Choosing a didgeridoo
Choosing a good didgeridoo can be a bit confusing and difficult at first. Even accomplished players have personal preferences so there is an element of subjectivity with regards to the “ideal” didgeridoo - but there are a number of things that can help you in selecting an appropriate instrument.
Like other musical instruments, a great didgeridoo feels like a natural extension of oneself and does what you want it to. Things like resonance, tonal qualities,ease of play,shape,size and quality of construction are all important.
It is important to start learning on a good quality didgeridoo that is easy to play. This will help accelerate your learning curve keeping you interested and motivated. Poor quality didgeridoos will only discourage and frustrate your attempts to learn the didgeridoo often leading to people giving up and missing out on the pleasure of playing a music quality didgeridoo.
Your taste in didgeridoos may also develop and change in time. At Spirit Gallery we are experts at matching the instrument with the person. Whether it be an experienced player looking for specific characteristics or a beginner trying to find an ideal instrument that is easy and fun to play.
Starting with construction, a good instrument should have a well-shaped bore of approximately 20mm-70mm in diameter that is either conical or cylindrical in shape.
This would be ideally entirely termite-eaten but can be carved out artificially by the craftsman, or a combination of both.
The timber should be well-seasoned and dried before any further work is done to the didgeridoo to prevent cracks or splits in the wood. Some makers have logs that have been sitting and drying for months and even years before they commence work on them.
Many mass produced didgeridoos, on the other hand, are often cut and worked on immediately after the timber has been cut, due to time and economic considerations and the fact that green timber is easier to manipulate than well dried seasoned timber. Once sealed or painted (if at all) these type of didgeridoos are more vulnerable to cracking and splitting in the long run.
Wall thickness should be even throughout and not overly thick or thin. Inconsistent wall thickness or overly heavy wall thickness can have a negative effect on the resonance and volume of an instrument leading to a muffled or dampened drone note and reduced backpressure.
Not enough wood thickness can cause a didgeridoo to shake or vibrate too much creating an echo type effect similar to many light bamboo didgeridoos.
Although many factors such as weight, density and width all have a significant effect on the sound of the didgeridoo, it is the length of the didgeridoo which primarily determines the key or pitch of a didgeridoo.
Generally speaking, longer didgeridoos with medium to large bores often have low pitched, warm and bass-like drones. Shorter didgeridoos with narrower bores will have a high pitched, bright and sharp drone.
The didgeridoo has an approximate standard length of 1.2-1.8 metres of which approximately 99% of all instruments fall in between. Didgeridoos that are shorter than 1 metre usually make poor instruments having a high squeaky unresponsive pitch and are often physically uncomfortable and difficult to play.
Due to the high visibility of all these 90cm-1 metres “suitcase” didgeridoos around Australia, particularly in souvenir and gift store it often creates the impression for the first time enthusiast that this is a standard size. Although possible, it is very difficult and extremely rare and for that reason more valuable to find what would be considered a serious instrument at 90cm-100cm metre but many places including recognised didgeridoo stores or Aboriginal galleries continue to sell them as beginners didgeridoos or smaller instruments.- probably just for commercial reasons.
Didgeridoo come in a variety shapes and sizes ranging from entirely straight to curved didgeridoos with natural kinks and twists which far from detracting from the sound can actually add uniqueness to it.
Didgeridoos however, are generally classified into 2 shape types. A conical tapered shape or a more uniform cylindrical shape with varying bore size.
Generally, a conical shaped didgeridoo with a relatively small mouthpiece that widens to a bell will be easier to play than a cylindrical shaped didgeridoo demonstrating greater backpressure and variety in playability, often requiring less air and aiding in circular breathing. The horn sound is also often easier to produce on a didgeridoo with a conical shape.
On the other hand a cylindrical shaped didgeridoo with a medium –large sized bore may be preferred if one has already mastered circular breathing and the overtone note is less of an issue as is the case in many non traditional playing techniques. Playing techniques using voices and roars come out stronger in cylindrical didgeridoos and warm bass notes and lowered tones also benefit from this type of shape.
It is also possible to find “hybrid” didgeridoos which are a cross between characteristics both in a physical sense and playability wise and don’t fit into an exact category.
