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The DIY Musician: How to Electrify a Washtub Bass and Washboard — Because, Why the Hell Not?

Ha! Guitar World editors can move my office into the dark corner of the basement just like "Milton the stapler guy" in Office Space…but I won’t give up. I’m going to keep submitting freak instrument ideas and insane hacks in my quest to convert every Steve Vai devotee into rabid fans of Willie Joe and his Unitar.

Jug band music shall take over the world. MWAHAHA!

Two weeks ago, I reviewed several guitar pickups specifically made for cigar box guitars. Why? Because cigar box guitars need to be plugged into Marshall stacks and cranked until the windows shatter. And since we have loud cigar box guitars, let’s electrify a washtub bass and washboard as well.

Electric Washtub Bass: A washtub bass is a simple instrument consisting of a metal tub, a stick, clothesline rope (or weed whacker string) and an eye bolt. If you’ve never built one, here’s a link with free plans to get you started. They sound great when jamming on front porches, but if you want to play live, you gotta electrify that sucker.

My group, Shane Speal’s Snake Oil Band, went through a lot of trial-and-error when it came to amping the gutbucket. We tried drum microphones underneath and piezo disc pickups glued to the top, but nether worked so well. They either created feedback or just wouldn’t capture the tones of the bass. Our "eureka moment" came when we decided to put a $4 acoustic rod pickup on the bolt that holds the string. It had direct vibration transfer of tone without any feedback.

Here’s how it’s done:

BTW, ignore the internal bracing. You won’t need to do it unless you have a drunken washboard player who likes to smash instruments at the end of the night. Also note that the pickup comes standard with an 1/8-inch plug at the end. I had to splice the wires of the pickup and solder it to a standard ¼” output jack.

Secret tip: When my band recorded our album, Holler, we ran the washtub bass through an octave pedal and added an extra octave below to beef up the sound.

Electric Washboard: Let’s just skip all the jibber jabber and get to the point: If you shove a magnetic guitar pickup onto a washboard, you can play it through guitar effects! This makes it possible for your jug band to cover the Shaft theme song.

I mounted a $14 Gold Foil pickup onto a washboard using just a couple sections of an old yardstick and a four screws. The pickup is prewired to a guitar cable and required no soldering.

One final thought: What if Emmitt Otter’s Jug Band and the Riverbottom Nightmare Band joined forces?

Shane Speal is "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.