If a single thing could be said to define the ‘sound’ of The Deserters, that thing would surely be the Yobstick. Originally designed for accompanying solo performers in the pub at Inverbeg, the yobstick was adopted by The Deserters very early on in the life of the band, even featuring in the b-side “Gostik Sobo”. Less reliance was placed upon it in the later years, but it was still an important part of “Fireman’s Lift” which was recorded in the band’s last full recording session.
So just what is a yobstick? In short it is a one-man rhythm section on a stick. There are 3 key features which have existed on all variations of the instrument:-
- Welly Boot
- The base of the yobstick is host to a wellington boot, or Welly as it is known in these parts. This serves as the equivalent of the bass drum and is the centre around which any rhythm revolves. The welly is used specifically for a number of reasons; it protects the floor from damage, it is easy to mount on the stick, it it can hold a microphone and after all, “if it wisnae fae yer wellies, where wid ye be?”
- Some sort of tin item which rings when hit – in the original yobstick this was a tin beer tray, more recently it has been a large biscuit or sweet tin, over which is strung a string, usually a bungie cord. This part of the instrument serves a dual purpose as equivalent to a snare drum and a single-string bass.
- Bottle Tops
- Traditionally mounted on 6 inch nails whacked into the side of the stick, a selection of bottletops serves as the high end of the percussive spectrum, though more akin to a tambourine than cymbals. These jangle every time the stick hits the ground, resulting in a kind of percussion drone, but the are often also played with downward or upward strokes on off-beats like a hi-hat cymbal.
Clearly the instrument displays its heritage in its construction – largely cast-offs from a pub, but this is also part of its unique attraction and sound. Each successive generation of yobstick has had additional features, mostly decorative, but often entertaining or functional too. These have ranged from hats and wigs (as seen on the pictures here of the original yobstick) through to dummy heads, masks and deelyboppers. Anything goes.
Building a Yobstick
Mick has recently completed work on a new yobstick, and explains the build process in detail for us here…
I had planned a standard build for my new yobstick, but by chance came across a wonderfully straight length of wood recently pruned from an out-of-control tree. The diameter of the branch was a perfect fit for holding in my hand, so I determined that this should be the basis for my next yobstick instead of the more traditional, but certainly uglier, length of 2-by-2. Armed with the ‘stick’ part and the bottletops I had been collecting for a couple of months previously I was ready to begin, though not without complications.
More information about bottle tops than you’ll ever need
If you’ve ever looked in detail at a bottle top, and who hasn’t in a drunken stupor at some time or other, you’ll find it has a rubbery layer underneath to act as a seal to stop the beery goodness escaping the bottle. I suspected this would affect the sound of the instrument, so set about a quick experiment to see if there was an audible difference between the top with and without the seal. I stripped of the seal from one of a pair of identical tops and compared the sound – without the seal I found the top rang out for a little longer and had just a little more ‘sparkle’. The next stage then had to be the removal of seals from the dozens of tops I had collected. I boiled a pan of water and dropped the whole lot in, boiling them for about 10 minutes, then leaving them on a low simmer, taking out batches of 4 or 5 tops at a time to de-seal. My daughter and I then spent the next hour or two removing the seals, or trying to. Boiling them made the seals easier to remove, but this was still not straightforward as the seal varies significantly between brands.
By far the most awkward to remove were Stella Artois seals, which broke up very easily, leaving bits behind and none of the tops could be cleared completely of the gluey residue from the seal. Grolsch seals were not much better, though occasionally they did come off in one piece. Tennants seals were more easily removed and only occasionally left glue behind, though they are probably the least attractive of all the tops – black with a red ‘T’ in the middle, whereas the Grolsch and Stella tops were white with faint green and gold lettering respectively. Cream of the crop and winner of the Bordet award for ‘Excellence in Yobsticking‘ were Miller tops. Not only did the entire seal come off each top in one piece, taking the glue with it, but the resulting bottle top was a lovely bronze/gold colour which was a great match for the natural wood and the sound produced had the most pleasant tone, so well done Miller!
Having changed the method already I then wondered about changing it again by hammering one top out of shape into a flat, mini-cymbal shape. This resulted in a completely different sound to the standard bottletop shape – more pure, but with a little less ringing, I suspect due to the concertina-like shape of the bottletop generating additional harmonic overtones not present in the flattened tops. Rather than choose one over the other I decided to have one side of the yobstick with flat tops and the other with regular tops, allowing me to play either set to get a different tone.
Putting it all together
There is a good reason why past yobsticks have been based on heavy cut timber – they’re much easier to work with. Easier to mount bottletops by hammering them through with nails which can be left in place, and easier to mount the welly and resonator against flat surfaces. My new length of wood, whilst undoubtedly more asthetically pleasing on the eye, was going to go against tradition and create extra work. When it became clear that the bottle tops could not just be nailed into place I had to come up with an alternative – in this case good old wire coathangers came to the rescue. Bent out of shape into lengths, I was able to drill two holes in the pole and thread the hanger lengths through before threading the bottle tops on. I then fashioned a simple rectangular frame to hold the protruding ends of the hanger so that the tops would not fall off – this wooden frame was built from a narrower length of wood from the same tree as the main pole, and forms quite a nice headstock for the yobstick.
Since the pole is quite narrow in comparison to earlier models, there was a bit of doubt as to the ability of the welly to give a sufficiently loud thump on the ground, so I took as large an off-cut of wood as would fit down the boot and drilled out a hole for the pole to sit in. It was then glued and screwed into place and then the welly screwed into this, so the bottom of the yobstick has extra weight and surface area to maximize the volume when stomped. Instead of a traditional black welly, I used the cheapest readily available alternative – a sparkly pink kid’s welly – for a bit of a glam-rock effect.
The last thing to do was attach the resonator. Changing things slightly again, this time I fitted an old guitar machine head to the pole (having first chiselled out a flat section to mount it on) and strung this over the resonator tin, which this time around is the lid of a sweet tin. Now the bass note can be tuned in advance according to the tune being accompanied, and altered by pressing down on the string between the resonator and the machine head to give an effect similar to a fretless bass, albeit without much scope for accuracy.
The new yobstick has a great sound, with a variety of timbres available, which I’ll be sharing once I’ve worked out a good way to mic it up. The only thing it needs is the ‘extra’ unique element, for which I have left room at the top… watch this space!
The yobstick, or variations on the theme of a stick with a boot at one end and jangling pieces attached, has been around for centuries. Often used in shamanic rituals or to symbolise spiritual icons, it has been used across the world from Turkey (Turkish Crescent) and Germany (Schellenbaum) to Australia (Lagerphone) and the UK (Zob Stick, Monkey Stick, Mendoza, Jingling Johnny).
The Groanbox Boys, based in London and featuring the wondeful accordion player Michael Ward-Bergman, have a version called the Freedom Boot. Their site has an interesting section about the history of the instrument, as well as video clips of the Boot in action.
Also worth a look is the Lagerphone Pages site, providing a full history and design methods for the Australian version of the instrument.