Washboard – Definition & Detailed Explanation – Musical Instruments Glossary

I. What is a Washboard?

A washboard is a musical instrument that is played by rubbing or striking a hand-held board with ridges or corrugations. It is commonly used in traditional American folk music, particularly in genres such as blues, jazz, and bluegrass. The instrument gets its name from its original use as a tool for washing clothes. However, over time, it has evolved into a unique percussion instrument that adds a distinctive sound to a variety of musical styles.

II. History of the Washboard

The washboard has a long history that dates back to the 19th century. It was originally used as a household tool for scrubbing clothes during the process of laundry. The ridges or corrugations on the board helped to agitate the fabric and remove dirt and stains. As households began to adopt more modern washing machines, the washboard fell out of use for its original purpose.

However, musicians in the American South saw the potential for the washboard as a musical instrument. They began incorporating it into their performances, using it to create a unique percussive sound that added a rhythmic element to their music. The washboard became particularly popular in genres such as blues and jazz, where its distinctive sound helped to define the music of the era.

III. Construction and Materials of a Washboard

Washboards are typically made from a variety of materials, including wood, metal, and plastic. The most common type of washboard is made from a wooden frame with metal corrugations attached to the front. The ridges on the board create a rough surface that can be rubbed or struck to produce sound.

Some washboards are also equipped with additional features, such as bells or cymbals, that can be used to create a wider range of sounds. The size and shape of a washboard can vary, with some models being small and handheld, while others are larger and mounted on a stand for easier playing.

IV. Playing Techniques for the Washboard

Playing the washboard requires a combination of rubbing, tapping, and scratching the ridges on the board to produce sound. Musicians typically use thimbles, spoons, or brushes to create different textures and tones. The washboard can be played in a variety of ways, including using both hands to create a steady rhythm or incorporating it into a drum kit for a more complex sound.

One common technique used when playing the washboard is to dampen the ridges with water or a lubricant, such as soap or oil. This helps to reduce friction and create a smoother sound. Musicians may also experiment with different playing surfaces, such as using the back of a spoon or a brush to create a softer tone.

V. Famous Musicians who Use the Washboard

Several famous musicians have incorporated the washboard into their performances, helping to popularize the instrument in modern music. One of the most well-known washboard players is Washboard Chaz, a New Orleans-based musician who has performed with artists such as Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Other notable musicians who have used the washboard include Dom Flemons, a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Cedric Watson, a Grammy-nominated Cajun musician. These artists have helped to showcase the versatility and unique sound of the washboard, ensuring its continued presence in the world of music.