The Waterphone Story

(Condensed version)

While in graduate school at the California College of Arts & Crafts (1963-65) I was introduced to an unsual musical instrument call a “Tibetan Water Drum” which was a round, slightly flattened, bronze, drum with an aperture in the center top. This drum was designed in such a way so that when the top surface was struck with finger or hands the drum would rock alittle thereby moving the small amount of water creating pre-echoes and tone bending. I only spend a few hours playing this instrument but I was very impressed with it. I have never seen one since. In a Haight Asbury parade (1968) I heard my first Kalimba (African Thumb Piano). The amount of quality sound coming from such a small instrument was also impressive. At the time I was painting and welding kinetic sculptures some of which made sound. I began making what I called “American Thumb Pianos” which were tin cans with bronze rod brazed to the rim. It was played much like an African Thumb Piano only being in the round these devices needed to be revolved in order to play all of the rods. These American Thumb Pianos were throwaway, primitive, instruments as eventually the cans gave up or the rods broke off. I made these in endless configurations then changed to assembling the resonators out of hubcaps and enameled salad bowls and the playing technique was different as these were struck with mallets. It was about that time when I took one of these to my friend, Lee Charlton, a jazz drummer and in his studio we put a small amount of water into the resonator of one of these and applied a well rosined bow to the rods on this device. This was the first Waterphone which Lee still has in Sant Rosa, California. I immediately began working on the patent process which turned out to be a long and expensive road.

Not long afterwards (1969) we formed a band called the Gravity Adjusters Expansion Band and began playing & performing free music utilizing my sonic designs and other oddities Lee had collected as well as some conventional instruments played in unconventional ways. The band was open for new players to sit-in and we often had some very unusal instruments from around the world. A few musicians started showing up to purchase the newly invented Waterphone. Shelly Manne and Emil Richards were two of the first to fly up from L.A. and attend our music sessions. They each bought several Waterphones and Emil invited me down to Los Angelos to stay at his home as he had a number of friends that wanted Waterphones and other items that I was making. I took a van load of instruments and sonic sculptures to L.A. and sold them all in a week. I made more money in that one week than I had as a painter for the previous year which suggested the time was right to make a career change.

I began selling through art galleries, museums and music stores. Shortly after that I started having problems with people coping my designs especailly in Los Angelos and in New York. By this time I had the patent (3896696) but not much money so finding and going after the patent infringers was difficult as they would submerge as soon as questions were asked. I realized that I needed to upgrade my instruments and hopefully in the process out distance my imatators. At the same time I put all music stores on notice that they were subject to law suites if they sold imitations of the Waterphone. I began doing more research into materials and processes and decided that stainless steel would be the way to go but there were many problems to be worked out which did take some time. Eventually I began making all of my resonators from stainless steel and most attachments in bronze. This made it more difficult for my imitators and I have yet to see an imatation Waterphone that either sounds as good or is as durable as what I make.

Through the years my suppliers of stainless steel have varied their output so occasionally I change my models of the Waterphone to reflect new resonators shapes, sizes, and sounds.

I used to make a Small Waterphone which I discontinued as it was too minimal sounding. The Standard Waterphone has gone through several changes due to different types of bottom bowls used in this model. The “WRFB” (wide range/flat bottom) Waterphone was replaced by the “UltraLIght” Waterphone and that model has now been discontinued. Both of these were very thin stainless and had a fair amount of distortion.

The Bass Waterphones in the 80's were made from a very thin stainless steel bottom pan which is no longer available. That Bass had some distortion due to the thin stainlesss. It also had a bowl for the top part of the resonator. The new Whaler, Bass, and MegaBass Waterphones are all made from similar pans only of different diameters. These pans are of thicker stainless so they give more sustain, more volumn and more sympathies which results in a higher quality sound with very little distortion. These are wide range Waterphones which have both high end and low with the MegaBass having the lowest and the widest of all of the hand-held models.

These 3 models (Whaler, Bass & MegaBass) also have a re-enforcement of the sympathies between some of the tonal rods (Power Rods) and the pans. This sound is hard to describe - a Fat Swelling of the tones be they fundalmentals or harmonics. These power tones and others can be manipulated by tweaking the neck as you play the Waterphone. Tones can be bent even without water using this technique. And two way tone bending can be acheived by using both the water and the neck tweaking at the same time.

In the world of sound and the waterphone - bigger is better assuming you want low & high end with lots of information soncially speaking. The larger diameter pans can carrying much more in terms of wide response, sustain and sypathies whereas the Standard as sweet as it is can not re-enforce low tones and consequently has a limited range. Both can produce an extremely high harmonic range but the larger diameter Waterphones will have more and the intervals, scales, and ranges will have more variation.

RSGs = (Revolving Sound Genrators) are very large Waterphones either on a pivot stand or suspended. The resonators are the same size as the MegaBass but they have much longer rods and a second row of rods coming off the bottom pan. These are spins -off from my days as a kinetic sculptor crossed with a Waterphone. These are rather massive so it helps to let them sit & spin on the pivot or an overhead swivel.

I am always looking for new materials. Ocassionally I find a one or two of kind resonators and will use these for something special like an RSG. Having worked now with exotic metals for over 30 years I know which ones sound the best and those are the ones I use in my work. I expect the Waterphone to keep evolving as I am always looking for ways to upgrade future models.

Richard Waters

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