Buying A Didgeridoo
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Copyright © 2002-2013 by Matthew Harris
It should be fairly easy for you to find a source of didgeridoos. Because of the didgeridoo's increasing popularity, didgeridoos are now available from manufacturers all over the world and made from a variety of materials. In addition to traditionally made Eucalyptus didgeridoos, you'll also find didgeridoos made from a variety of contemporary materials using contemporary manufacturing methods. (Read What is a Didgeridoo? for a brief description of how a traditional Eucalyptus didgeridoo is made.)
Many music stores (in the San Francisco Bay Area, and presumably in other major metropolitan areas) now carry a limited selection of didgeridoos, although these didgeridoos are frequently made from non-traditional materials. Music stores that specialize in ethnic musical instruments are most likely to have traditionally-made didgeridoos.
There are many mail-order companies that sell both traditional and nontraditional didgeridoos. The only drawback to buying a didgeridoo by mail-order is that you don't have a chance to play it before you buy it. Also, some people have complained that the didgeridoos they bought mail-order did not have a beeswax mouthpiece fitted to them. This may not be a problem for you if you're willing to try fitting your own mouthpiece. (See Making a Didgeridoo for information on making a beeswax mouthpiece.)
If you live in or near the San Francisco Bay Area, I recommend Clarion Music (in the city of San Francisco) as the best vendor of authentic traditionally-made didgeridoos that I know of. Clarion Music also sells didgeridoos and other instruments by mail. You can find out more about Clarion Music at www.clarionmusic.com.
Another mail-order source of didgeridoos made in North America is "White Mountain Essence Didjeridu" (at www.wedidj.com). The White Mountain instruments are some of the most beautiful and original designs for didgeridoo's made in North America that I have seen. Hand-made from a variety of woods (mostly native to the New Hampshire USA area), the instruments I have listened to have good tonal qualities. The White Mountain Essence didgeridoos are tuned to specific keys by the makers (see the sidebar on this page "A Key Note").
A mail-order source of didgeridoos made by Aboriginal Australians using traditional materials can be found at www.didjeridu.com  (I haven't done business with these folks, I just think they have the best web site out of those I've found). A quick search on the Web should reveal many additional vendors that sell didgeridoos; if you add your state or province to your Web search, you might turn up some stores in your area.
Materials & Construction
Authentic didgeridoos made by indigenous Australian makers are rarer than you might think. Some people estimate that more than 90% of the didgeridoos currently on the market were never touched by an Aboriginal Australian. If you have your heart set on a didgeridoo made by an Aboriginal Australian using traditional methods, you'll need to do some careful shopping. I've noticed that most vendors who are selling authentic Aboriginal-made didgeridoos seem to have each didgeridoo maker's name and tribal affiliation available; you might try asking for this information if you have doubts.
Because almost any hollow cylinder of sufficient length can be played as a didgeridoo, you'll find didgeridoos made out of a tremendous variety of materials. (Although some people argue that only a didgeridoo made according to traditional methods is worthy of the name, for purposes of discussion I'm willing to call a didgeridoo anything that plays like a didgeridoo.)
In my experience, nontraditional didgeridoos tend to be less expensive than traditionally made didgeridoos. If you have serious budget constraints, or you're not sure how you'll get on with the instrument, consider a nontraditional instrument, or try making your own (see Making a Didgeridoo). It might even be an act of environmental consciousness to purchase a didgeridoo made of, say, bamboo instead of Eucalyptus. It seems a reasonable concern that consumer demand for Eucalyptus didgeridoos might stimulate over-cutting in Australia's Eucalyptus forests.
Other than Eucalyptus, didgeridoos are frequently made of bamboo, American and European hardwoods, plastic tubing, and occasionally more exotic materials. I have seen didgeridoos made out of dried cactus limbs hardened with a polyester resin; they sounded pretty good, too.
Of these nontraditional didgeridoo materials, the wooden ones (including bamboo) tend to have better tonal qualities. Many wooden didgeridoos are bored and turned on a lathe; others are built up of individual strips of wood and then additionally shaped. Both construction techniques produce didgeridoos that have fairly good tones.
