February 19, 2018

The Built-Wells Upright 4-String Washtub Bass: A Labor of Love and a Lot of Fun

The Built-Wells Upright 4-String Washtub Bass: As discussed on Thunder Radio’s Bluegrass Crossroads Show (listen here), appearing on our CD, and maybe at a music festival near you.

Because one string wasn't enough: My upright, four string washtub bass.

I’ve been a wannabe musician for a long time, and the “wanna” has grown stronger in recent years as I’ve seen how much fun goes on at bluegrass and old-time music festivals. I’ve squeezed into a circle of musicians with a video cam at plenty of jams, often filming my daughter Kelsey, an old-time fiddler, and her friends. It’s a lot of fun to be right there with the action, but I found myself wanting something else. Something with strings.

Despite my longing for them, strings intimidated me. It may seem silly, but after I’ve plunked a bit on the piano on and off for decades, strings seemed terribly foreign. Of the likely culprits – banjo, guitar, fiddle, etc. – I was most attracted to the bass. But how practical is that, I wondered? So large. Kind of pricey to even try. So how about a bass with just one string?  I’d see the occasional washtub bass at festivals – you know the kind – a broomstick, a washtub, and a string – and I kept thinking to myself, “Surely I could play that.” At Uncle Dave Macon Days one year, I finally worked up my courage to ask for an impromptu lesson on one, and soon found myself happily jamming on the porch of the Leeman House.

I was not, it must be noted, proficiently jamming, as it’s harder than it looks. But my happy enthusiasm made up for the shortcomings in my technique, it seemed. Fueled by the euphoria of playing tunes like “Angelina Baker” with other musicians, I came home with the idea that my very handy fella could build me a washtub bass of my own. So I Googled “washtub bass,” and what should I find? A 4-string variety. With handy-dandy DIY plans posted by this man, Dennis Havlena, who has built numerous cool instruments. My mind whirled. If I had enjoyed one string so much, then how much better would four be? (Remember, I was in my post-jam euphoric period, prior to calluses, blisters, etc.) Plus, this would be a way to have something more like a real bass at a fraction of the cost – and with a lot of quirky personality.  I printed the plans and took them to Honey. And here’s what happened:

 For more photos and some explanatory notes, see this photo album on the Kory & Kelsey Facebook page.

We didn’t follow Mr. Havlena’s plans exactly, but they were very helpful. I also found myself Googling all sorts of things about instrument construction as we went along, to help us make decisions on things like the bass bar, sound post, and more. If we were building another one, I’d try for one that was a little louder and a little taller (we intentionally made it short for me), not to mention getting the f-holes in the right direction (ahem), but it’s not bad at all for a first try.

My first jam, at the Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers Convention, 2012.

I practice at home by playing along with YouTube videos of some of my favorite tunes. I still can’t keep up with Kelsey’s pace on most tunes, but I’m working on it. When we’re at a festival with the bass, almost every “real musician” who stops by makes it sound better than I do, which could be frustrating, but is mostly inspiring. I may always be a wannabe musician, but I’ve got a unique instrument that was a fun project to build with my favorite handyman.

Listen to our interview on Thunder Crossroads Bluegrass Show  (originally aired 8/10/2013)



  1. Randy Mckinley says:

    can you purchase one of these and if so what is price

    • We just made this one for ourselves, Randy- and I don’t think I’m going to talk my husband into going into production. Thanks for your interest!

  2. I’ve got to try my hand at making one of these. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. Craig Bodie says:

    Thanks for sharing on the website. I just finished one of these basses 12/24/2017. Well, actually I just made it to “playable” stage. Still need to adjust nut (mine’s maple)and bridge, clean it up, shape neck a little more, and put a finish on it here and there. I made a scroll headstock, which makes it looks a little more fancy, and was my first attempt at that carving journey. “Fraction of the cost. . . quirk personality” attracted me also.

    • Congrats on your custom instrument, Craig! I confess I haven’t been playing mine as much lately (I took up the ukelele, which is slightly more portable), but I still love mine – and have ideas for version 2.0, one of these days. 🙂 Enjoy!

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