He was given a guitar by his sister as a youth, but also took violin lessons. He was inspired to become a blues artist by seeing John Lee Hooker.
He is best known for the "Bo Diddley beat", a rhumba-based beat also influenced by what is known as "hambone", a style used by street performers who play out the beat by slapping and patting their arms, legs, chest, and cheeks while chanting rhymes. The Bo Diddley beat is often illustrated with the phrase: "shave 'n' a haircut - two bits".
The beat has been used by many other artists, notable Johnny Otis on "Willie and the Hand Jive", which is more about hambone than it is a direct copy of Bo Diddley, and Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" as well as more obscure numbers such as "Callin' All Cows" by the Blues Rockers.
Rhythm is so important in Bo Diddley's music that harmony is often reduced to a bare minimum. His songs (for example "Hey Bo Diddley" and "Who Do You Love?") often have no chord changes; that is, they are not written in a musical key, and the musicians play and sing in the same chord throughout the piece.
His own songs have been frequently covered. The Animals recorded "The Story of Bo Diddley", The Yardbirds covered "I'm a Man", and both the Woolies and George Thorogood had hits with "Who Do You Love", also a concert favorite of The Doors. His "Road Runner", one of his two Top 40 hits, was also frequently covered. ("Say Man" was the other Top 40 hit.)
Bo Diddley used a variety of rhythms, however, from straight back beat to pop ballad style, frequently with maracas by Jerome Green. He was also an influential guitar player, with many special effects and other innovations in tone and attack. He also plays the violin and cello; the latter is featured on his mournful instrumental "The Clock Strikes Twelve".
Although Bo Diddley was a breakthrough crossover artist with white audiences, appearing on the Alan Freed concerts, for instance, he rarely tailored his compositions to teenaged concerns. The most notable exception is probably his album Bo Diddley's a Surfer, which featured "Surfer's Love Call", but while Bo may never have hung ten in his baggies to catch the big wave, he was definitely an influence on surf guitar players.
His lyrics are often witty and humorous adaptations of folk music themes. His first hit, "Bo Diddley" was based on the lullaby "Mockingbird". Likewise, "Hey Bo Diddley" is based on the folk song, "Frog went a-courtin'". The rap-style boasting of "Who do you love?", a word play on hoodoo, used many striking lyrics from the African-American tradition of toasts and boasts. His two versions of "Say Man" have been connected with rap, but actually feature the insults known as the Dirty Dozens: "You look like you been in a hatchet fight and everybody had a hatchet except you."
In addition to the many songs identified with him, he wrote the pioneering pop tune "Love is Strange" for Mickey and Sylvia under a pseudonym to increase his royalties.