Skiffle Band Instruments

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Skiffle --- a blend of folk, jazz, blues and country music --- emerged in the early 1900s in the southern United States. Like jazz, skiffle is an improvisational art. During its emergence, the musicians were experimenting and creating a new sound from homemade instruments such as the tea chest bass and washboard.

It was tangible, whimsical and lighthearted music because anybody could learn to play and participate without formal training. The instruments reflect this playful spontaneity.


Washboards incorporate a variety of materials that produce distinct tone colours. Some have ridges made of solid glass, and some are made of galvanised metal. Other materials include tin and stainless steel. The pattern of the ridges also contributes to the sound of the instrument; common designs include spiral and wavy ridges. Washboards are traditionally played by sweeping one's fingers across the ridges. Thimbles cover the fingers and help produce a sharp, percussive sound.


Skiffle bands usually include a five-string banjo, played primarily as a rhythm instrument using fingerpicking patterns. For example, the thumb will pluck the top three strings while the index finger plucks the bottom two. This technique offers a rhythmic contrast to the band's guitarist, who is most likely strumming chords. The banjo also plays higher pitches than the guitar, adding another layer to the skiffle aesthetic.


The autoharp has a bright tone colour and is used to play chords. This instrument is quite simple to play, as the right hand presses buttons and the left had strokes the strings. When the player presses a button, it dampens the strings that do not belong in its corresponding chord. For instance, if you press the G major chord button, it will dampen all except the G, B and D strings because those strings constitute a G major chord. Autoharps are small enough to hold; in most skiffle bands, the player will hold it across his chest.

Tea Chest Bass

A tea chest bass is made with a large tea chest, a broom and a piece of string. The broom stands in the middle or along the side of the chest while one end of the string attaches to the box and the other attaches to the broom. When the player plucks the string, the chest acts as a resonator and the player adjusts the pitch by slightly pulling and manipulating the broomstick. This homemade bass adds an authentic folk flavour to the music.