The Washtub Bass, also known as the gutbucket, is a fascinating member of the string instrument family. Its origins can be traced back to the early 1900s when African American jug bands showcased their improvisational skills by creating instruments from a wide range of everyday objects. This humble instrument gained popularity within American folk music and has since evolved into various regional variations found worldwide.
Interestingly, the Washtub Bass is thought to have derived from the ground harp, a primitive instrument found in Africa. Its evolution and adaptation by African American musicians led to the creation of this unique instrument with its distinct sound and character.
One of the remarkable features of the Washtub Bass is its accessibility and affordability. With just a few simple materials like an upturned washtub, a wooden pole or stick, and a plastic-coated steel core clothesline, one can construct this instrument without breaking the bank.
As an instrument, the Washtub Bass offers a rhythmic and percussive quality that complements a wide range of musical genres. Its deep, resonant sound adds a captivating bass line to musical ensembles, making it a beloved choice for musicians across different cultures and backgrounds.
The name “gutbucket” was coined for the instrument due to its association with the bucket used in its construction. Interestingly, this same bucket was often utilized by African American families to collect the intestines of animals, particularly pigs, for the purpose of making chitlins, a popular food at that time. This dual use of the bucket gave rise to the instrument’s peculiar moniker, reflecting its humble origins and resourcefulness.
The Washtub Bass is frequently played in conjunction with other “homemade” instruments such as the washboard and spoons. These easily accessible objects serve as rhythmic accompaniments, creating a delightful blend of sounds that is characteristic of traditional folk music. The combination of these homemade instruments allows musicians to fully immerse themselves in the spirit of improvisation and creative expression.
The resonator of the Washtub Bass, the component responsible for amplifying the sound, is indeed the washtub itself. Its hollow structure and material properties enable it to resonate and project the vibrations created by plucking or slapping the bass string. The simple yet effective design of using a washtub as the resonator is a testament to the instrument’s ingenuity and its ability to produce deep, resonant tones.
When constructing a Washtub Bass, the neck, or the long pole-like component that holds the string and allows for playing, should ideally be around 4.5 feet in length. This specific measurement ensures that the neck is of sufficient strength and stability to withstand the force exerted while playing. It is essential for the neck to be robust enough to avoid breaking or bending during enthusiastic performances, enabling musicians to play with confidence and vigor.
The choice of a plastic-coated steel core clothesline for constructing Washtub Basses today stems from its durability and strength. The plastic coating adds an extra layer of protection, preventing the string from wearing out or breaking easily. This type of clothesline has become a popular and reliable option among musicians who wish to build long-lasting and playable instruments.
The attachment of the string to the washtub involves securing it to the bottom center. This can be done in two common ways: either by threading the string through a hole in the center of the washtub or by using a bolt to fasten the string. Both methods ensure that the string remains securely connected to the washtub, allowing for proper tension and sound production. Additionally, the other end of the string is attached to the neck or stick of the instrument, providing stability and control while playing.
To play the Washtub Bass, the musician positions their foot on the rim of the washtub’s bottom. By firmly planting their foot, they establish a stable base that enables them to control the instrument. By applying or releasing tension on the string with one hand while strumming or plucking it with the other hand, the musician produces the desired sound. This technique allows for variations in pitch and volume, contributing to the instrument’s expressive capabilities.
Washtub Basses have the versatility to be electrified and amplified using microphones. This feature enables musicians to play the instrument in larger venues or alongside amplified instruments, ensuring that the deep and resonant sound of the Washtub Bass can be heard clearly in various performance settings. The addition of amplification expands the instrument’s sonic possibilities and allows it to blend seamlessly with other amplified instruments.
A notable Washtub Bass crafted by Fritz Richmond is proudly displayed at the Smithsonian Institution. This recognition highlights the instrument’s cultural significance and its impact on American music history. The presence of a Washtub Bass at such a prestigious institution serves as a testament to its unique musical heritage and its enduring place within the realm of folk and traditional music.
The Washtub Bass has seen its fair share of talented players throughout history. Will Shade (1898-1966), a prominent musician of the Memphis Jug Band, showcased his skills on the instrument, contributing to the band’s iconic sound. Fritz Richmond (1939-2005), known for his work with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, was a skilled Washtub Bass player who left a lasting impact on the instrument’s legacy. Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes has also embraced the instrument, incorporating it into the band’s eclectic sound.
The influence of the Washtub Bass even extends to iconic musicians like David Bowie. Before he rose to fame, Bowie dabbled with the instrument as a pre-teen, highlighting its accessibility and appeal to musicians of all backgrounds.
Sam Phillips, the legendary founder of Sun Records, initially sought out gut bucket or Washtub Bass music to record when he first discovered Elvis Presley. This underscores the instrument’s significance within the realm of early rock and roll and its contribution to the development of groundbreaking music.
Jug bands featuring Washtub Basses experienced peak popularity between 1925 and 1935, particularly in Memphis and Louisville. During this era, these ensembles captivated audiences with their energetic performances and infectious rhythms. However, it is worth noting that jug bands with Washtub Basses first gained popularity in New Orleans as early as 1900, illustrating the instrument’s deep roots in the region’s musical heritage.
The versatility of the Washtub Bass extends to the various alternative “washtubs” that can be used in its construction. Instead of a traditional metal washtub, creative builders have utilized different objects to serve as resonators. This adaptability has led to the emergence of alternative names for the instrument in different countries and regions. For instance, it may be referred to as a gas tank bass, barrel bass, box bass (in Trinidad), bush bass (in Australia), babatoni (in South Africa), dumdum (in Zimbabwe), dan bau (in Vietnam), sanduku (in Zanzibar), tulon (in Italy), or tingotalango (in Cuba). These names reflect the diverse materials and cultural contexts in which the instrument is found.
The tea chest bass represents a popular variation of the Washtub Bass. This version replaces the traditional metal washtub with a wooden tea chest, providing a distinct tonal quality to the instrument. The construction typically involves attaching a broomstick or wooden pole to the tea chest, which acts as the resonator. One or more strings are then added to complete the instrument. The tea chest bass is beloved for its warm and resonant sound, and its accessibility has made it a favorite among musicians who appreciate its simplicity and unique character.