[Dixielandjazz] Washboards redux

Bill Gunter jazzboard at hotmail.com
Mon Feb 10 06:54:32 PST 2003

Hello Bob Craven and fellow DJMLers,

You wrote:

>I keep trying to get you to discuss washboards. You've covered 
>improvisation, chick singers and many other subjects but not washboards, 
>except the pick up and amp you use.

OK OK OK . . . I'll say a few words about washboards.

First, I do play other instruments (keyboard, banjo, guitar, violin, 
harmonica, and drums). As a matter of fact, I played Bass fiddle in the 
Oakland Jr. Symphony while I was in High School in Hayward, CA.

But somehow I wound up playing washboard on a fluke. I wanted to join a 
rinky tink trio playing in the pizza parlors in Sacramento back in the mid 
60s. The only problem was, they already had banjo, bass and piano players 
and so I got in as a percussionist. But the drum kit was actually too large 
to fit on the dinky little band stand. I had heard Turk and Lu play 
washboards on the occasional record and I was also totally impressed with 
Spike Jones and Hezzie with the Hoosier Hot Shots. I immediately decided to 
rig up a washboard of my own.

I added as much junk as I could possibly think of (including, at one time, a 
glockenspeil) and the next thing you know I was wailing along hitting 
everything in sight.

The corrugated part of the washboard I use is a special hunk of stainless 
steel sheet metal I had crimped by my stepson who is a journeyman sheet 
metal worker. I much prefer it to the heavy galvanized crimps in most 
hardware store bought washboards. I also have the corrugations quite close 
together and the crimps are not too deep. This provides a clean action that 
is smooth and quite playable.

I soon discovered several things:

1. Washboards have amazing cutting power.
2. As a novelty washboards have great audience appeal.
3. The washboard enables the player to move around easily.
4. It beats the hell out of setting up and tearing down a full drum kit.
5. A little bit of practice will enable the player to produce some 
reasonable rhythmic patterns.
6. A lot of practice will turn the washboardist into a musician. I will cite 
Bob Raggio, Ralf Reynolds, Steven Joseph (RIP), Peter Babcock and Mike 
Johnson as seriously dedicated washboard players.
7. It is a great deal of fun to play.

As a result of the above considerations I also learned that I originally had 
wwaaaayyyy too much junk attached to the board and it was sort of unwieldy. 
I have since reduced the ax to a washboard with just a woodblock and a 
cowbell attached. I also have a small splash cymbal on a stand next to me. 
Rhythm Rascal Ralf Reynolds has his cymbal mounted on the board itself. He 
likes it that way but I find it more convenient to have it on a stand.

I also discovered that a little washboard goes a lonnngggg way! I try to 
play as subdued as possible and still provide the basic rhythms and accents 
to complement the total ensemble.

But in the final analysis, my advice to budding washboard players is 
basically count to two and hit something (three if you're playing a waltz).

It isn't complicated but it is a challenge to try and play in as tasteful a 
manner as possible and not be a distraction.

As it has ultimately turned out, I would actually rather play the washboard 
than the drums, or, for that matter, most any other instrument. It must be 
some character flaw on my part but, on the other hand, I don't get too many 
complaints from the punters.

Now you probably know more than you wanted to about this sensitive and 
subtle member of the percussion family.

I hope I haven't bored you all too much with this subject and I'll be happy 
to respond to any questions you may have regarding the washboard. If the 
questions are of a general nature it might be amusing to post them here in 
the DJML. On the other hand, if you have a specific technical question 
perhaps you ought to send it off line to me.

Respectfully submitted,

Bill "Thimbles" Gunter
jazzboard at hotmail.com

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