The Didgeridoo – History and Information

What is a Didgeridoo?

A didgeridoo is a type of native Australian wooden horn / pipe that makes deep, resonant sounds, and is considered as an aerophone (wind instrument) by many musicologists.

This instrument is also sometimes referred to as didge or didjeridu, as well as names like yiraka, djibouti, and paampu.

Here is a chart listing off all the local references to the instrument, based on region (in Australia).

The didgeridoo finds its origin in Northern Australia and was commonly used in the past by the native peoples there, and still is a big part of their culture as well.

If you are a musician in some other part of the world that is not Australia, there is a fair chance you haven’t even come across this fairly unique and slightly unusual musical instrument.  There’s a fair chance you have, and there’s a fair chance you haven’t.  Depends if you get around much. 

If you haven’t really been properly introduced to the didgeridoo, we hope this article will provide you with some information on its history, and how it fits into the greater scheme of music itself.  

Didgeridoo History

Drone Sounds

Something we must mention when talking about didgeridoos, is the idea of drone sounds, which is a big part of how the instrument expresses itself musically.

Listen to this piece of music being played by a man named Gumaroy, in Sydney at Circular Quay, and keep this in mind as we go along.

Before classical music was beginning to establish itself over one thousand years ago, the sound of the drone was being explored by our ancestors around the world, dating back much further into the mists of history.

Rewind To Dawn of Humanity

Drone sounds basically started whenever it was that human beings learned how they could use their bodies to make sounds that were not the same as talking.  Let’s just call this, making bodily noises. 

Like whistling, for instance, and whatever else can be done with the human body to make a sound, while also controlling that sound to a degree.  Our ancient ancestors did this for fun, no doubt, and people obviously still do it today!

Have you seen these two guys before?  They specialize in mimicking familiar sounds but just using their bodies to do it.  They almost got kicked off the America’s Got Talent (thanks Mel), but, in the end, people were able to appreciate their talents.

As you can imagine, human beings got better at using their bodies and various implements to make sounds.  Some people could emulate certain animals and birds, using natural materials such as twigs and leaves.

Here’s someone playing a leaf.

Eventually, the idea of “music” came about (hard to say exactly when that was), followed by the idea of musical instruments. 

What is music?  It is a system with a means to produce a melody or harmony, while also expressing some sort of emotion.

When the idea of melody was invented by humans – not the formal idea of melody but the literal execution of it – drone sounds came along at the exact same time. 

Drone sounds are, in their own way, the opposite of melody, and yet is just as essential and fundamental to music itself as melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Didgeridoos are especially good at making drone sounds.  Check out this woman playing the didgeridoo.

This piece she is playing is basically a drone sound, with some variation in how the sound is expressed (call it “spice”).

But what is a drone sound, exactly?  You can easily define it as a sound that is heard throughout the duration of a piece of music.  In other words, one long sustained note or chord.  In a sense, a drone is expressed through the “key” of a piece of of music.  

Often, a drone is played “underneath” a piece of music, or as a foundation, but in the above case, and in most cases with didgeridoo, it is the music.

Single note instruments, like horns, can easily produce a drone note, because it simply has to make one single note and hold it. 

A pipe works the same way, as long as you stay on the same note.

A didgeridoo is a horn of sorts, and also a pipe of sorts, but since it is not made of metal like other horns, as it is made from trees, it is more of a pipe, although it also has characteristics of a horn.  It’s a horn-pipe!

Look at this.  Here is a horn.  Notice is it made from brass and widens greatly at the end.  You blow into the mouthpiece and control the pitch of the note by levers.

Here is a pipe.  A saluang, actually, usually found in Indonesia, made from wood.  You blow into the one end and control the pitch by covering up the holes in different combinations, like a flute.

And here is a didgeridoo.  It looks a bit like a pipe, and a bit like a horn.  Pitch is controlled by the sound coming out of your mouth.

Now, back to the idea of drone notes, which, as we said, relates back to didgeridoos and how they sound when played.

Here’s an example of a drone note played by a cello, which is a stringed instrument, but here it is simply sustaining the note A.

Drones are often used for the musical practice purposes, but that’s not all they are used for.

Now compare that drone sound to this drone music by Brian Eno, the famous ambient experimental album from 1978, which experiment with drone passages, called Music For Airports.

Now compare that to the 1998 album by the electronic group, Coil, called Time Machines, which employs drones as well, but differently.

Now compare that to the famous electronic track by Aphex Twin from 1991 called Didgeridoo.

Ancient forms of music in eastern cultures tended to incorporate drone sounds, as drone were, and are, by their very nature, simpler to perform.  That isn’t an insult to players of the didgeridoo, as it takes a lot of mouth control to make the didgeridoo sound good.  All the same, it is easier to make a single sound than play a complicated melody.

