Waterphone Information

How to play, amplify and and take care of your Waterphone

In the beginning, tighten the bow hair by twisting the handle and then rosin the bow hair by drawing the hair across the exposed cake of rosin. Also apply the rosin directly to the tonal rods. During the break-in period you may need to rosin the bow frequently. Squeaky harmonics usually mean not enough rosin or a little oil has contaminated the tonal rods. Store the rosin in its case & store the case upside down so that it remelts into a cake. As you apply the bow hair to the tonal rods of the Waterphone, keep eye contact with the bow hair so as not to catch the hair behind or on the ends of the tonal rods. Always tune the bow down when you are finished playing. Do not leave the bow near or in a heat source especially if the tension has not been released by loosening until the hair is slack. For long bow life instruct others in the proper use prior to playing. Sight down the ends of the tonal rods to check the alignment. Unless the rods are in perfect alignment all the the harmonics cannot be reached with the bow. The rods may be gently realigned.

Pour about 1/4 cup of distilled water into the interior via the neck/aperture. Experiment with the amount of water as this is the way to "fine tune" the resonator and the bottom diaphragm. When you have found the proper amount pour it out into a measuring cup and take note. Usually too much water makes the instrument sluggish and heavy to play but sometimes this too can be utilized when hand drumming. On cold days heat the water prior to pouring it into the Waterphone.

Playing the Waterphone

The best position for playing the Waterphone is sitting as it allows you to utilize your thigh for both support and to dampen the Waterphone. As you are bowing/striking the tonal rods you have the option of lifting or tilting the Waterphone clear of your thigh so as to let the bottom diaphragm ring out (sustain) or dampening it by touching or resting it on your thigh. As you are bowing/drumming the Waterphone you also have the option of changing the attitude between vertical and horizontal and all in-between. This allows the water to be shifted on/off the bottom diaphragm resulting in tones being bent and the creation of acoustic, schiziosonic pre-echoes.

Bowing the Waterphone

Several things determine what sound is produced: (1) where on the tonal rods the bow is applied. (2) amount of bow pressure. (3) speed of the bow. (4) amount of rosin. (5) amount of water in the resonator. (6) if employed the amount of motion of the water and (7) whether the tone(s) are dampened or not. Lack of rosin can produce some piercing harmonics! The fundamental or prime tone of each rod can be sounded by drawing a well-rosined bow/hair firmly across at 90 degrees to the rod about 1/3 of the way up. Additional harmonics or partials may be sounded by bowing closer or further away from the resonator. Avoid bowing on the lip as this could corrupt or damage the bow hair. A subsonic may be sounded on some of the rods bowing firmly and slowly between 1/2 to 3/4 up their length. An additional high harmonic may be sounded on the longer rods by bowing lightly with the edge of the bow hair about one inch (2.54cm.) from the free end.

More Technique

Leave the bow hair slack so you can hit cords. - Use the water inside as a percussive element by quickly tipping the Waterphone and flipping the water so that it pops as it collides inside the resonator. - Finger thumping the tonal rods. - Holding the resonator between your legs and play the top of the neck & bottom diaphragm. - Using 2 superball mallets in one hand for double percussion and friction modes. - Sing into the aperture. Blow edge tones on the aperture. Pull wet fingers on the bottom of the neck (stroking). Slide wet finger(s) on the bottom.

Extended Drumming

For an additional drum head try the following. Take a small piece of duct tape and stretch it across the top of the aperture so as to make a small head. On the larger necked Waterphones run two courses of duct tape at 90 degrees to each other. As you apply the tape stretch it tight before sealing it to the neck. Cradle the Waterphone in such a way that you can play this duct tape head with one hand while drumming the bottom of the Waterphone with the other hand or 2 bows. Do Not use heavy/hard mallets which can dent the thin gauge stainless steel.

Extended techniques - Tone Bending & Power Rods

With the 3 larger Waterphones there are extended techniques that are available to the player. When sitting with either the Whaler, Bass, or MegaBass propped on your thigh the neck may be utilized to put tension on the top diaphragms by gentle, downward pressure or or by lifting as you are bowing the Waterphone. Various tones may be bent and manipulated in this fashion. Care should be taken not to overextend these pressures as it may be possible to damage the Waterphone by too much pressure. On the 3 larger models the tonal rods that have these re-enforced sympathies (Power rods) are color coded on the rod tips & rod base in red.

Mallets, hands, and fingers

Superball mallets with flexible shafts are by far the most versatile mallet for the Waterphone. Mallets may be struck against the tonal rods, neck, or bottom. But the most effective and versatile sounds are created when a Superball mallet is dragged across the bottom for a wide range of friction sounds. Waterphones are also good hand/finger water drums and may be held in different ways so that alternate techniques may be used. For a full rich tone cradle the Waterphone around the perimeter without holding the neck. Play the bottom as you move. Techniques may be extended by suspending the Waterphone from a cord from an overhead support. If the Waterphone is suspended at knee level then the knees may be used to control the movement of the water. A Waterphone thus suspended may be played with 2 hands using 2 mallets or a bow and a mallet. When suspended a pair of brushes played against all parts of the waterphone can create a very interesting rhythm.