Didgeridoos come in a variey of keys or notes measured with a chromatic or guitar tuner. Some didgeridoos are in high keys while some are very low and the majority tend to be in between.
A, A#, B (lower keys)
C, C#, D, D#,E (middle keys)
F, F#, G, G# (higher keys)
Experienced players are comfortable playing the whole range of keys and it will often depend on the personal preference of the player, whereas for beginners or first timers it is often recommended to stay in the middle range of keys. The reduced lip control required to play these didgeridoos and the versatility of being in the mid range allows them to be played at a variety of speeds, which can be beneficial if you only have one didgeridoo to practice with.
Lower keys such as A’s and B’s are good for slower meditative and more relaxed playing and are great for creating atmospheric music .These instruments however require more air and effort to play them well .The lower keys are often more sensitive on the mouthpiece requiring greater lip control.
Higher keys such as F’s and G’s are suited to fast, percussive, rhythmic styles of play. They often have less sensitivity on the mouthpiece which allows them to be played with greater ease. These instruments however also require greater lip control often in the form of tighter lips and a player needs greater control in technique and timing.
Once a player reaches an intermediate level we find many people (not all) prefer to graduate to the mid- high or high keys as this allows them to better display their newly developed skills creating faster percussive rhythms. Similarly, depending on the mood one might prefer the more mellow deep grumbling sound of a slower didgeridoo as an alternative. Basically it would be nice to have one of each or more – ie a high key, mid key and a low key.
This is purely down to aesthetics as it has a negligible effect on how the instrument sounds .Many didgeridoo players who already own instruments are not concerned about the artwork or want the price to reflect nothing but sound quality. Similarly, some people may feel a natural didgeridoo is more a symbol of an instrument and shy away from decorated instruments.
On the same token many players enjoy artwork on their instruments particularly the traditional styles found on instruments from Arnhem Land which can be quite intricate and detailed, representing special tribal motifs and designs.
Similarly, it is also possible to find quite collectible recognised artists, whose work on other mediums such as canvas and bark fetch valuable sums in fine art galleries, occasionally painting traditional instruments, giving them added value .
Even natural didgeridoos can have their own distinct beauty with a variety of finishes available including barks finishes, high gloss, matte finishes, natural knots ,sap marks and a variety of naturally occurring elements.
Artwork is also an attractive option for somebody who is unsure if they will pursue the playing side of the didgeridoo and wants to make sure they also have something that is attractive and unique and can be displayed as an ornamental piece.
The ease with which the overtone note or horn can be played is often an important characteristic that experienced players look for. Contemporary makers may even deliberately tune their instruments so that a number of overtone notes can be played relatively easily whereas traditional Aboriginal players in Arnhem Land do not look for this feature in a didgeridoo.- they only ever play the 1st overtone note if at all.
The actual interval between the fundamental note/pitch and the overtone note of the instrument is another factor that more advanced didgeridoo players look for. With traditional Arnhem land yidaki the interval between the fundamental drone and overtone note is usually a little bit over an octave. For instance, a yidaki that plays in the fundamental note of E would have, ideally, an overtone of E, F or F#. A yidaki with a fundamental note of F would have an overtone note in the key of F, F# or G.
Many modern didgeridoo playing styles do not incorporate the overtone and therefore the ease with which the note is found may not be considered an issue by some when choosing a didgeridoo.
Didgeridoos, particularly cylindrical bigger bored instruments or didgeridoos with bigger mouthpieces often have poor or difficult to achieve overtones but may have other tonal qualities that make them attractive to a player. It is once again down to personal preference.
Today, didgeridoo players are becoming more and more discerning with what they buy and ethics sometimes figures in their decision-making. Has the didgeridoo been sustainably harvested? Does the didgeridoo craftsman hold a permit for cutting trees? Is the didgeridoo being made with purity of intent and with love, care and passion or is it mass produced with financial gain the only criteria.
Contemporary didgeridoo makers often use fallen limbs or dead trees, whereas traditional Arnhem Land craftsmen have the strongest cultural connection to the didgeridoo. Both types of craftsmen make excellent ethical instruments.
If the maker is non-Aboriginal do they acknowledge the spiritual custodians of the didgeridoo and respect the many traditions of the didgeridoo without any misrepresentation or false labelling of their product.