau as well as parts of Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

sundiata king

By the way, the story of Sunjata Keita is incredible since he was born a cripple and was exiled from his home because of this. Yet, he not only overcame his disabilities but established the prosperous Mande empire. More youth-oriented information can be read here:


How MusiCamp Will Explore Mande Music

Guest host AnnA Melnikoff , with her expertise in the Mande drumming tradition, will guide us through this week’s activities. She’ll be bringing her exquisite drums which include djembes and a set of 3 bass drums called dunun. Each dunun has its own pattern which overlap with one another to form a melody upon which djembes can solo. In this week, you’ll get a chance to learn the various dunun patterns, djembe accompaniment patterns as well as a group djembe solo.

Focusing on rhythms that accompany rights of passage, participants will also build masks and explore the meaning of the drums and the rhythms from the very ancient Mande tradition.

Check out the videos below to get a sense of what we’ll be playing in the West African Drumming Week!


An Idea of Mande Drumming in Videos


The 3 drummers standing are playing the dunun – the smallest drum is called the kenkeni, the middle drum is called the sangban and the largest drum is the dundunba. The guys sitting are playing 2 different accompaniment patterns on djembes.


This one the drum instructor is demonstrating the 3 different tones on the djembe – tone, slap and bass, or in French “ton,” “claque,” and “bas” . By the way, French is spoken in many West African countries.


This video starts with a pattern on the middle dunun drum known as the sangban. Then the kenkeni (the smallest drum) is introduced. Note it is the simplest of all the 3 drum patterns but has the most important role of keeping the beat steady. Finally the bass drum, the dundunba, is introduced.