Instrument Making at MusiCamp

Yes, these are real, playable instruments. They aren’t toys or kids’ versions. They are still played today and have an interesting social history worth telling. But best of all, they are fun to play and are excellent pedagogical tools for teaching musical concepts of tonality and harmony.

 

The Diddley Bow

The diddley bow is the instrument featured in the picture above on the left. As you can hear and see in the video below, the diddley bow is played with the neck of a glass bottle and a stick (though at MusiCamp we replace the glass bottle with a copper washer, it’s a little less dangerous). The result is very bluesy! No wonder the diddley bow is considered the precursor to the slide blues guitar.

The diddley bow is related to many different instruments found around the world (like the andibidi from the Congo, the umakweyana of West Africa, the dan bau of Vietnam, the gobichand of India). But this particular set up, a metal string expanded over wooden 2X4 (it used to be the wall or beam of house) with a metal or glass resonator, is of African American origin and emerged out of  the ugly social and economic conditions of slavery in the Southern United States.

More pictures of the diddley bow construction at MusiCamp can be found here.

The Bucket Bass

The featured image at the top of this post show three campers building/painting their bucket basses.

Below is a video of Andrea, MusiCamp’s director, and her son performing In The Highways Of The Hedges with the bucket bass. NOTE, you need headphones or good speakers to hear the bass because laptops and mobile devices tend to cut out the bottom end.

The bucket bass, closely related to the washtub or tea-chest bass, is not so different from the diddley bow. Both are one-stringed instruments and vary the tension on the string to alter pitch. The emergence and use of either the bucket, the washtub or the chest as a resonator is similarly linked to conditions of economic hardship.

For more information about the construction of the bucket bass visit our earlier post about making a washtub bass.

Cigar Box Diddley Bow

In 2015 we started making cigar box diddley bows as well (picture below).

cigarbox diddleybow

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Making a Washtub Bass at MusiCamp?… hmm…

As I mentioned in previous posts, MusiCamp was considering the possibility of campers making washtub basses as well as diddley bos this summer. So, this past Victoria Day my partner and I attempted to make a washtub bass.

For those of you who don’t know, a washtub bass is a one-stringed bass made up of a stick, a string, and an overturned washtub as the resonator (or better understood as what amplifies the sound of the plucked string).

Tin olive oil container on left and 5 gallon plastic bucket on right.

We tried two different containers (the resonator of the instrument), two different strings, and a variety of playing techniques. While we quickly resolved what physical equipment (resonator and string) worked best, the playing techniques is clearly a work in progress ;) .

One container was a food-industry size oil container. It was metal and so I figured it would resonate more like a traditional washtub than the other alternative resonator, the 5 gallon plastic bucket. But the plastic bucket had a way fuller sound and the one we much preferred.

The two strings we tried was a cotton rope and a plastic weed-wacker line. We liked the rope more but it busted before we even got a chance to properly savour the sound. Luckily, the sound of the weed-waker line wasn’t dramatically different from the rope.

The construction simply involved taking a rake or broom handle, indenting a groove on one end and drilling a hole in the other. We also drilled a whole in the middle of the container/resonator. We then tied the one end of the weed-waker line to the container/resonator and the other end to the stick (which involved wrapping it around the stick a number of times and then securing it with duck-taped). Then we inserted the groove/indent on the rim of the bucket, the string becomes taught, and we started to twang away.

I had assumed that playing different pitches/notes involved moving the stick back and forth; however, this seemed very difficult to keep in tune -as you can see in the youtube video below.

The playing technique that I soon adopted involved placing the stick a little closer to the centre of the bucket and using my fingers (usually just the index finger or the whole hand) to pitch the notes as well as moving the stick.

So, while I still need to work on the bass playing technique and possibly experiment with the instrument design to help secure the stick a little more (and thereby the intonation of the pitches/notes I play!) it is quite a simple thing to make and it makes a great bass sound!

Final say on the wash tub bass at MusiCamp? It’s definitely going to happen. I.e., if campers want to make one, it is very possible!