How to Make Your Own Jug Band Instruments

Photo of Jim Jug Kweskin Band
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

If you're looking for a way to introduce your kids to homemade music, there's no better way than with homemade instruments. To musicians with a creative bent, any object can be turned into an instrument. 

The jug band is a uniquely American musical institution that got its start as a bunch of household utensils. The first jug bands were formed in the areas around Memphis by out-of-work vaudeville entertainers. The musicians were often poor, so improvising and creating their own instruments was a necessity.

Jug bands were typically street performers who played in hopes of earning money from passersby.

A jug band makes a perfect topic for a multidisciplinary unit study. The jug band lends itself to a range of subjects, including science, math, history, and geography. For instance:

  • Science: How do vibrating materials produce sound waves in the air?
  • Math: When you divide the string on a washtub bass, it produces a different tone. See if you can figure out what fraction relates to what note of the musical scale.
  • History: Explore the armonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin based on the sound of musical water glasses.
  • Geography: What are some homemade instruments found in other countries? 

And of course, making musical instruments is a great way to add hands-on activities to your study of music. You can make your own jug band using items found around the house or at the hardware store. Here’s what you need:

The Jug

The horn section of the band played right, sounds like a buzzy trombone. Traditional stoneware jugs look good, but plastic maple syrup containers or milk jugs are lighter (and unbreakable) and work just as well.

To play: Hold the rim of the jug a little bit away from your mouth, purse your lips, and blow directly into the hole. Be prepared to make a rude noise, or even spit, to create the sound. Change notes by loosening or tightening your lips or by moving the jug closer or farther away.

The Washtub Bass

This string instrument consists of a cord stretching from a metal tub on the floor to the top of an upright wooden stick. Ours uses a kid-sized metal pail, a broom handle, and some colorful thin, soft nylon cord. Just follow these directions:

  1. With the pail upside down, make a small starter hole with a hammer and nail in the center of the bottom of the pail.
  2. Insert a small eyebolt into the hole, loop side up, with a nut above and below to hold it in place.
  3. Tie one end of the cord to the loop in the eyebolt.
  4. Cover the bottom end of the broomstick with a rubber cane tip to keep it from slipping. Rest the broomstick, threaded end up, on the rim of the pail. Tie the loose end of the cord to the top of the broomstick, as tightly as possible.

To play: Hold the stick near your shoulder, put one foot on the rim of the pail to hold it in place, and pluck the string. Change notes by tilting the stick, or by pressing the string against the stick as if it were the fingerboard of a guitar.

The Washboard

Rasping instruments belong to the percussion family. Our “Dubl Handi” steel washboard from the Columbus Washboard Company cost $10 at an antique shop, but a ribbed paint roller tray or broiler pan can be substituted in a pinch.

To play: The washboard is played by scraping something stiff against the ribs of the metal surface, such as a thimble or whisk broom.

Musical Spoons

The clicking of a pair of back-to-back teaspoons, also a percussion instrument, can add a fabulous rhythm to your band.

To play: The trick is to hold the spoons firmly in your fist, handles pressed against your palm, with the knuckle of your index finger in-between, making a space of about half an inch. Stand with one foot up on a stool, and bang the hand with the spoons up and down between your thigh and the palm of your other hand. A bup-bup-bup, bup-bup-bup, like a horse’s hoofs clacking, gives a nice beat.

Comb and Tissue Paper

This kazoo-like instrument works on the same principle as the human voice. The paper vibrates to create a buzzing sound, just as the vocal cords vibrate when you talk or sing. Find a comb with thin flexible teeth. Fold a piece of tissue or wax paper in half, then cut the folded sheet to the size of the comb. Hold the comb and drape the paper over it, letting the paper hang loosely.

To play: Put your mouth and say “do do do” until you feel the paper tingle against your lips. Once you’ve got the hang of it, try singing notes and using different syllables to change the sound.

What to Play

When your band’s assembled, try some traditional melodies -- the sillier the better! This is your chance to brush up on old tunes like “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” and “Oh, Susanna.” 

And if you want to try some other kinds of improvised instruments, you can find plenty of inspiration. For example, the stage musical STOMP uses push brooms, matchbooks, and paint scrapers to create rhythm. And the Blue Man Group plays tunes on instruments made out of PVC pipes and boat antennas. They prove that there’s music in almost any object you can imagine.