Darveau Pump
There's Music in Them Thar Tubs
[The following is a short essay I wrote several years ago. Feedback on the topic is always welcome, and if you'd like to contribute your own commentary on any WTB topic, please send it along.
We seem to be entering an era of renewed enthusiasm for the washtub bass.

The main front of development would appear to be the resurgence of country-rock or bluegrass-oriented acoustic bands composed of younger musicians. Although I am no musicologist, nor musico-sociologist, I would offer the guess that, among musicians and their audiences alike, this is reaction away from dependence on electronic equipment and studio refinement-- or, at least, that it is a function of cultural currents and the tides of fashion.

But there are other, more fathomable, elements which could either drive a WTB resurgence or enable it to go farther and in different directions than previous renewals took it. And they may extend the range of that resurgence to well beyond the territories of bluegrass and country.

A significant factor could be the high cost of entry-level acoustic basses. You may not care for the sound of an electric bass, or you may just prefer the simplicity of the acoustic instrument. Then you behold that $700-$1000 price tag, and you have three choices: give up (your bass instincts), cough up (the cash), or take up (the washtub bass.)

While I am guessing, here are a couple of other conjectures on factors that could fire a washtub bass resurgence. One would be a serious depletion of the number of used acoustic basses in circulation, just because previous waves of bassists started electric and stayed electric and fed nothing into the acoustic market when they upgraded. Besides, like anything else, these acoustic behemoths must suffer a certain mortality. A box six feet tall, three feet wide and made of thin wood has to have its liabilities.

Even changes in the economy could have a bearing on the matter, with a chain of causation starting as far away from the topic as the reduction in average car size. What was the limerick about the young man from Boston, who drove around in an Austin? I believe it went on the say he had room for his bass and a gallon of gas. But that was the old days-- now you may have to choose between gas and bass, unless you opt for the relative portability of a washtub model.

But there is a fundamental fact behind the whole scene, which may do the most to prolong and encourage a washtub bass revival, and that is, that the musical potential of the washtub has by no means been fully explored. As creator of the Tub-O-Tone, I have been experimenting with WTB design for several years, and two things have continually impressed me: how backward the standard design is, and how much more the tub can offer, with the assistance of some 9th-grade physics.

Being of backward design does not mean that the traditional WTB can not produce excellent music. But it does mean that it is a lot more difficult than it ought to be, if you happen to lack the hand-ear coordination of a Washtub Jerry or the callusses of a ditch-digger. And it means that the technical limitations of the instrument form a rather low ceiling over the musical productiveness of the player.

I expect that situation to change greatly over the next few years.

Lauren Miller

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