Foreword: As you may have noticed, there are hundreds of websites all over the world with thousands of pages of information about the didgeridoo, ranging from factual to extremely esoteric, with much diversity of opinion. Thisconcise and highly condensed guide stems from my own relatively extensiveinvolvement with the didgeridoo over the years.

What is a didgeridoo ?

Essentially, any rigid tube with a rougly 20-40mm circular or oval mouthpiece can be used as a didgeridoo. Many players start to learn on a length of plastic tube and graduate to proper instruments when they are a little more proficient. Didgeridoos made from the following materials are commercially available: wood, plastic, hemp, glass, leather, clay, gourd, metal, fibreglass and carbon fibre.

Where does the name come from ?

Didgeridoo is not an Aboriginal word. There are many Aboriginal words for the instrument, but none of them sound similar to didgeridoo. The most commonly known Aboriginal names are yi(r)daki and mago. Several theories exist about where the word didgeridoo came from, ranging from a corruption of the Gaelic dúdaire dubh (black trumpeter) through onomatopoeic (the word itself suggests the sound of the instrument). Quite simply, no-one knows for sure where the name didgeridoo came from.

How old is the didgeridoo ?

It is frequently stated that the didgeridoo goes back up to 40,000 years. There is no evidence to support this claim. It is generally accepted amongst researchers that the didgeridoo was played 2,000 years ago, based on pictorial evidence in rock paintings from this era found in the Northern Territory.

A traditional Aboriginal didgeridoo from North-East Arnhem Land
(picture courtesy of  Serious Sticks)

What is an authentic traditional Aboriginal didgeridoo ?

Authentic traditional instruments are made from eucalyptus tree trunks or branches which have been hollowed naturally by termites. The art of making a good instrument lies in the knowledge, passed on through countless generations, of how to find a suitable log with which to create an instrument. This knowledge entails an extensive understanding oflocal ecology, whichcoupled witha trained eye can single out one specimen from thousands as a likely candidate.Some of the indications considered are the bark and foliage of the tree and adjacenttermite mounds. An additional test is often made by tapping the back ofan axe (which is taken into the bush to sever the stems) against theside of the tree to listen how resonant it is.

The blank is then cut to the desired length and after the residue from the termites is knocked or poked out and a rough mouthpiece has been formed, quickly tested. Assuming the quality is as expected, the bark is removed, the walls reduced as necessary and then usually painted with tribal designs, which may be very simple or extremely elaborate.The mouthpiece is also smoothened for comfort and may be adapted slightly to suit the instrument. Ideally, the mouthpiece remains bare wood and has nothing added to build it up or reduce its size, though this is not always the case, especially in the case of magos, instruments from North-Central Arnhem Land. The traditional material used to improve a mouthpiece is sugarbag, a very dark wax and resin mix produced bya special type oflocalbee. .

A traditional Aboriginal didgeridoo from North-Central Arnhem Land
(picture courtesy of  Serious Sticks)

What is the traditional use of a didgeridoo ?

Didgeridoos are used as an accompanying instrument in ceremonies. Note "accompanying": the central place in ceremonies is taken by the songman, who directs the proceedings..

Where the didgeridoo was/is made and played traditionally
(picture courtesy of  Yidakiwuy Dhäwu Miwatjnurunydja)

How can I tell an authentic traditional didgeridoo ?

Didgeridoos are produced traditionally in a small area in Australia's Top End (see illustration above). Less than 1% of all didgeridoos sold have been made by Aboriginals in areas where didgeridoos are part of the ancient cultural heritage. Unfortunately, many instruments are sold using terms which are intentionally or unintentionally misleading, as most buyers, especially tourists in Australia, want the "real thing". These terms include "authentic" "genuine" and "authentic/genuine Australian". On closer examination, these terms are pretty meaningless - what for example is an "authentic" didgeridoo? Still worse, in some cases "traditional" and "Aboriginal", for instruments mass-produced in areas where didgeridoos are not made traditionally, where an Aboriginal is perhaps employed at the end of the assembly line to paint designs which do not belong on a didgeridoo traditionally at all. "Dot painting" for example comes from the central desert area, where the didgeridoo has no place in the cultural heritage. Dot painting and didgeridoos were both well known internationally, so the synthesis of dot art and didgeridoos was created to provide a dual incentive to buy. This ploy was so successful that current popular opinion holds that didgeridoos ;are traditionally dot painted.

Here are some other things that you will not usually find on a traditional didgeridoo, though there may be the occasional exception: a large amount of yellow beeswax on the mouthpiece, varnish (though PVA glue may be used on the outside as a sealant), a perfectly smooth finish, bark at the bottom end, natural wood finish from top to bottom (didgeridoos are almost invariably painted with clan designs), large areas of dot art (small areas of dots combined with other elements may occur), over-naturalistic depictions of animals, extensive work on the bore (especially drilling out).

How do I choose a didgeridoo ?

If you have to ask yourself this question, then it's quite probable that you can't ;-) Until you are a proficient player, it's very difficult to know what to look for as with a didgeridoo, the player and the instrument combine to form the sound. Of course, I hear you say, like any other instrument - but with the didgeridoo, this is much more so. The instrument is actually more of a form of modulated amplification for what the player is creating with his body than something which generates a sound itself.

Didgeridoos sound remarkably different depending on who is playing them, and that is compounded by the fact that as far as wooden instruments are concerned, every instrument is different. With a guitar or a trumpet, if you choose the same model from the same maker, there may be subtle differences, but the sound is very similar. A player with many years experience may be able to choose a good didgeridoo, but they cannot tell if will suit you. There are so many things to consider, most of which are based on personal preference: traditional or contemporary instrument, sound, playing style, durability, ease of care, construction material, mouthpiece size/type, key, key and ease of toot, transport, weight, artwork... the list is almost endless. So don't spend a lot on an instrument until you know yourself what you want/need and can try out plenty of instruments yourself. With time, probably you will end up with several instruments - most players do. There is no such thing as a perfect all-round instrument..

Didgeridoo Healing

Recently didgeridoos have been adopted by numerous sound therapists or "healers". There is no evidence that Aboriginals use or have used the instrument for this purpose traditionally: however, a didgeridoo may be used as an accompanying instrument in a healing ceremony. Aboriginals do not claim the didgeridoo itself has any kind of special powers.

Didgeridoos and the alleviation of snoring / sleep apnoea

A recent British study concludes that snoring, and sleep apnoea in particular, may be alleviated by playing the didgeridoo. This ailment is caused by the lack of muscle tone in the upper airways, which are trained by playing regularly. This has boosted didgeridoo sales, especially because numerous astute sellers have broadcast the findings accordingly - however, many didgeridoo players snore - in fact one famous professional player is notorious for a snore easily rivalling the power with which he plays !


Recommended links for more information:

Yidakiwuy Dhwu Miwatjnurunydja
An Aboriginal-owned site with heaps of information straight from the source: playing, stories, culture, interviews, quotes and video.

Serious Sticks Forum
A lively discussion group where you can chat to your heart's content and find plenty of information on topics already discussed.