What Is A Didgeridoo?

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Current Chapter: What Is A Didgeridoo?
Origins and Use
How To Play Didgeridoo
Buying A Didgeridoo
Make A Didgeridoo
Didgeridoo Discography

All text & photographs
Copyright © 2002-2013 by Matthew Harris

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Didgeridoo (also didjeridu or didjeridoo) is the Euro-Australian name for an ancient tribal instrument from Northern Australia. Over 40 tribal names for the didgeridoo are known; two of the most common outside Australia are Yaraki and Yirdaki. (Yirdaki means "neck of emu" or just "neck".)

Frequently described as a "natural wooden trumpet", didgeridoos are typically 1-1.5 meters (3-5 feet) in length.  Figure 1-1 shows a traditionally made didgeridoo belonging to the author.

A Traditional Didgeridoo

Figure 1-1
A Eucalyptus didgeridoo made using traditional methods.
(click image to enlarge)

The didgeridoo produces a continuous drone that a skillful player can modulate to produce a variety of complex rhythmic effects and even achieve melodic enhancements.  The didgeridoo is an extremely expressive instrument capable of creating powerful moods ranging from somber or sinister to carefree and joyful.  (If you've never heard a didgeridoo, click here to hear a 2-minute, low-quality, MP3 recording of the author playing the didgeridoo shown in Figure 1-1.)

The didgeridoo belongs to the class of musical instruments known as lip-reed aerophones.  "Aerophone" because the didgeridoo produces sound with a vibrating column of air; "lip-reed" because the reed that vibrates the air column is the player's lip.  Other instruments that belong to the lip-reed aerophone class include bugle, trumpet, trombone, tuba, alpenhorn, and so on.

View inside a traditional Didgeridoo

Figure 1-2
Looking into a didgeridoo reveals old termite tunnels and human tool marks.
(click image to enlarge)

A traditionally made didgeridoo has several unique features.  First, the didgeridoo is primarily a natural, rather than a manufactured object.  Traditional didgeridoos are made from a Eucalyptus branch or sapling that has been hollowed out by white ants (a species of termite).  Figure 1-2 shows a view into the large end of a Eucalyptus didgeridoo; notice the termite tunnels still visible in the wood.

A didgeridoo maker taps tree trunks and branches until he finds a suitable hollow section.  He then cuts out the hollow section and cleans out the interior of the log with sharp sticks, hot rocks, and water.  The didgeridoo maker peels the bark from the log, and usually performs some minor additional shaping to improve the tonal quality of the instrument, such as scraping away material at the large end to create an overall bell shape or scraping the outside of the log to make the walls thinner.  (Notice the tool marks in Fig. 1-2; this didgeridoo's maker removed wood from the inside to give the end of the didgeridoo a bell shape.)  The completed didgeridoo may or may not be painted.  (For information on didgeridoo paintings, see the chapter on Decoration.  Because each traditionally made didgeridoo is a unique natural object, no two didgeridoos sound exactly the same.

As an alternative to termite-hollowed Eucalyptus logs, there is also a traditional history of didgeridoos made out of bamboo.  The bamboo nodes (or joints, the part that grows across the inside of the bamboo) are burned through with a fire stick or otherwise knocked out to make a hollow tube.  An Aboriginal songman, Alan Maralung, was once quoted as referring to his preferred didgeridoo accompanist as "my number one bambu man."  (Many modern didgeridoo enthusiasts and manufacturers in America and Europe make didgeridoos out of various hardwoods bored and turned on a lathe, or out of materials such as plastic or metal pipe.)

Didgeridoo mouthpiece compared to trombone mouthpiece

Figure 1-3
Didgeridoo mouthpiece compared to trombone mouthpiece.
(click image to enlarge)

Another unique feature of the didgeridoo is the large, non-removable mouthpiece.  The opening of a didgeridoo mouthpiece is seldom under 3 or 4cm (about 1.25-1.75 inches) and is frequently larger because all or almost all of the player's lip surface must vibrate to produce the didgeridoo's typically low pitches.  The mouthpiece itself is usually beeswax or Eucalyptus gum built up as a cushion directly around the narrow end of the log from which the didgeridoo was made.  Figure 1-3 shows a traditional beeswax mouthpiece contrasted with a trombone mouthpiece.

Other qualities that make the Didgeridoo unique are its playing characteristics.  First, by using circular breathing, the didgeridoo player can produce a sound of potentially infinite duration.  Skilled didgeridoo players can produce a single sustained drone for several minutes at a time.  (Circular breathing is a breath technique enabling the player to sustain a note without pausing to take a breath.)  Not exclusive to the didgeridoo, circular breathing is known to many clarinet, saxophone, and other wind musicians.  Whereas circular breathing is an advanced option for many clarinet and saxophone players, it is a mandatory basic skill for didgeridoo musicians.  (For a basic explanation of circular breathing, see the chapter Playing Didgeridoo.)

A didgeridoo player can add complex rhythmic effects to the didgeridoo's drone by manipulating his lips, tongue, cheeks, glottal muscles, and diaphragm; some particularly skilled players can even play a rhythm and counter-rhythm simultaneously.

Although the didgeridoo is a drone instrument producing a single fundamental pitch (which depends primarily on the didgeridoo's length), special playing techniques can create an apparent shift in pitch (overtones).  Yet other playing techniques can produce a trumpet-like blast in up to three pitches other than the fundamental (overblowing).  By singing into the instrument, a didgeridoo player can produce a number of harmonic effects, and even cause the didgeridoo to produce a chord.  (The trick of singing into a wind instrument to make a chord is also known to many brass and flute players.)

The didgeridoo is an incredibly versatile instrument, and adapts well to a variety of musical styles.

All text & photographs Copyright © 2002-2013 by Matthew Harris