Rubboards - History

Rubboards - History

Although it is an antiquated household appliance at this point, many people are familiar with what a washboard looks like. Metal ridges form a corrugated surface, bound together by a wooden frame, which clothing is then rubbed against for hand-washing. The washboard itself was an evolution from beating clothing and linens on rocks, but was designed to be less abrasive. As laundry machines became more common in the 20th century, the washboard fell out of common use, and came to be known better for its percussive quality in musical contexts (see the washboard in action here). In the mid-1900s, rubboards were developed as an explicitly musical adaptation of the washboard.

The ribbed surface of the washboard became a popular device for providing rhythmic accompaniment for jazz, zydeco, skiffle, jug band, and old-time music. Many percussionists would tap on the wooden frame, and scrape the surface of the washboard with thimbles. Sometimes wood blocks, cowbells, cymbals, and other percussive elements would be added for wider tonal variety. As a common household item of the day, these instruments were easy to come by and held a lot of appeal for musicians who could not afford a full drum kit. Washboard percussion is thought to derive from the practice of hamboning (video link), or body percussion, brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans.

The rubboard, on the other hand, was designed with rhythmic accompaniment as its primary purpose. The first rubboard design was drawn in the dirt in 1947 by Clifton Chenier, and subsequently brought into being by Willie Landry, a welder working at a refinery in Port Arthur, Texas at the time (video source). His son, Tee Don Landry, carries on his father's rubboard business to this day. These rubboards are distinct from the washboard in that they are designed to be worn on the chest, with dedicated shoulder straps (example performance).

Washboards and rubboards are both played with thimbles, among other implements. Bottle openers and spoons also do the trick (Smithsonian entry), and it largely depends on what kind of tonal effects you're going for. Bottle openers are among the louder options, whereas thimbles can be worn on multiple fingers, for ease of tapping out more complex rhythms. 

According to Tee Don Landry, no Zydeco band is complete without an accordion and a rubboard. The rubboard is a loud instrument, so it holds its own against other loud instruments. The rubboard also has a Cajun name, "frottoir" and has a place in other musical contexts aside from Zydeco and Cajun music. Tee Don has said, "Blues bands, church bands, hillbilly bands, and rockabilly bands all buy them. It’ll fit into any kind of music if you play it tastefully" (link to full article). The rubboard is one of the few musical instruments invented entirely in the United States. 


Click here to peruse our collection of rubboards, washboards, and thimbles to play them with...

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