Homemade Musical Instruments: Washtub Bass and Scrub Board

1 / 3
Marc Bristol, a down-home musician and promoter of homemade musical instruments, sings and strums a tune at a local music festival.
2 / 3
Diagram displays the parts of an upright washtub bass.
3 / 3
Diagram shows modifications Jimmie Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made to his washtub bass.

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.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368