How to make a washtub bass with killer tone
My father played a washtub bass in a folk group for forty years. I still have it stashed in my attic. It is loud enough to be heard quite well in a large auditorium, and has a very nice tone. Dad had good control—he played in tune and was a good musician, a true bass player.
Here are the instructions for my father's tub bass. He tinkered with the construction techniques for four decades and had a wonderful sounding bass as the result. Although this is not the only way to make one, this method will produce a fine sounding instrument.
Buy a large galvanized steel washtub. His bass is made from a Wheeling #41 washtub that measures 16.5" (42 cm) across the top (when turned upside down), and 20" (51 cm) across the open rim. If the tub has metal handles, remove them. They will only rattle and cause unwanted distraction.
Drill a hole in the center of the top that will accommodate your string. Dad installed a metal grommet to reduce the wear on the string where it enters the tub.
On the inside of the tub, my father placed a 1x4x12" piece of balsa wood on top of three strips of spongy foam, one in the center, and one on each end, so that the balsa wood is held about a half inch away from the top of the tub, and loosely secured it to the top with a screw to keep it from falling when there was no tension on the string. Then he secured the string around a dowel and attached a round piece of thin plywood to the underside of the balsa. Using balsa alone without the plywood disc would not support the string since balsa is so spongy.
Notch the end of a dense, uniformly straight wooden handle, and drill an angled hole at the top. Secure the string with a C-clamp, which can also be used as a faux tuning machine for laughs.
The length of the string should be adjusted so that the string is like a vertical plumb line above the hole in the tub when the stick is in place on the lip of the tub.
The string is a European gut upright bass E string. The string is available through Lemur Music in the USA, and is the most expensive part of the instrument at $110.00. Fritz Richmond used a steel string on his tub basses, but had to wear a glove as a result since his technique was to move his hand up and down the stick to shorten or lengthen the string. My dad played purely by changing the tension on the string, which does result in a bit more limited range, but the tone is to die for.
One last important item: Carry a throw rug to set under the tub. Experiment with putting the tub partially on the rug to get some air movement between the rim and the floor.
Alas, after my dad died in June of 2008, and as I was cleaning out his things I picked up his tub and played a few notes. The string, worn from years of use, broke as I played, kind of like the grandfather clock that stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died. Maybe I'll have to order a new string one of these days....
Peace, Charlie Sattgast