How To Play A Washtub Bass
When you play, stand on one foot behind the tub, placing the other foot on the rim of the tub, towards the front. To get different notes, haul back on the staff, putting more tension (or less) on the string.
I started learning to play WTB by putting on some Western Swing CD's, and playing along with Bob Wills, Asleep At The Wheel, and Hank Thompson. It took about 8 hours, over the course of 5 days.
After that, I progressed to playing along quietly with people at open jam sessions, and now I dare say that I am a full-blown WTB Player. When I say "quietly", I mean that I didn't pluck the string too hard, and rested my foot on the head of the tub instead of the rim. I DID use a tub riser, so I could better hear what I was playing.
I still pay close attention to techniques used when I hear music with a prominent Upright Bass, and as a result my own bass lines continue to become more and more complex. I started out with just a standard two-note line, sort of like "Oom-Pah" from a beginning tuba player, or a classic "1-5" Bluegrass bass part.
It helped a lot that I already played guitar. This gave a feel for when the chord changes were going to come, what they were likely to be, and what the beat was.
Faithfully keeping the beat is more important than playing the right notes, and you can get by with only 3 or 4 very low notes.
I play LOTS of notes over a wide range, but then I like to do walking bass runs, and I love to play on songs with a laid-back Jazz, Western Swing, or Rockabilly feel, where an upright bass would really shine.
You don't have to start out with complicated bass lines, and may never even want to play in the same style I do.
You can just play like a kind of a quiet kick-drum until (and unless) you really want to take it out for a walk (So To Speak).
If you don't already play piano, guitar, or some other instrument, it will help you a lot to find someone who plays piano or guitar, and sings (and is patient), who will let you play along. Jam Sessions and Open Mic Nights are great places to meet such people.
Your foot is necessary to hold the front of the tub down while you're yanking on the center with the string. You can also sit down and hold the tub with both feet, still on the rim.
I catch the string on the inside of the last knuckle of my first three fingers to pluck. This catches the string about half an inch in from the ends of my fingers. Sometimes I only use two fingers to pluck. Some people actually pinch the string between their thumb and forefinger, and give it a heavy pull as they pluck. I never do this, since it doesn't give me the speed or control I want. I pluck it pretty much like you pluck an upright bass.
Be SURE that your foot is resting on the top RIM of the tub ONLY, and not on the head (which used to be the bottom).
If using a microphone, you may sometimes rest your foot on the actual head of the tub, to get a mellower sound, or sometimes to quash rattle. This diminishes the volume, so usually isn't good for non-amplified playing.
Some people are content to play VERY few notes on a WTB.
That's acceptable, if it's all you want to do. It's pretty effective, nonetheless.
People who use steel cables usually play with a rawhide work glove on the plucking hand, because it's hard on fingers. I've never needed a glove with the parachute cord.
To mic the WTB, I used to just put a Shure SM-57 down about 2 inches from the front of the tub and that seems to do just fine.
Later, I switched to an Audio-Techinca ATM25 microphone, designed for kick-drums. This mic has a low-end frequency response of 35Hz, about 5Hz lower than an SM-57. It will also handle higher Sound Pressure Levels, a benefit when placing it close to a WTB or kick-drum.
A mic stand with boom adjusted down by the floor, or very short desk-type stand is good for the microphone.
The WTB will play notes down in the 30Hz range. This is about 10Hz below what an SM-57 will reproduce, and about 5Hz below the ATM25 (and most other kick-drum mics).
Recently, I switched to a Golden Bullet mic, from K&K Systems, which is a miniature condenser mic they designed specifically for Upright Bass. It uses a hyper-cardoid polar pattern (EXTREMELY Directional), and excellent sensitivity, while handling high Sound Pressure Levels.
They can be had (or seen) at www.gollihur.com and cost about $120. Low end on that mic is 20Hz, which is a little below anything you'll be able to get out of the WTB.
Desk Stands can be had for under $20 (including a good hard-rubber mic clip) or you can just lay the mic down on a piece of carpet near the tub. Having it an inch or so off the floor will be better for sound & feedback control than actually laying it down on the floor.
In my own case, I have the Golden Trinity system for my Upright Bass, which blends the Golden Bullet mic with my piezo bridge pickup. I remove the mic from the Upright when I need it for the Washtub Bass, and it works very well. I place it, also, about one to two inches back from the tub, and about an inch off the floor.
Some people place the mic inside the tub, but I find that this causes booming & more of a feedback problem. The tub will hear itself if it's sound bounces off the outside of the tub.It then amplifies it in reverse, back to the microphone.
If you're playing with acoustic guitars only, using a riser, and no amplification, you can be heard just fine for about 30 feet. The bass is really felt as much as heard, and low frequency sounds are hard to stop.
One characteristic that's common to Washtub Bass and Upright Bass is that the bass will actually sound louder to someone 15 feet away than it does to those playing it, or standing right next to it!
The WTB will sound very different on a carpeted floor than on a hard one. Some players carry a "Floor" with them. This is a 24"x24" piece of 5/8" plywood, covered with carpet, or not, depending on preference. A hard surface gives you more volume, but carpet gives a more mellow sound. I prefer carpet, especially since I mic the tub.