Washboards

An irreverent and, okay, irrelevant, look at the history and art of washboard playing - and the extra added value of instruction and advice about making, personalizing, and loving your instrument.


Washboards

In Africa, the natives evolved rhythmic dancing, chanting, drumming and other percussion in their various cultures to a level we can only hope to emulate. They communicated with nearby tribes using large drums, usually hollowed out logs or animal skins stretched over a frame. And they developed what is known as 'hamboning', beating out rhythms on the chest, stomach and other body parts that produced different sounds and, when done in sync with many people, is as astounding as the drum circles that accompany modern day music festivals.

When slaves were brought to America, the drums were not allowed because plantation owners were afraid that there would be communication from farm to farm and, perhaps, some sort of uprising would ensue. So the slaves danced, beat out rhythms with their feet and hands and played whatever else was handy. Jug bands were formed, using, literally, jugs and spoons and washboards and, in lieu of a standup bass, #5 washtubs were modified - they were strung with a piece of rope held taut with a broomstick and became the throbbing bass bottom.

After Emancipation, freed slaves migrated to New York and there was a mixing of cultures. Irish immigrants and former slaves were in close proximity. The result was a metamorphosis of the Irish 'river dancing' and African tribal dancing and, lo and behold, tap dancing was born, often accompanied by the jug bands of the African Americans and/or the Irish instruments of that culture.

Back in those days, and even today, you could find washboards made with zinc, brass, glass, and wood. The device was still being used for washing clothes, but it had crept into the Zydeco and Cajun' bands as an instrument. Google "musical washboards" to see a dazzling array of businesses who display a dazzling array of washboards that play a dazzling earray of sounds.

I picked up my first washboard at a garage sale. It still had a dried out bar of soap stuck to the wooden part above the rub board. I attached an arm from a plastic doll that had an open hand - perfect for holding a cigarette. I began to collect more washboards, partly because I had a tendency to wear out the corrugated metal and partly because I was interested in trying out all the types that were available and partly because I also have a tendency to 'gather', thinking that "surely they'll come in handy some day."

I tried various devices to make the noise (and believe me, it can be just that, especially when first learning). Thimbles (my fingers are just too fat and stubby), finger picks that guitar players use to do specialized picking, like Travis pickin', bent to fit each finger (they would stretch and fly off into the crowd or behind the amps), gloves with rivets carefully attached (jeez, what a chore and my hand got sweaty and I felt a little too much like a white trash Michael Jackson), spoons (a whole 'nother instrument), and other 'found' items.

Washboards

Well, nothing seemed to work for me. And there was the nagging problem of wearing through the relatively thin corrugations and creating a work hazard. As soon as the ridges of a washboard get worn through, it becomes a slicer and is rendered inoperable according to the OSHA standards that cover wash/rub/scrub board playing. Not that washboards are expensive, but more so than I could afford or was willing to spend on a nightly basis. I mean, c'mon, it wasn't like guitar players buying new strings so they'll stay in tune better.

Now, here's the thing: I don't play washboard like any other washboard player I've ever seen. I only use one hand (I'm right handed) and I don't attack it like some folks I've seen, using a heavy handed approach with both hands. I tap, strum, beat, and try to keep the rhythm and not annoy. A drummer once told me that I play the washboard like he plays his snare drum. I'm not all over the place with bent knees and boundless enthusiasm tearing into every song. I'm a singer and I have enough trouble keeping the tempo and singing at the same time. And, honestly, the washboard gives me something to do with my hands other than doing Frank Sinatra gestures or grabbing the microphone a la Jim Morrison or playing something a little less annoying, like the tambourine or claves, though I do take the occasional break from washboard to play the afuche' or cabasa.

I hit on the idea of having a stainless steel piece of sheet metal bent into the same corrugation pattern as an 'off the shelf' washboard. And I decided that I would make my own frame and even put a soundboard (a thin piece of plywood, in this case... don't want to get too far away from the roots of the washboard) behind the stainless steel. And I would make a strap to free me up to play any other instrument on my 'percussion tree' that held many bells, whistles, drumsticks, claves, "fish" and shakers or just rest my hands on it and sing - no bells, no whistles, no cymbals on the washboard itself. And the soundboard came in handy when I decided to attach some self-stick sandpaper to it. The notion was that I'd be able to flip the washboard over and simulate sand blocks, gliding another homemade device, a block of wood with a self-stick sandpaper soulmate attached so the sandpapers could kiss, thereby creating a little shuffle/rustle that would (in my mind) simulate the romantic brushy sounds necessary in some romantic tunes.