Plastic didgeridoos are okay, but don't have as rich tonal quality as a wooden didgeridoo. Most people who are experienced with didgeridoo sounds can always identify the sound of a plastic didgeridoo. Plastic didgeridoos make great practice or party instruments if they're inexpensive, but you shouldn't pay very much money for such an instrument.
You can find didgeridoos available at prices (in US dollars) anywhere from $25 (for an unpainted didgeridoo made of plastic tubing) up to $2000 for a traditionally made didgeridoo painted (or made) by an indigenous Australian who has become relatively famous for his work. The most typical prices you'll encounter, however, are in the $100 to $500 (US dollars) range for a traditionally made didgeridoo. (See What is a Didgeridoo? for a description of how an authentic traditional didgeridoo is made.)
Selecting a Didgeridoo
A Key Note
If you're going to play with other musicians, make sure you buy a didgeridoo that is tuned to a particular key, or pitch. For example, a didgeridoo tuned to the note C would be for playing in the key of C.
Not every didgeridoo on the market has been tuned to match a Western concert key. (If you don't know much music theory, suffice it to say that, in general, all of the musicians must play in the same key for the overall sound to be pleasing.)
The most important thing when buying a didgeridoo is to get one that you like the sound of, and that is comfortable for you to play. For this reason, it is best if you can at least make a basic drone before you shop for an expensive didgeridoo. If you can't make the basic didgeridoo drone, bring someone with you who can. (Learning to make the basic drone is fairly easy; you can learn to make the basic drone in any cylinder of suitable length - cardboard mailing tubes, plastic pipes, and so on. See Playing Didgeridoo for a description of how to make the basic drone; see Making a Didgeridoo if you want to try making your own didgeridoo.)
If possible, buy a didgeridoo with a beeswax mouthpiece. Some nontraditional didgeridoos have smooth mouthpieces, without beeswax. The beeswax mouthpiece really makes it easier to play the didgeridoo: because the beeswax is pliable at body temperature it not only provides a comfortable resting place for your lips, it also enables you to keep a good air-seal with your lips, which is essential to keeping the drone going. Also, you can easily customize the beeswax mouthpiece. (See Playing Didgeridoo for more information.) Beeswax mouthpieces do, however, become as personal as your toothbrush, so if you expect to share your didgeridoo with friends, you might want a smooth mouthpiece.
Wild Honey & Gum
Sometimes the mouthpiece on an Australian-made didgeridoo will be of a dark, brownish-black beeswax. This is beeswax harvested from wild bees. When fresh it has a truly intoxicating odor - flowers and sweetness - which persists for some time.
Some didgeridoos have mouthpieces made of Eucalyptus gum, which is also a dark brownish black substance, but is a little bit harder than beeswax.
In general, the thinner the walls of a didgeridoo are, the better it will sound (and the more fragile the didgeridoo is). Didgeridoos with a bell- or trumpet-shaped opening tend to sound better than didgeridoos with a straight opening.
Inspect any prospective purchase carefully inside and out for cracks. The slightest crack or air-leak in a didgeridoo will severely degrade its sound quality. Check for extensive use of wood-filler, or a large number of plugs. The presence of wood-filler or a large number of plugged holes might indicate that the walls of the didgeridoo are a bit too thin. Large patched areas may later become the source of cracks and air-leaks. (A small number of plugged holes in a didgeridoo isn't serious). Make sure there aren't wood shavings trapped inside the didgeridoo. Also make sure the inside of the didgeridoo doesn't have loose splinters or big fuzzy areas. Splinters, wood shavings, or loose wood fibers can adversely affect the sound of an instrument -- they vibrate and can produce unpleasant buzzing or hissing sounds in the drone.
Bamboo didgeridoos tend to have a good tone, but have one serious drawback: they can be prone to cracking. Bamboo, as a material, has a low tolerance for moisture differentials; as you play, moisture from your breath condenses inside the didgeridoo, frequently resulting in cracking at some point. There are many different types of bamboo; check to see that the didgeridoo you're buying is one of the harder and denser varieties, such as Chinese bamboo.
All text & photographs Copyright © 2002-2013 by Matthew Harris