A brief guide to do-it-yourself music brought to you by Mike and Marian Billo

 HOW TO PLAY THE SPOONS by Marian Billo         

Different kinds of spoons give you different tones. Metal spoons tend to ring a bit and wooden ones give you a sharper sound like castanets. First, hold the spoons back to back. Curl your fingers toward your palm. Put the bottom spoon between your ring and middle fingers. the top spoon is held either between the middle and index fingers or index finger and thumb. Whichever is most comfortable for you. The butt of the spoons handle should sit against your palm. Spoons with flat handles are the easiest to play for extended periods. The spoons should match in size. However, if you can't find two wooden ones of exactly the same size, I find that it is easier to control them if the larger one is on the bottom. The motion is from the wrist more than the arm. Swing them down and tap your knee. Do this until you stop being embarrassed and it feels comfortable. Now, hold your other hand above the spoons and tap them at the top of the swing on your left palm (right, if you are left-handed). Spoons have the advantage of being small enough to conceal in a pocket or purse, thereby allowing you to become a rhythm section before anyone can stop you. -Marian


HOW TO PLAY THE BONES by Mike Billo     

Bones playing is one of the oldest forms of percussion known. There are Bones Players on Grecian urns and Shakespeare refers to them in "A Midsummers Nights Dream". Many fine manufactured "bones" made of bone or various woods are available from companies like Elderly Instruments and Lark In The Morning, but for this discussion we will call them bones no matter what they are made of. First, hold your dominant hand in front of you palm down. Next, place a bone between your index and middle fingers, with the midway point of the bone being against the webbing of your fingers. Fold your middle finger down over the bone pressing it against your palm. This bone will remain stationary at all times. Next, place the other bone between your middle and ring fingers with the top of the bone about half the height of the other bone. This bone will sway back and forth. Close your fingers just enough to hold the swaying bone in place. Remember, your middle finger has secured the stationary bone in place. If the bones are curved, you will want the centers to be closest to each other, with the tops and bottoms pointing outward. Now, make a gentle wrist motion like cracking a whip. You should get the sound of the swaying bone striking the stationary bone. If this doesn't work, try crossing your arm across your chest like a Roman Centurion Salute, and make the same wrist motion. If you have difficulty, remember to make your motion more gentle, rather than following the urge to snap it harder. At first, try simply counting four beats evenly. then work your way up to more difficult rhythms. Two-handed bones playing is the style most preferred by accomplished bonists (we used to be called "boners", but fortunately, that name has fallen into disfavor for obvious reasons). To achieve this, place another pair of bones in your non-dominant hand and follow the directions given above. At first, play simple with both hands doing the same thing. After this begins to feel comfortable, delegate the basic time keeping to your non-dominant hand and experiment with accents and ornamentation with your dominant hand, as this is the one with which you have more fine motor control. Welcome to the world of Boneheads


WASHBOARDS by Marian          

 Washboards can still be found for sale at many hardware stores. The larger ones look flashy, but the small ones sound pretty much the same and they are easier to conceal should the need arise. Some people play them with bare fingers. I find this painful, so I use metal banjo picks bent to fit against the fingertips. The traditionalists use metal thimbles. Unfortunately, I have never had much luck keeping them on when things get going. Cajun players sometimes use metal spoons (thereby eliminating the "where do I put my spoons when I play washboard" problem). A lady from Turlock uses a martini strainer and Big Mama Sue from Santa Cruz uses wire whisks. One of my favorites comes from Jim Murdoch of San Francisco, who gets a great sound from a whisk broom (what we used to call a corn broom). The sound is almost like brushes on a snare drum. Pete Devine uses drumsticks as did the late, great Spike Jones. There are as many ways to hold the washboard as there are things to hit it with. Some people prefer an upright grip. Hezzie Treitsch of the Hoosier Hot Shots played with his upright attached to a sort of rhythm stick contraption with bells and whistles and wood blocks and heaven knows what else. Others play it flat in front. Jenny Dailey of the KC Moaners sets hers on an old wooden ironing board and has so many extra goodies attached that you can barely see the washboard. Professor Gizmo has all sorts of attachments, too. Last time I saw him he had it attached to the front of a bicycle and he pedaled and played. Some time ago a friend at a party noticed that I was covered in metal dust after playing washboard for a couple hours and asked if I was worried about Alzheimer's from the aluminum dust. So, of course, then I was. I had no idea what my washboard was made of. So I did some research and finally found the Columbus Washboard Co. website and sent an e-mail to ask. You will be glad to know that all the washboards from the Columbus Washboard Co. are galvanized steel unless otherwise specified (they sell a glass and a brass as well). They are also very nice folks and have allowed me to add a link to their page in case you need to buy a washboard and your local stores don't carry anything. You don't need a special one but here's a link to all their goodies.

