Folk & World

Natural wooden didgeridoo wind instrument

Written by Jazz Brown

The didgeridoo (or didjeridu) is a wind instrument of the Indigenous Australians of northern Australia. It is sometimes described as a natural wooden trumpet or “drone pipe”. Musicologists classify it as an aerophone.

A didgeridoo is usually cylindrical or conical in shape and can measure anywhere from 1 to 2 meters in length with most instruments measuring around 1.2 meters. Instruments shorter or longer than this are less common. Generally, the longer the instrument, the lower the pitch or key of the instrument. Keys from D to F are the preferred pitch of traditional Aboriginal players.

There are no reliable sources stating the didgeridoo’s exact age, though it is commonly claimed to be the world’s oldest wind instrument. Archaeological studies of rock art in northern Australia suggests that the Aboriginal people of the Kakadu region of the Northern Territory have been using the didgeridoo for about 1500 years, based on the dating of paintings on cave walls and shelters from this period. A clear rock painting in Ginga Wardelirrhmeng from the freshwater period (1500 years ago until the present) shows a didjeridu player and two songmen (source: Journey in Time, George Chaloupka, p. 189).

How they are made.

Quite a bit goes into the construction of these beauties!
Authentic Aboriginal didgeridoos produced in traditionally-oriented communities in northern Australia are usually made from hardwoods, especially the various eucalyptus species that are endemic to the region. (Here are the most often used eucalyptus species by region and some ranking.) The main trunk of the tree is often harvested, though branches are sometimes used as well. Aboriginal craftsmen spend considerable time searching for a suitable tree to make into a didgeridoo. The difficult part is in finding a tree that has been suitably hollowed out by termites. If the hollow is too big or too small, it will make a poor quality instrument. Sometimes a native bamboo or pandanus are used as well.

A wax mouthpiece can soften during play, forming a better seal.

When a suitable tree is found and cut down, a length of the main trunk or a segment of a branch is removed that will become the didgeridoo. The bark is taken off, the ends trimmed, and some shaping of the exterior then results in a finished instrument. This instrument may be painted or left undecorated. A rim of beeswax may be applied to the mouthpiece end.

Cylindrical plastic pipes are sometimes used to make didgeridoos. They are cheap to buy from a hardware store, are light-weight, and can be easily tuned to any desired key, but they are rated as relatively poor instruments by experienced players.

Didgeridoos are also made from PVC piping. These generally have an 1.5″ to 2″ inside diameter, 100cm length. The mouthpiece is often made of the traditional beeswax, or duct tape.

The didgeridoo is played with continuously vibrating lips to produce the drone while using a special breathing technique called circular breathing. This requires breathing in through the nose whilst simultaneously expelling air out of the mouth using the tongue and cheeks. By use of this technique, a skilled player can replenish the air in his lungs, and with practice can sustain a note for as long as desired. Recordings exist of modern didgeridoo players playing continuously for more than forty minutes (Mark Atkins on Didgeridoo Concerto plays for over 50 minutes continuously), and some currently unsubstantiated claims peg times over one hour