June 23, 2013
An interview with Matt Keeler. His Role: Washtub Bass Player
1. How did you decide to use washtubs as an instrument?
Itís a washtub bass, and itís a traditional folk instrument. I read about it online. I tried a traditional one, which has a broomstick handle sitting against a notch on the edge of the washtub. You tilt it back and forth to change the tension on the cord attached to the bottom of the washtub. Thatís the traditional way, but I didnít have much luck. Itís hard to get a good pitch. I read about a pump handle washtub bass instead on a blog. Instead of just a loose broomstick handle, you make a long cross piece and attach it to the side of the washtub and the cord. You have more control that way. The cord is like a big rubber band and thatís the way it works.
2. How long did it take you to learn to play the washtub bass?
You can learn right away. Itís not like thereís fingerings. Basically, itís by ear. If you have a pretty good ear, you can learn it in a day or two. The type of line you use makes a big difference. I use weed whacker line. It traditionally uses gut string, but those are hard to find and they arenít cheap. A good one can cost about $40. I have one and they last forever, but you have to take care of them.
3. What other instruments do you play?
Well, I started playing the sax and went to school on that. I got into guitar hardcore and learned a lot of different styles ó jazz, blues, classical. I played electric guitar in a punk rock band for a while. I also play the piano, mandolin, tenor banjo, the harmonica and the hurdy-gurdy.
4. What kinds of music do you play now ó do you have a band?
I think if youíve ever heard a jug band, thatís a lot like what I play. Some people call it Appalachia fiddle music or blues. The washtub bass itself is a backup instrument ó itís not a main instrument. It takes a good ear, but you can play anything on it really. Rock groups used it in the '90s. My band is called Blues Reveler, and itís me and a couple of my brothers-in-law, Adam Thayer and Ben Thayer.
5. How often to you perform with your band?
We perform maybe once or twice a month. Iím mainly a music teacher. We play at festivals where we fit in the best. Usually like arts or historical or harvest festivals. Weíve also done three- to four-hour bar gigs, like weíve played at Little Mexico in Ada. I also play at nursing homes. A lot of times, Iíll lead worship at our church, St. John Mennonite Church.
6. Where do you teach music?
I teach at two different Catholic schools. I do two days at St. Anthony in Columbus Grove and two days at St. Mary School in Leipsic.
7. Whatís the biggest challenge about playing the washtub bass?
The biggest challenge is probably making it heard. Itís not naturally very loud. I had to go out and find a good gut string, and how you set it on the ground makes a big difference. Iíve experimented with different kinds of bases and things to get more sound out of it as it is low and soft.
8. Whatís the biggest enjoyment in playing it?
Just how easy it is to learn. I like how anyone can come up and learn it in a few days. I had a kid play it at a Christmas concert at St. Anthony. You have to be willing to really whack on that string though.