Like the didgeridoo itself, drone sounds are associated with the sacred in ancient cultures and have an earthy quality to them that is undeniable and mesmerizing.

Lately, people everywhere have found newfound interest in the idea of the drone with the audiophile community in terms of binaural beats and brainwave entrainment, where certain frequencies of a drone sound can activate and stimulate different parts of your creative mind.

Didgeridoos, similarly, captivate an audience by tapping into low frequencies that also tickle the nervous system in a pleasing way.

Drones can be created in a variety of ways, via bells, gongs, organs, electronics, and other means.  A drone pipe is one particular instrument that is designed to create such a sound.  And yes, a didgeridoo is one such type of pipe.

20th Century

In 1912, Sir Baldwin Spencer made the first recording of the didgeridoo.  Spencer was a English-Australian biologist and anthropologist who studied native tribes in Australia extensively.

Donald Thompson, in his own studies of the aboriginal Australians, shows evidence of the instrument being used once again.

The didgeridoo started gaining some fame in 1953 in recorded music such as Tribal Music of Australia recorded by A.P. Elkin, and this was the first commercial debut for the instrument.

In 1963, Trevor Jones recorded The Art of the Didgeridoo, and he also published various articles based on aboriginal music.

Modern Didgeridoo

When it comes down to it, the didgeridoo has been used in many different musical genres, and finds its place just like any instrument.

Industrial bands such as Test Dept. have used it to generate sounds in their performances. 

Wallis Buchanan, a player from the acid jazz band, Jamiroquai, played it on the song, “When You Gonna Learn?”, which, fittingly, is a song about treating the planet poorly.  What better instrument to drive that point home than the rootsy didgeridoo?

The band also used this instrument in many of their performances until when Wallis Buchanan left the band in 1999.  Once Wallis left, the sound of the didgeridoo left with him.

As we featured earlier, electronic artists like Aphex Twin have also managed to make a hit song with the instrument is not just the main instrument, but also the name of the track itself.

This didgeridoo has also been used in hard rock music style. A well-known lead singer from the band Like a Storm, Chris Brooks, has used the dronepipe in many songs by the band.

One of the songs that has prominently featured the didgeridoo is the song Love the Way You Hate Me.

For bands and artists seeking something fresh and different, the didgeridoo is an option, although it is one of the more ancient instruments. 

The thing is, once you attempt to add didgeridoo to your track, there’s a good chance it will take over the song.  Whether you hear it as a novelty or not, there’s no getting around the power of the instrument.

The art of learning to play the instrument requires time and skill, with aboriginal Australians still being among the best players in the world.

Making A Didgeridoo

This instrument is not impossible to make, being that it is made from wood and carved and hollowed into a particular shape. 

That said, the construction of a didgeridoo requires a skillful maker. The traditional didgeridoo is made of hardwood.

The most commonly used hardwood is eucalyptus. Sometimes bamboo can be used instead of a eucalyptus.

The main trunk is used in the construction of the instrument, although a substantial branch can also be used. The tree to be used must be hollowed by termites to a certain degree.

As mentioned above, the eucalyptus makes the best source for the construction of the didgeridoo because the termites only attack the dead heartwood and leave the sapwood of the eucalyptus. 

Hollows that are made by termites make the didgeridoo have an irregular shape, and these hollows tend to increase the diameter of the didgeridoo towards the lower end.

This is because the sapwood produces a toxic chemical that is very harmful to the termites.

The hollows must not be too big or too small, as the instrument made from this type of rotted tree will be of poor quality, ultimately.

The bark of the tree is blasted off and trimming of the ends is done. The exterior is then shaped to produce a finished piece. Application of a rim of beeswax can be applied to the mouthpiece.

Non-traditional didgeridoos can be constructed using PVC piping which is not at all similar to these native hardwoods.  Metals agave, glass, clay, hemp, and / or carbon can also be used in making such an instrument, although you might argue that it will have lost a lot of the soul of how the aboriginals might construct one.

Some people who make a didgeridoo will use a combination of modern and ancient techniques to arrive at the final instrument.

Here is one made from bamboo.

For the mouthpiece of the instrument, made from PVC piping, a rubber stopper that is well sized can be used instead of the beeswax.

After the construction is done, the didgeridoo can be decorated by painting it, although it is not a necessity.

For an authentic make, maintaining the texture and appearance of the wood grain is preferred.  Most of the decorations are done by an experienced artist who understands the nature of the instrument. 

Thanks for reading this article.  If you have any comments, please leave them below!

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