More on Superballing

Oil is the enemy of friction so the bottom of the waterphone must be clean of oil or else the superball will not work in the friction mode. As it arrives the bottom will be void of oil but due to hand drumming and other handling the bottom can become contaminated with oil. Clean with a sponge + hot water & soap and/or isopropyl alcohol but with stubborn oil you may need something stronger like acetone (use with caution). The top of the waterphone will have a light coat of WD-40 so do not play the top of the resonator with a superball mallet. If the mallet becomes contaminated with oil take some medium sandpaper and sand the portion of the superball mallet that comes into contact so as to remove the oil. Avoid hanging the superball behind a tonal rod as the rubber will tear and separate from the shaft You can re-glue the ball to the shaft using one of the poly glues like "Gorilla" or "Goop" If you are not using a superball mallet on your waterphone you are missing out on some very interesting sounds.

Whales and Hand-bowing

Once the tonal rods have rosin dust on them hand bowing is possible and is done by sliding a wet, non-oily, stiff, hand-fingers at right angle to the rods. Hand bowing and rubbing the resonator and neck with fingers for friction effects are the main techniques used for calling whales and other Cetacean. Taken into the water the Waterphone may be inverted and the air trapped inside will keep the player afloat, or it may be filled with water and submerged. If a Waterphone has been taken into the water it must be well cleaned - especially if the water is salt water.
See care and cleaning section

Mics, amps, and volume

If you are playing in an ensemble and are not being heard then proper amplification is in order. This is especially true when playing with electric and large volume instruments. The use of microphones is preferred over pickups as the latter is localized. The best quality sound is coming from the aperture so over the shoulder micing works good. Or a pickup below on the diaphragm and a mic above for stereo effects. A small, lavaliere mic either clamped to the edge of the top of the neck or wrapped in soft foam and inserted into the neck works well but can pick up sounds from the hand that holds the neck. The optimum is a wide range, wireless, lavaliere Mic clipped to you but pointed at the Waterphone. The signal coming from a Waterphone can be run directly into an amplifier but depending on your audience and equipment a pre-amp may be helpful to boost and modify the signal prior to the amp. Generally speaking the bass end signal needs to be turned up to balance the range especially on the Standard Waterphone. Keyboard amps work well with Waterphones but much depends on the sound you want. Bass amps have the ability to balance out the ranges with punch. When shopping for equipment take your model of Waterphone with you and try before you buy.


For special visual effects a pin spotlight focused on a bowl or container of water over which a Waterphone is being hand bowed can be extremely effective. The player(s) dips their hand(s) into the water while playing highly reflective instruments which bounce light in never ending patterns as they are being played. Variations of this may be utilized for performances at poolside or fountains or other bodies of water.


If a Waterphone has been taken into salt water it needs to be well rinsed with fresh water. Most water including tap water has dissolved minerals including sodium which can do harm to your Waterphone. For these reasons it is wise to use distilled water - inside and outside. Depending on the type of water that is used and the environments the Waterphone should be cleaned and preserved every 6 months to a year. After it is dry utilize the cleaning & preserving process described below. These processes will greatly extend the life of a Waterphone.

Cleaning and Preserving

First empty out all the water. Allow the remainder of the moisture to evaporate or use a hair dryer pointed into the aperture to speed the process. After you are sure it is absolutely dry pour a rust inhibitor/preserver into the interior. If you live near or on the ocean use LPS-3. If not use WD-40. This process is aided if the Waterphone is warm to the touch. Hold the Waterphone in a horizontal position while revolving it so as to coat the entire interior with preserver especially the interior lip. Pour out excess. Then take some cotton swabs and apply a liberal amount of LPS or WD-40 to the external lip between and behind the tonal rods. Remove the excess with additional swabs. Take a cloth or paper towel moistened with isopropol alcohol and clean all traces of the preserver from the rods and bottom diaphragm (oil is the enemy of friction). For the finishing touch put a few drops of your favorite scent into the resonator. For a high shine use Brasso followed by a buffing. When the cleaning process is complete re-rosin the tonal rods.

Cases - Damage and dust control

A case will protect the Waterphone from damage & dust. I like the SKB cases for drums. For an economy case consider one of the following: plastic buckets, chain saw cases (good as they will also carry the bow), hat and wig boxes, back packs, & coolers. All of these can be improved by the addition of insulation. Prior to use instruct others about the Waterphone and bow care. Do not drop or swing the instrument into hard objects as you can dent the bottom which will change the tonalities and their sympathetic relationships usually for the worse and this type of damage cannot be undone. Do not let anyone abuse your Waterphone as it can be damaged by overplaying. Take care of it and it will last a long time. If you need more volume then amplify.
See mics, amps, and volume

Leaky Waterphones

On rare occasions, small pin size holes can open on the lip through dissolving flux. To mend: - method no. 1 - Go to an automotive store a buy a product for radiators called "Stop Leak" and follow the directions. Method no. 2 -Dry the Waterphone and clean the area with fine sand paper. Use a small amount of Epoxy to fill the hole. Let cure prior to reintroducing water.

Water containment

Corks of the right diameter work well to seal the water in and dirt and objects out. Another possibility is the Duct Tape Drum Head described under the Extended Drumming section. Most spillage is due to curious people turning the Waterphone upside down.
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