The washboard as a musical instrument is an instance necessity, the need for self expression, meeting up with, well, whatever was handy that you could keep a beat on! Washboards have been used as percussion instruments for years in many different genres of music, including skiffle, old time music, zydeco, jazz and jug bands.
Home Made Instruments: Washboard
Way back in the day, before every city had a music store selling all manner of instruments, people had to make due with making music with what they had around. This lead to a whole assortment of household objects being used to make music such as spoons, cigar boxes, jugs and the family washboard.
The washboard is typically left in its wooden frame. The ribbed metal of the washboard itself is what musicians actually play on. They do this by either tapping the board with their fingertips, or by scraping their fingers along the ribs. This can be done with or without metal thimbles on their fingers, depending on the sound they want.
The washboard in music
Jug bands use the washboard as the sole percussive instrument, there is no drummer. The ‘drumstick’ will be either a steel wire snare brush or, more traditionally, a whisk broom. In 4/4 time, the washboard will work as the snare drum and be stroked on the 2 and 4 beat.
A variation on the washboard is a zydeco rubboard, or frottoir, which does not use the wooden frame. The ribbed metal board itself will be hung from the neck, the frame is removed. This is when it is much more common to see other playing instruments used for the playing of the washboard, this can include:
- bottle openers
Or anything else that is metal and around the house. These tools will be used to scratch, strum, tap and roll along the metal, creating a wide variety of sounds and rhythms.
Jazz is where you will find the washboard used most often by players with thimbles on all of their fingers, tapping out complex and intricate rhythms.
The washboard in modern bands
You may think that the washboard is a relic of the past, but this is not true at all. There are still annual washboard and jug band music festivals. The most well known is likely the Washboard Music Festival in Ohio. With these festivals happening regularly, you can bet that there are still bands who regularly play together.
Well known washboard players include Canada’s Tony McBride of The Genuine Jug Band, Steve Katz of the Even Dozen Jug Band, Jim Magnum of the southern rock band Black Oak Arkansas and Cody Dickson of the country band North Mississippi Allstars who famously played an electric washboard. This was accomplished by clipping a microphone to the washboard and running it through various effects pedals, such as a wah-wah pedal. This modernized sound made the washboard sound like Jimi Hendrix was playing it and gave people a chance to hear the possibilities of a modern washboard sound.