Turns out that the sandpaper is more effective in wearing out my shirt when I'm playing the metal side than it is in sounding like what I had hoped it would - but the circle of sandpaper, sans sand, remains to this day. I just suck it up and use regular sandblocks, one in each hand, when they are called for.

Washboards

Anyway, back to the construction of the thing: I set to work - found some black walnut pieces of wood and carefully carved out the frame. I found some brass eye screws and attached them in the proper places, top and bottom in opposite corners. Nice. I used macrame with 6 foot long leather shoelaces to create the strap. There are beads and the brass devices that bass strings are wound around and other shiny or pretty objects that are worked into the pattern and lots of hanging fringe to add to the look - all serendipity and guesswork, nothing much planned out. I used spring loaded keychain type things to attach the strap once it was woven to the perfect length for the hangingness and the perfect width for my shoulder to welcome it.

Understand that I had no idea what I was doing. It was necessity mothering the inventiveness and willingness to try that made it work for me. I had used the 'regulation' washboards (the ones manufactured to actually wash clothes with) and wasn't satisfied with their performance or even their look. And I had to shy away from the one piece over the shoulder mammoth piece of stainless that hooks over both shoulders that I've seen professional washboard players use. After all, I told myself, I wasn't off to fight the Crusades or protect myself from another knight in shining scrub board. I was just trying to make a little noise to support what the string players and singers were doing - trying to blend and stay with the beat.

So I was happy with the washboard itself. Now what to do about the devices to make the noise/sound. Being a plumber in my day job, serendipity stepped in once again. I was changing out a restaurant faucet made especially for squirting water onto dishes before they go into the dishwasher. I realized that the hose attached to the faucet is made of wound stainless steel, much like the hand held shower hoses that many homes have. But the home type is brass and too small a diameter to be usable. I captured the old hose from the restaurant and took it home. Then I unwound the stainless hose and estimated how long a piece might work to cover enough of each finger to protect them and cause metal to hit metal when I played my washboard.

Using a couple of pair of needle nose pliers, I bent the strand of hose back and forth at the proper place until it broke, leaving a curlycue that I could then, again using the needle nose pliers, open, little by little, squeezing and stretching, into a diameter that would fit my fat little fingers. It took awhile to get the method down pat, but it was well worth it. I have a two foot length of hose that will last forever, because it takes a loooong time for the little boogers to wear out. I have many pieces of hose pre-cut that I keep in a bag in my washboard case - yes, I have a washboard case - in the event that my fingers swell or shrink or I lose a piece of the hose that I've been using. It's like guitar players keeping an extra set of strings in their case, but I've gotta say that guitar players are more likely to ask someone in the crowd for a D string and have someone offer one up than I am likely to ask a room full of people if they happen to have a short length of stainless steel dishwasher faucet hose handy and have someone hand me one, especially one custom made for my fingers.

Just to make things easier for me, I keep the four pieces that I regularly use tied to a couple of the pieces of fringe of my strap until I put the washboard on - easy - no tuning up, just making sure that the one that is made to fit my little finger goes on that finger, the one that fits my ring finger goes on that finger, etc. Not that you care, but my forefinger and middle finger are very close to the same size, so there can be mistakes made, but I know my little guys and we've worked together for a long time, so it usually is a flawless process.

So now we've got all the equipment, what about playing the thing??

Washboards

When I listen to recordings of me playing along with other musicians, sometimes it sounds like one of those little marionette type dolls that is held by a string so the doll's feet barely touch a flat board that is held under one's leg. When the board is hit, the doll dances. I hate that. I admit that it's hard to muffle a washboard. I've tried playing with a drummer's brushes; I've tried playing with all the finger devices; I've tried playing quietly. What works for me is what works for me - playing with one hand, playing with the devices that I created from the dishwasher hose, playing the stainless steel piece that I had bent specifically for me 30 years ago and still has many years of use left in it.

So now I tone down my technique (again, best for me and the people I work with) because a washboard can elbow its way into center stage without too much effort, and I make every effort to blend, not annoy.