Steve lent me his washtub bass, so I could take it home and try to learn to play it.
Steve’s washtub bass is simplicity itself: a 15 gallon galvanized washtub with a hole drilled in the center of the bottom; a length of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, and a broom handle with an eyebolt screwed in one end and a slot cut in the other end. Tie a stopper knot in one end of the rope, thread it up through the hole, and tie it to the eyebolt. Place the slot of the broom handle on the rim up the upturned washtub, pull the string taut, and there you are.
Playing the washtub bass is not so simple. You have to put one foot on the rim of the washtub to keep it on the ground. You adjust the pitch by changing the tension of the rope by tilting the broom handle back and forth. The range is pretty limited — I got less than an octave — and it’s a challenge to get exactly the pitch you want. The biggest disadvantage, though, is that playing it took a lot out of me: it’s a real workout to move that broom handle back and forth, and twanging the braided rope is hard on your hands. After half an hour, it became clear that it was going to take more time than I was willing to devote to building up strength and building up callouses.
There had to be a better way. I began researching other ways of building and playing the washtub bass.
Eddie Holland of Possum Trot, Kentucky, built himself a two-string washtub bass with a fixed neck that you play by fretting, not by moving the neck. He’s a heck of a player, and his bass sounds great, but by the time you buy the hardware, the tuning machines, and a couple of strings for an upright bass, his bass probably cost a couple hundred dollars.
Shelley Rickey has a washtub bass made out of a big plastic tub with an arm bolted on the side; the string is fretted by means of a short length of PVC pipe that you slide up and down. She has a video where she plays cigar-box uke and her partner plays the bass, and the bass sounds good. But it still takes a lot of muscle: “I’ve been playing it now for five years,” Shelley writes, “and have developed the arms of a lumberjack.”
Dennis Havlena of Michigan devised a lever-action arm to reduce the muscle strain. Marion Billo shows plans for Joe Birdsley’s five-gallon (plastic) bucket bass with a special attachment for keeping it on the floor. But I don’t see that these offer much advantage over Shelley Rickey’s design.
I found different playing styles, too. “Washtub Jerry” stands with both feet on the rim of the washtub; this brings the neck of the bass closer to his body, which might give him better control. I also found a photo of Amy Sutton holding down the rim of the washtub with a bare foot, which seems like it would be painful.
There are also more complicated designs for washtub basses where you don’t tilt the neck to play. Michael Bishop made a hardwood frame with a five-gallon bucket as the resonator, and a fixed neck and tuneable string. Marc Bristol, writing in Mother Earth News, September/October, 1980, issue, describes an elaborate upright bass made using a washtub as the resonator. I found a photo online of bass made on a similar plan, except the oblong washtub supports a wood sound board.
I guess if you really want an upright bass and you can’t afford a wood one, you could make one of these. But these really aren’t washtub basses; these are upright basses made in folk instrument style. The upright bass is an instrument in the violin family from Europe, but the washtub bass has roots in another continent. According to “Afro-American One-Stringed Instruments, an article by David Evans in Western Folklore (vol. 29, no. 4 [Oct., 1970], pp. 229-245), the washtub bass comes from Africa:
“Two kinds of one-stringed instruments are known to Negroes in America today. One is the familiar one-stringed bass, sometimes called a ‘washtub bass’ or ‘gutbucket’ from the materials of its construction…. Its origin in the African ‘earth bow’ has been pointed out and generally accepted. This African instrument is made by digging a hole in the ground and covering it with a membrane of bark or hide, which is pegged down at the edges. From the membrane a string is led to a nearby sapling or stick placed in the ground. The string is then plucked, the covered hole serving as a resonator. In America an inverted washtub is simply substituted for the membrane and the hole.”
(The other one-stringed instrument is a “jitterbug,” which is a single string played in bottleneck guitar style; the jitterbug derives ultimately from the mouthbow).
What I was looking for was a version of the washtub bass that didn’t require me to develop the arms of a lumberjack, yet retained the flexibility and character of the American version of the African earth bow. And what I found was the simple yet elegant washtub bass built and played by Jim Bunch. He describes his instrument as follows:
“I have built a cross brace for the pole using a board the width of the tub supported by two small blocks that fit on the rim. This allows you to support the pole closer to the center of the tub and get good notes without putting as much tension on the string and your fingers. [Moving the pole changes the string tension and the pitch, but] you can also move up and down the pole to change notes. I tend to both adjust the tension and finger 5ths when I play. I screwed a rubber table leg cover to the middle of the cross brace that the pole fits in. This allows the pole and brace to be disassembled for the trunk of the car.” (from the Tub-o-Tonia Web site, c. 2005?)
This keeps the simplicity of the instrument; all you’re adding is a cross brace. You can still change pitch by changing the tension of the string, but it requires a lot less arm strength. And you can fret the string up and down the neck (without having to slide a PVC pipe). Using some scrap wood I had lying around, I made my own version of this, and it’s really a joy to play.
Since Jim Bunch first described his instrument on the Tub-o-tonia Web site, he has made a few modifications (see this discussion for some details). He replaced the metal bottom of the tub with 1/4 inch thick Lauan plywood; for strings, he upgraded from a 3 dollar bike derailleur cable to an upright bass woven-core G string (perhaps 50 dollars). Photos of his instrument reveal that he’s added a headstock with a nut to hold the string a bit off the finger board, as well as a tuning machine. These somewhat elaborate modifications make sense for him because he plays a lot, and he plays at a pretty high level, as you can see from his Youtube videos.
I’m not trying to perform at Jim Bunch’s level, but I feel his type of washtub bass — with the neck supported on a cross brace — is the best bet for an occasional player like me. After a couple of hours of practice, I’ve gotten good enough that I’ll be able to play in tune on simple songs at a low-key folk music jam session. And that’s all I want.
Update (Aug. 9): I’m adding sketches of Fritz Richmond’s washtub bass. Richmond played washtub bass in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and played washtub bass with popular musicians from Maria Muldaur to Loudon Wainwright to the Grateful Dead. One of his washtub basses is reportedly in the Smithsonian. In short, Richmond is probably the most famous of all washtub bass players, so his bass and his style of playing are worth looking at. A few things I noticed: First, the neck of his bass has a metal lower part and wooden upper part; it looks like it can be broken down for easier transport. Second, videos of Richmond’s playing style show that he both moved the angle of the neck and fretted up and down the neck. Third, he uses a metal nut, which in photos looks like it’s a section of a metal guitar slide. It’s also worth noting that Richmond used a special leather-and-steel glove for fretting, and a large pick for strumming.
Addendum (July 12): details of my additions to Steve’s washtub bass: I took his washtub, replaced the line (it was rough and worn and hard on my fingers), and added a neck with a Jim Bunch style cross brace. I made the neck out of scrap wood (including a discarded floral tripod that I found in the cemetery’s trash). The string is a new piece of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, which I’ve tuned roughly to D, a good tuning for many simple folk melodies. The string is tied off with figure-eight knots (a stopper knot that’s relatively easy to adjust for tuning). And Steve’s original mop handle and string are untouched, so I can return his instrument to him just the way he gave it to me. The photo below gives an idea of the most important dimension for the Jim Bunch style washtub bass — the distance between the neck and where the string is attached to the washtub.