Homemade Musical Instruments: Washtub Bass and Scrub Board

For any devotee of homemade music and homemade musical instruments, the washtub bass and scrub board are essential equipment.
By Marc Bristol
September/October 1980
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Diagram shows modifications Jimmie Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made to his washtub bass.
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Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?


That's what this column is about. Homegrown music... and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on.
 


Bass and Washboard Update

As almost anybody who's the least bit musically inclined can tell you, a band wouldn't be complete without bass and percussion instruments. The rhythm-makers add definition and focus to any piece of music and seem to make the melody bounce along more naturally. And, in most homegrown music, these necessary roles are played by the washtub bass and the scrub board... two instruments that I introduced to you in my first column.

Since that initial article, though, I've picked up a whole passel of new information on the two homegrown musicmakers (some of it from readers of this column, and some gathered during interviews and workshops) ... and now I'm going to wrap up all those gleanings into a neat package for you.

A New Tub Design

The first item I'd like to pass along was described to me by a MOTHER EARTH NEWS-reader, Kevin Potter. He calls the invention an upright washtub bass ... and it's essentially a banjo-style version of the bull fiddle, which uses the tub for a "pot."

Kevin's creation is a hybrid instrument ... made partly from scrounged pieces and partly from elements of a conventional bass fiddle. The neck of the musicmaker is a hardwood push-mower handle, and the stand is actually a chair or table leg. The fiddle's tuning peg, bridge, and string are the same as those used on a "real" instrument. (Kevin and I agree that it is possible to make the same pieces out of any good hardwood scraps ... and that you could use nylon filament, or even clothesline, for the string.)

In addition, you'll have to find a length of 2" X 3" wood for a back support (actually, any board that's close to those dimensions will work, as long as it comfortably spans the diameter of the tub at the container's open end). You'll also need a U-shaped brace ... which can be welded together out of scraps of steel or iron. At its open end, this brace straddles the neck of the instrument and is bolted to it ... while its closed end is lag bolted—through the tub—into one end of the back support.

The mower-handle neck is attached to the tub with wood screws and a small angle bracket. You'll also need one turn-buckle per string, a double-ended screw to secure the chair leg in place (if it didn't come with one of its own), and a small piece of hardwood to use as a "nut" (where the strings rest at the top of the neck).

You can form the holes to hold your tuning pegs by one of two methods. On his project, Kevin employed a series of six different drill bits ... boring about 1/4" deeper with each successively smaller bit. Another—and equally effective—way to form the conical hole is to make the initial bore with the smallest size bit you have, and then enlarge the opening with a repairman's tapered hand reamer ... a tool which is available at most hardware stores. (The turnbuckle tailpiece is simply bolted in place through a hole drilled in the tub's bottom rim.)

The neck tilts slightly backward from the edge of the "drum." That's to allow for a taller bridge (which must be set at a height that will keep the string almost parallel to the neck) ... because—as a general rule—the higher the bridge, the more resonance and volume your instrument will produce. (If you buy a standard bridge, of course, the dimensions of that store-bought part will determine the neck angle on your washtub bass.)

The great advantage of Kevin's innovative design is that it gives you the option of adding extra strings to the instrument to extend its tonal range. (It's even possible to make a four-string upright tub bass ... but if you do so, you'll need to use a wider piece of wood for the neck.) The instrument is played like a "real" bull fiddle (not like the regular gutbucket I described in my original column) ... and can also be bowed—if it's fitted with more than two strings—after you've reshaped the neck to match a commercially manufactured bridge.

Aircraft Cable String

I picked up some more good ideas on gutbucket design from Jimmie Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. (Although his fans probably know Jimmie for his stellar harmonica work—particularly his performance on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"—he used to play the tub bass back when the group was just a fledgling jug band!)

The key feature of Fadden's instrument design is the use of 1/16" stainless steel aircraft cable for string. The strong filament—which can be bought "ready made" with a steel ball attached to one end—is secured to the tub bottom by means of a scrounged bicycle brake adjuster. First, drill an appropriate-sized opening in the center of your washtub's bottom. Then pass the aircraft cable through the open shaft of the bike part ... and fit that tube into the hole. The unit is attached to the bottom of the tub with a two-inch-diameter plywood washer and a matching felt washer that are glued together. Last of all, tighten the whole assembly—on the "outside" of the tub's floor—using the nut that came with the brake adjuster.

