The Upside Down Under
Playing the Didgeridoo


It's hard not to think of Australia when you hear the unique and somewhat mournful sound produced by a didgeridoo.

The didgeridoo (also known as a didjeridu) is a wind instrument developed by Indigenous Australians of northern Australia potentially within the last 1,500 years and still in widespread use today both in Australia and around the world. It is sometimes described as a natural wooden trumpet or "drone pipe".

They are decorated with natural earth pigments (ochres) that represent special clan designs and motifs. Natural mouthpieces are quite common along with the use of sugarbag wax from the native bee.

Didgeridoos are decorated with natural earth pigments (ochres) that represent special clan designs and motifs. Natural mouthpieces are quite common along with the use of sugarbag wax from the native bee.

A traditional  didgeridoo, typically called yidaki , mago or more recently mandapul, is one which originates from one of the several distinct regions in  Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. The best known of these would be the Yidaki .The word yidaki is applied to traditional didgeridoos  from North East Arnhem Land  that are made by Yolngu people that often have distinct differences, acoustically and structurally, that set them apart from standard didgeridoos.

Arnem Land
The Didgeridoo originates from one of the several distinct regions in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia

Yidakis represent the highest level of cultural integrity with respect to the didgeridoo- being made by the traditional owners and custodians of the instrument in an unbroken tradition that spans thousands of years.

Although the most common spelling of this unique Aboriginal instrument is ‘Didgeridoo’ the Australian government and all its agencies formally accept Didjeridu as the correct spelling. However, since didgeridoo is the more popular way of spelling, didjeridu and didgeridoo are used interchangeably. Further less common spelling variations such as didjeridoo, digeridoo and the short version didge can also be found, in addition to dozens of traditional indigenous words, the best known being yidaki.

The didgeridoo (also known as a didjeridu) is a wind instrument developed by Indigenous Australians of northern Australia

Playing the Didgeridoo

It isn't easy to learn how to play a didgeridoo from text explanations alone.  It's best if you can find someone  who already plays, and is willing to teach you.  If you're lucky, you'll have a friend who can show you how; if not, you can also find people who teach for money and there are a few instructional videos that might help. Many people report that there was someone at the store where they bought their didgeridoo who at least showed them how to make a basic drone.

There are basically three ways to play the didgeridoo...

1. Basic Drone Method

One of the things that surprises most people who've never seen a didgeridoo before is the size of the mouthpiece opening. This opening is so large because all or almost all of a player's lip surface is needed to produce the didgeridoo's rather low pitch. For a beginning player, a smaller mouthpiece opening is better than a larger opening; about 2.5 cm (1 inch) is good when you're just starting out. If necessary, you can usually sculpt the beeswax to make a smaller opening; hold your hand on the mouthpiece until the beeswax is warm, and then press it inwards to reduce the size of the opening. As you gain playing skill, you can enlarge the opening.

2. Tonguing

Tonguing is the basic technique for adding rhythm patterns to the didgeridoo drone. As you make the drone, quickly touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth, as if saying "dah-dah" or "tah-tah" (but without actually using your voice). You need to make the tongue motion against the roof of your mouth (or behind your teeth) quickly. If you don't move your tongue away from the top of your mouth quickly enough, your tongue blocks too much air and the drone stops. When you are tonguing correctly, your tongue briefly touches the roof of your mouth, and you hear a momentary change in the drone, like a pulse-beat.

3. Circular Breathing

Circular breathing is especially tough to grasp without a visual demonstration.  The term itself is perhaps a little misleading.  It isn't really possible to breathe in and out simultaneously.  Circular breathing is merely a technique of using air stored in your mouth to keep the instrument's note going while you breathe in through your nose. If you've ever learned how to rub your head and pat your stomach at the same time, you can learn how to circular breathe.

First, start by filling your cheeks with air, and then squeeze the air out (do not blow, just squeeze with your cheeks, as if spitting out a mouthful of water).  Now, breath in quickly through your nose.  These are the two motions of circular breathing.  The trick is to synchronize them so you can do both at the same time.

Didgeridoo Facts and Interesting Information

  1. The Didgeridoo is a wind instrument thought to have originated in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.
  2. Researchers have suggested it may be the world's oldest musical instrument, over 40,000 years old.
  3. There is a little evidence of the didgeridoo being used as far south as the Alice Springs region of Australia, but traditionally never in the southern three quarters of the country.
  4. It has been suggested that the Didgeridoo was an adaptation of traded instruments from India and/or Asia, this is possibly why it was mainly used by coastal tribes of the far North of Australia.
  5. Traditionally didgeridoos were made from eucalyptus tree trunks and limbs hollowed out, while still living, by termites, (a small insect like an ant but a relative of the cockroach) or from bamboo in the far north of Australia.
  6. Traditionally the termite hollowed Didgeridoo was cut to an average length of 130 to 160cm and cleaned out with a stick or sapling.
  7. Today didgeridoos are made from a large variety of materials such as glass, leather, hemp, ceramic, plastic, solid timbers carved out, logs drilled out, dried/hollowed cactus stems, aluminum and other metals and just about any material which can be formed into a hollow tube!
  8. The didgeridoo was traditionally used as an accompaniment along with chants, singers and dancers, often in ceremonies.
  9. Today the didgeridoo is heard in almost every style of music, rock, jazz, blues, pop, hip hop, electronic, techno, funk, punk, rap etc. There are truly no limits to the use of this awesome instrument.
  10. In a few aboriginal groups in certain ceremonies men only played the didgeridoo, but in many groups, outside of ceremony, men, women and children played it.
  11. In the same way the guitar originating in Europe, is now owned, made and played by people across the world, the Australian didgeridoo is now owned, made and played by many people all around the globe.
  12. The word didgeridoo can be spelt many different ways, none of which are Aboriginal names for the instrument. The word "didgeridoo" was a western word given to the instrument around 100 years ago. For more info see 'The Word Didgeridoo'.

Didgeridoo's are played by many contemporary artists.  In this video Ticki Stamasuri shows how it's done.


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