Bass man|Simple stuff, sweet sounds from Stanley Swartzel

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 31, 2010

“Rub a dub dub, three men in a tub….”

Well, not really — that’s the Mother Goose version.

The real story is about one man, Stanley Swartzel, who has a washtub, a stick and a string, and with those simple implements he makes music —music so clear and so precise that most can’t tell the sound from that of an expensive upright bass.

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The difference between a regular bass and the washtub version — other than more than $1,000 — is that “99 percent is played by ear, and the one percent is pulling a rope attached to a stick, and anybody can do that,” Stanley said. “So it’s not a big thing.”

The idea of using a washtub turned upside down as a musical instrument was not uncommon in the mountains years ago, but they’re pretty unique today. Stanley already had a room full of instruments when he decided about nine years ago that he wanted a bass, “and I thought do I have $800 to $1,200 I just want to get rid of on another instrument?” He did about 15 minutes of research on the subject and then headed to Haden Hardware where he told one of the Haden boys he wanted a washtub.

“I looked at tubs, pulled out tubs, pounded on the bottom a little, then would pick up another and look on the inside. Haden was still standing there, and I felt like I had to say something, so I said, ‘You really have to be careful when you’re picking out a fine musical instrument. You want to take your time.’ When I checked out, I told him I was going to make a washtub bass, so he offered to sell me a good saw,” Stanley said.

He tells everybody the instrument was recommended by Paul Harvey, who for years advertised for True Value Hardware. The type tub does make a difference. Stanley prefers a No. 2 or a No. 3  — any other size is too small or too big. The tub also needs to be a pretty heavy gauge.

His instrument string, he said, is the cheapest in the world — 50 feet for $2.50 at Walmart. He uses 3/8- inch braided nylon, a curtain rod and a tub for a total cost of less than $25. Sometimes he uses a walking stick or a broom handle, cuts a groove in one end so it will fit on the tub rim, drills a hole in the center of the tub and pulls the cord through and ties it in a knot — neither too loose nor too tight.

If the sound doesn’t attract people, the oddity of the instrument will — “Like a magnet, it will bring people to you. That’s the most fun thing about playing it,” he said, because he loves talking to people.

They often want to look under the tub, and Stanley sometimes tells them, “I actually have a tape player under there,” or he might say, “It’s patented, and if you promise you won’t use it in any way…” and then he hears their words echoing when they look underneath: “It’s just a knot.”

It plays best on a solid floor against a wall or in a corner. A deck or a porch with gaps between the boards produces a dull thump. Once at a festival in West Virginia a microphone was put under it, and Stanley said a mere touch of the string made a sound “like the most beautiful bass you’ve ever heard.”

Stanley was born in North Carolina 61 years ago and has lived in Tennessee, where he met his wife, Juanita, at Freed-Hardeman College. He attended Furman, then earned a degree in geology at the University of South Carolina. When he was a lad his father gave him a harmonica, then an accordion to nurture a musical appetite. He plays guitar, ukulele, banjo, Indian flute and some other instruments, and is working on the fiddle.

In high school he played the tuba, and while in college — facing the possibility of being drafted — he checked into military bands and ended up playing the tuba in an Army band.

“And I sing bass in church,” he said. “That’s my bass background.”

Playing the washtub bass is really playing by ear, for there are no frets, no keys to play in, no music to read, and Stanley said, “If you can hear the notes and make up a bass part, then you can play the washtub bass. You can tell in a few minutes whether or not someone can match a pitch, so you have to listen to the band, try to match the key they’re in and make up a bass part. If you can do that, you can play the washtub.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg

Juanita said he learned to play it immediately. But Stanley laughed and said, “I don’t play it any better now than I did then.”

Good or bad, he’s worn out several tubs which Juanita has converted into patio flower containers. His present washtub is brown “because that’s the color paint I had.”

Playing the washtub bass has its advantages, Stanley pointed out: “It’s easy to transport; when you get tired you can sit on it; if you can’t see over the crowd you can stand on it; and if it rains you can put it over your head.” He has pasted letters for the four main keys on the side of the tub so that if someone asks, “What key?” all he has to do is turn the tub — which, of course, doesn’t change a thing.

One additional item he finds essential in playing is “the Michael Jackson glove” to protect his fingers. He puts tape on the glove or otherwise “it would tear the skin off. You can play a little bit and not play it real hard, and sometimes I’ll take the glove off on something soft, like a waltz. In a three-hour session I would wear holes totally through leather gloves” if he didn’t tape them.

When he had the idea of making the washtub bass, Stanley planned to play it only at home where nobody but Juanita would hear him. That hasn’t been the case. He has played in nursing homes, coffee houses, festivals, for a wedding and a funeral, for dress-up affairs such as the Balfour Ball and at old-time music pickin’s. He plays at the welcome centers in Clinton on the first Sunday afternoon and in Vicksburg on the third Sunday each month with other musicians. He’s played at the Uncle Dave Macon Festival, the Jimmie Rodgers Festival and at others, including one in Columbia.

In Columbia, he was looking for someone to jam with when he saw four men who really sounded good. So he asked if he could join them with the bass. They said sure.

“You don’t just walk up and say ‘Can I play the washtub bass with you?’ I don’t carry it around. I went to the car, brought it back. You kind of don’t look at ’em when you’re walking up. You don’t want to see their reactions. Anyway, I played with them and they were very complimentary and asked if I could take a break, and I said, ‘Sure. Do you mean on the tub or to go off somewhere?’ They took their rounds, then I did boogie-woogie with the tub, and they loved it.”

They were having a great time until they said it was about time for them to be on stage — which is when Stanley learned they were Paul Williams and the Liberty Trio, one of the topflight bluegrass bands in the country. They invited him to join them in Tennessee at another festival.

A lot of musicians tell him they’ve never seen another washtub bass player who can play like he does, that they can’t believe he’s actually hitting the notes with the band, “and I say I can’t either.” Some bass players come up to him, listen a while, then say, “I just spent $1,200 and wasted my money.”

To Stanley, his success with the washtub remains a mystery.

“I still can’t believe a string, a stick and a tub can actually sound as good as it does,” he said.