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The Bo Diddley beat is essentially a 3-2 clave rhythm. This beat is one of the most common bell patterns found in Afro-Cuban music and can be traced as far back as sub-Saharan African music traditions. But there is no documentation of a direct Cuban connection to Bo Diddley's adaptation of the clave rhythm. When asked how he began to use this rhythm, Bo Diddley gave many different accounts. In a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he said that he came up with the beat after listening to gospel music in church when he was twelve years old.
Sublette asserts: "In the context of the time, and especially those maracas [heard on the record], 'Bo Diddley' has to be understood as a Latin-tinged record. A rejected cut recorded at the same session was titled only 'Rhumba' on the track sheets." Somewhat resembling the Shave and a Haircut rhythm, Diddley came across it while trying to play Gene Autry's version of "Jingle Jangle Jingle".
According to ethnomusicologists, the Bo Diddley beat is similar to a folk tradition called "hambone". Hambone is a style used by street performers who play out the beat by slapping and patting their arms, legs, chest, and cheeks while chanting rhymes. "Hamboning" can also be described as a form of corpophone--using one's body for percussion, excluding the voice--a technique inherent in African-American culture. The introduction of the neologism as a classificatory category was added to the conventional scheme of idiophone, membranophone, chordophone, aerophone, and electrophone by the American ethnomusicologist Dale A. Olsen. The Bo Diddley beat is also akin to the age-old rhythmic pattern best known as "shave and a haircut, two bits". In addition, this rhythm has been linked to Yoruba drumming from West Africa.
In its simplest form, the Bo Diddley beat can be counted out as either a one-bar or a two-bar phrase. The following consists of the count in a one-bar phrase: One e and ah, two e and ah, three e and ah, four e and ah. The bolded counts are the clave rhythm.