Are you ready Hezzie??

Washboards International


You may have seen the metal rub board being played in Cajun or Zydeco Bands. To play in this manner, our friend, Bruce Engelhardt ( who has recommended playing the wasboard with wire bristled brushes used for cleaning barbecues ) of Santa Cruz, advises playing the board with two ordinary kitchen spoons. Hold the bowl of the spoon in your hand ( round part against the palm ) and scratch the board with the end of the spoon. "After a couple of months of this the end of the spoon will be pretty sharp so be careful ( with the metal breastplate and sharp implements, your bandmates may push you to the front of the stage as a sort of bodyguard)".


Washtub Bass by Marian

No discussion of homemade percussion would be complete wihout the washtub bass. Years ago, I made a traditional washtub bass. I used a galvinized steel tub, a broom handle, and a G upright bass string. Finding the tub was the hardest part. I then put a hole in the center of the bottom with a screwdriver.I used several metal washers to reinforce the hole inside and out then put a bolt with an eye on one end (as in "hook and eye") through the hole and bolted it tight with a nut on the inside. At first I tied the string to the loop. However, I got a nasty buzz. I then tied the end to a large solid rubber washer that couldn't pass the loop. This worked quite well. The broom handle must be cut to a comfortable length. The end with the hole in it is the top where you string the string. Now, cut a groove in it so that it sits on the lip of the tub. Be sure that you tie the string short enough or you will have to haul way back on the string when you play. You should prop the edge up on something when you play to let the sound out (traditionally, a brick is used). You must also put one foot up on the top of the tub when you play or the whole thing will come flying at you the first time you try to play it. If this stance sounds uncomfortable to you... Well, it is.

There is an alternative. My friend Joy Birdsley invented a lightweght, cheap, and infinitely more comfortable to play "Paint Pucket Bass." He has most graciously offered to share the plans with anyone interested.


I must tell you, this whole thing started as a joke. Tub players pay up to $20 for a tub. $12 to $15 for the shovel handle and as much as $80 for a gut bass string (my first banjo cost less). I guess I wanted to prove you could get a staccato sound as good or better from a bucket. Well, it worked. The secret, if it is a secret, is the base. It lets sound escape. Also the base is made to accept a standard 5 gal. plastic bucket. It can be a pickle or pepper or paint or soap, etc., etc. They seem to be all the same. I also wanted to shape it so you could stand on the base (no one foot stance here) and also small enough to snap off the bucket and fit inside the bucket for carrying-- high tech all the way!!!!!!!!(laugh here) or wrap the base in plastic, put it in a suitcase, take it to your destination and buy the other parts there. The length of the cord, point to point should be a minimum of 42 inches. The diameter I use is .065 weed eater cord (blue). Other diameters don't produce the sound, such as 050 (white), or .090(red). Weed eater cord most of the time is color coded. Drapery cord seems to work pretty well. Heard the objection that weed eater cord stretches---no biggie---even banjo strings stretch. I use a paint roller stick. It is not expensive. It is usually made of hardwood and is slightly smaller than a broomstick. There seems to be a correlation betwee stick size and length, bucket diameter and string gauge -Joy Birdsley

Birdsley Bucket Plans




 Joy Birdsley December 15, 1925 - November 21, 2003

     We miss him.




"I have played basses of all types since 1965 and I find that the Birdsley Bucket allows for the most accurate intonation of any Gutbucket I've ever played. It is much easier to transport than the upright bass and don't even get me started about those electric bass amps." - Mike



Basically, this is pretty easy. You just pluck the string in time to the music. You can change the pitch by pulling back and forth on the stick, or by shortening the length of cord by pressing it against the stick.
The more you play, the more you will be able to play in tune with others.
Remember, to get the best sound it is important to have part of the tub off of the ground so that the sound can travel. This can be done by building it on a resonator or stand (as with the Birdsley Bucket) or by putting a brick (or phone book, or anything thick) under the edge of the tub opposite from where you stand.
Many folks find that if they play for a long period, that the fingers of the plucking hand get sore from contact with the string and choose to wear a work glove. Others put heavy tape around their fingers.
The more you play, the more comfortable you will become with playing.

Happy plunking