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A washboard is a tool designed for hand washing clothing. With mechanized cleaning of clothing becoming more common by the end of the 20th century, the washboard has become better known for its originally subsidiary use as a musical instrument.
The traditional washboard is usually constructed with a rectangular wooden frame in which are mounted a series of ridges or corrugations for the clothing to be rubbed upon. For 19th-century washboards, the ridges were often of wood; by the 20th century, ridges of metal were more common. A "fluted" metal washboard was patented in the United States in 1833. Zinc washboards were manufactured in the United States from the middle of the 19th century. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, ridges of galvanized steel are most common, but some modern boards are made of glass. Washboards with brass ridges are still made, and some who use washboards as musical instruments prefer the sound of the somewhat more expensive brass boards. One of the few musical instruments invented entirely in the United States is the Zydeco Frottoir (Zydeco Rubboard), a distillation of the washboard into essential elements (percussive surface with shoulder straps) designed by Clifton Chenier and built by Willie Landry in 1946.
Though the washboard is generally used today as a musical instrument or sound-making device, many parts of the world still use them for washing clothes. Clothes are soaked in hot soapy water in a washtub or sink, then squeezed and rubbed against the ridged surface of the washboard to force the cleansing fluid through the cloth to carry away dirt. Washboards may also be used for washing in a river, with or without soap. Then the clothes are rinsed. The rubbing has a similar effect to beating the clothes and household linen on rocks, an ancient method, but is less abrasive.
The washboard and frottoir (from Cajun French "frotter", to rub) are used as a percussion instrument, employing the ribbed metal surface of the cleaning device as a rhythm instrument. As traditionally used in jazz, zydeco, skiffle, jug band, and old time music, the washboard remained in its wooden frame and is played primarily by tapping, but also scraping the washboard with thimbles. Often the washboard has additional traps, such as a wood block, a cowbell, and even small cymbals. Conversely, the frottoir (zydeco rubboard) dispenses with the frame and consists simply of the metal ribbing hung around the neck. It is played primarily with spoon handles or bottle openers in a combination of strumming, scratching, tapping and rolling. The frottoir, also called a Zydeco rub-board, is a mid 20th century invention designed specifically for Zydeco music. It was designed in 1946 by Clifton "King of Zydeco" Chenier, and fashioned by Willie Landry, a friend and metalworker at the Texaco refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. Clifton's brother Cleveland Chenier famously played this newly designed rubboard using bottle openers. Likewise, Willie's son, Tee Don Landry, continues the traditional hand manufacturing of rubboards in his small shop in Sunset, LA. The frottoir or vest frottoir is played as a stroked percussion instrument, often in a band with a drummer, while the washboard generally is a replacement for drums. In Zydeco bands, the frottoir is usually played with bottle openers, to make a louder sound. It tends to play counter-rhythms to the drummer. In a jug band, the washboard can also be stroked with a single whisk broom and functions as the drums for the band, playing only on the back-beat for most songs, a substitute for a snare drum. In a four-beat measure, the washboard will stroke on the 2-beat and the 4-beat. Its best sound is achieved using a single steel-wire snare-brush or whisk broom.
However, in a jazz setting, the washboard can also be played with thimbles on all fingers, tapping out much more complex rhythms, as in the Washboard Rhythm Kings, a full-sized band, and Newman Taylor Baker.
There are three general ways of deploying the washboard for use as an instrument. The first, mainly used by American players like Washboard Chaz of the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio and Ralf Reynolds of the Reynolds Brothers Rhythm Rascals, is to drape it vertically down the chest. The second, used by European players like David Langlois of the Blue Vipers of Brooklyn and Stephane Seva of Paris Washboard, is to hold it horizontally across the lap, or, for more complex setups, to mount it horizontally on a purpose-built stand. The third (and least common) method, used by Washboard Sam and Deryck Guyler, is to hold it in a perpendicular orientation between the legs while seated, so that both sides of the board might be played at the same time.
In British Columbia, Canada, Tony McBride, known as “Mad Fingers McBride” performs with a group called The Genuine Jug Band. Referred to as “The Canadian Washboard King”, his percussion set-up was created with personal help from members of the Hoosier Hot Shots and Spike Jones and the city slickers.
Musician Steve Katz famously played washboard with the Even Dozen Jug Band. His playing can be heard on the group’s legendary self-titled Elektra recording from 1964. Katz reprised his washboard playing on Played a Little Fiddle, a 2007 recording featuring Steve Katz, Stefan Grossman and Danny Kalb. Katz’s washboard approach is notable as he plays the instrument horizontally. Additionally, Katz uses fingerpicks instead of thimbles.
During their early years, Mungo Jerry frequently featured washboard on stage and on record, played by Joe Rush.
Cody Dickinson, a member of hill country blues bands the North Mississippi Allstars and Country Hill Revue plays an electrified washboard on a self written track; 'Psychedelic Sex Machine'. The song is almost entirely centered around the sound of the washboard, which is picked up by a small clip-on microphone. The sound is then sent through a wah-wah and other effects pedals to create a fresher, more innovative and up-to-date sound for the washboard. A frottoir is played with a stroking instrument (usually with spoon handles or a pair of bottle-openers) in each hand. In a 4-beat measure, the frottoir will be stroked 8 to 16 times. It plays more like a Latin percussion instrument, rather than as a drum. The rhythms used are often similar to those played on Guiro.
Actor Deryck Guyler was well known for his washboard-playing skills.
There is a Polish traditional jazz festival and music award named "Golden Washboard".
Washboards (called "zatulas") are also occasionally used in Ukrainian folk music.
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