Our bluegrass and folk band was desperately in need of a string bass and a reliable bass player. However, both are hard to find! 'Reliable' and 'Bass player' are two words not normally used in the same sentence (no offense to any bass players out there, but I've had much experience in this...) And it's rare to find a bass player who owns an acoustic upright bass instead of an electric.
So we improvised, and built the washtub bass pictured here. It cost more than we would have liked (total cost of about $1.75), but it was an easy 1 hour project. Everyone in all of our families can play it, kids included, and we often harass listeners to grab the bass and join in. Anyone can learn to play it in one minute or less, and no musical knowledge or complicated fingerings are required.
Washtub--We got better sound quality with a new washtub than with the old rusted one we first tried, though we sure liked the appearance of the rusty one better.
Aircraft cable for the string--In doing a net search about washtub basses, the complaint we most often saw was breaking strings when using normal bass strings. Hence, the aircraft cable. After trying a couple different diameters of aircraft cable, we found that the thinner cable gave a better tone. Our current model uses a 3/32 inch cable; one size smaller would probably be about right. The cable is kind of rough on the fingers, so leather gloves or a stick to hit the strings with are highly recommended.
4 cable clamps--make sure they are right size for the cable you use, and clamp them down VERY tight or the string will slip. We used 2 cable clamps on each end of the string.
A Stick--We used a 1 1/4 inch diameter dead aspen stick from the forest since it was already smooth.
Soup can lid--This is for a washer underneath where the string connects to the washtub, so it won't pull through the tub bottom.
Hose clamp--This serves as a 'capo' for the bass. You can slide it up and down the neck to change what scale note the 'sweet spot' of the bass is at for playing in different keys. After using the bass for a few weeks, we found a good spot for the keys we play in and left the clamp there.
Drill a hole for the string in one end of the stick, a couple inches from the end. Pass the string through the hole, double over, and clamp tightly with 2 hose clamps. Put the hose clamp around the neck and string about 6 inches below the hole. Drill a hole in the center of the washtub bottom and through the soup can lid. Pass the string though both tub and lid, and double clamp the end. Cut about a 1/2 inch deep notch in the bottom face of the neck so it fits tightly on the bottom rim of the washtub (see the photo at the top of this page for proper configuration and playing posture).
We settled upon the length of the neck (66 inches) and string entirely at random. We fiddled around a bit with the hose clamp capo and settled on a string length (from hole to hole) of 53 inches as a good happy medium for the keys we usually play in (G, D, C).
Detail of neck at peg head
Detail of inside the washtub
Playing the Washtub Bass
This instrument may have the shortest learning curve of anything other than a kazoo. All you need is a good ear and a little bit of stamina--you may work up a sweat while playing, as the higher the note you want to hit, the harder you have to pull back on the neck and push down with your leg. If you're getting tired, though, you can always go down instead to get that bass note for the 5 chord in a song. We seem to get about an octave and half of useful range with our model. We don't mess with the capo now that we found a good length to set it at. There's not all that much more to say about playing techniques...all kinds of slaps and plucks give unique and interesting sounds. The best way to learn is to pick it up and start playing along!
Washtub Bass Resources
This is the best jug band and washtub bass resource we've found on the web! They have great pictures of a variety of washtub, bucket and gas tank (!) basses, along with wealth of jug band and washtub bass information--different bass designs, picking what to use for strings, how to mike a washtub bass for onstage use(!), and more--highly recommended! Tubotonia
Washtub Bass Recordings
Listed by ALBUM TITLE - ARTIST - PUBLIISHER. If there's no publisher listed, the album is probably published by the band itself. If you are just getting into jug band music, you really MUST check out Jim Kweskin and The Jug Band. They are talented, entertaining and prolific, and their music was recorded on a major label!
Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band
1963 - Unblushing Brassiness - Vanguard
1965 - Jug Band Music - Vanguard
1966 - Relax Your Mind - (with Mel Lyman and Fritz Richmond) - Vanguard
1967 - See Reverse Side for Title - Vanguard
1967 - Garden of Joy - Reprise
1978 - Jim Kweskin Lives Again - Mountain Railroad
1980 - Swing On A Star - (Jim Kweskin and the Kids) - Mountain Railroad
1987 - Jug Band Blues - (with Sippie Wallace and Otis Spann) - Mountain Railroad (on CD, Drive)
1998 - Acoustic Swing and Jug - Vanguard
Beat It, Blow It, Strum It, Hum It - The Sunshine Skiffle Band - Flying Fish
Blues Songs and Ballads - Tom Rush with Fritz Richmond - Fantasy
Chasin' Gus' Ghost - John Sebastian and the J-Band - Hollywood Records
Christmas Jug Band - Xmas Novelty Songs - Relix
Down Home - The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers
Endangered Species - Dirdy Birdies Jugband
Full Boar - Marty Jones and The Pork Boilin' Poor Boys
Goodtime Washboard Three - Dixieland/20's music - Fantasy
Headin' Down to Henry's - The Wags
Into the Purple Valley - Ry Cooder - Reprise
I Want My Roots - John Sebastian and the J-Band - Music Masters
Mountain Man Blues - Miss Amy with White Lightnin' - MissAmy.net
No Problem - Happy Hits String Band
Panama Limited Jug Band - Panama Limited Jug Band - Harvest
Peter and The Wolf - (by Prokofiev, arranged for jugband by Dave Van Ronk) - Alacazam Productions
Roadkill Stew - Tortolita Gut Pluckers
Second Slam - Twang - Lagado Productions
Shake That Thing - Last Chance Jug Band - Inside Memphis Records
Sonny Terry's Washboard Band - Folk Blues - Folkways
Spreading Rhythm Around - The Lost And Wandering Blues and Jazz Band
The Ribtips - The Ribtips
Washtub Jerry: Mardi Gras Party Music - The Cajun Cowboys
Please let us know about any albums not listed here that have a washtub bass on them!
Bands that currently use a Washtub Bass
I can't do any better than the good folks at tubotonia. Please go and check out their jug band website directory for the latest info!
BUT, since she's really cool and sent us a couple albums when she saw our washtub bass page here, I've got to put in another plug for Miss Amy and her album 'Mountain Man Blues' with White Lightnin'. Check out Miss Amy's website here!
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