At the opposite end of the cable—near the top of the instrument's neck—Jimmie uses a length of small-diameter copper tubing to reinforce the hole where the string passes through the neck. And, to make a secure "tuning machine", the musician employs a bolt ... with a hole drilled in its center large enough to accommodate the cable. Two nuts are fastened onto the bolt (one on either side of the cable), and the whole unit is screwed into the side of the neck. Then when the musician tunes his bass, the string will wrap around the bolt and stay clamped between the nuts. This creates a fairly permanent situation ... as opposed to the commonly used "wrapped and knotted" clothesline method, with which the string tends to slip and even has to be retied occasionally.

While we're on the subject, I'd like to add a word or two about strings: In my original column on washtubs, I said that —among other choices of materials—you could use a regular gut D string. Well, since then I've seen musicians using G's and A's, too. The pitch, therefore, doesn't seem to matter much ... just as long as the string is noncoated. The size of the string will be up to you ... and will probably depend on how large a tub your instrument has.

A further warning: If you're going to play tub bass during a long jam session, you might want to wrap your plucking fingers with adhesive tape to keep them from blistering. During his gutbucket stomp days, Jimmie also wore a heavy canvas glove on his nonpickin' hand, with pads of thick leather sewn across the fingers at the point where they touch the string. He says that a groove quickly wears into the leather, making it easy to maintain that same point of contact. (If you use this technique, you might like to follow Jimmie's example further, and cut off the ends of the glove's fingers for natural air conditioning.)

The Latest on Washboards

As I've mentioned in this column before, Billy Hults and I are working on a book about washboard construction and playing technique. In the course of our research, we've had a chance to speak with some of the best designers and players of the homegrown instrument ... and we've learned a great deal from the conversations.

For instance, I originally reported to you that brass scrub boards have the best tone. Well, since that time I've heard all kinds played ... and I've come to the conclusion that—as far as sound is concerned, at least—your choice of materials should be purely a matter of taste. (Even the bass models don't all sound the same, partly because of differences in back bracing.)

In fact, Jeff Hanna (another member of the Dirt Band) swears by his own enameled steel model, which has a sharper tone than brass and—according to Jeff—lasts longer than do boards made of any other material. (All the fulltime washboard players I know wear out their brass models in fairly short order.) I also discovered that—contrary to my earlier opinion—glass washboards can produce good percussion effects. (This revelation came from Rich Kuras of Corvallis, Oregon, who plays his unusual scrubber with plastic guitar picks.)

Nimble Thimbles

As you may know, the most common method of playing the washboard is with thimbles ... but many performers find it difficult to keep the little finger-protectors in place. Some folks actually tape them onto the ends of their fingers so the "digit guards" won't fall off in the middle of a fast song! However, that method just isn't convenient for multi-instrument musicians.

My friend Todd Parks has devised one solution to the problem: He simply epoxy-glued his thimbles onto the fingertips of a pair of light cotton gloves ... so now Todd can whip off the mitts and pick up another instrument in jig time!

My own answer to that dilemma involves, of all things, a fishing tackle box! First, I drill four holes into each of two separate blocks of wood, making sure the bores are big enough to hold standard-size thimbles and that they're arranged at intervals that have about the same spacing as do my outspread fingers. Then I drop one thimble—open end up—into each hole, and fit the wooden blocks into the upper compartment of the tackle box. With my box beside me, I can easily stick my fingers down into the thimbles ... and instantly be ready to play!

Stay Tuned

I hope to have available—very soon—both the washboard book Billy and I have been working on and the Homegrown Music album mentioned in several of my earlier columns. These resources should provide a lot of information—not to mention some good ol' down-home entertainment—for folks interested in making and playing their own instruments.

But we still need help on the projects. So if you'd like to contribute anything (in the way of photos, discography info, or song arrangements) to the record or the book, drop me a line. Your help will be appreciated ... and I'll be sure to let you know when the products are ready to go.


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