Constructing and Playing a Didjeridoo
Didjeridoos have a very steady learning curve, and a beginning enthusiast can easily have one built and be toying with it in under two hours. The materials cost little (under $8.00 U.S. if you already have some basic tools), and the process is very simple.
What you will need:
- (1) Length of PVC or ABS pipe (1 1/2 inches wide, ~50 inches long)
- A Round File and/or Sandpaper
Optional: (In case you need to cut your pipe.)
Notes about materials: There are some health concerns involving ABS, so PVC is recommended. If you MUST have that cool black ABS piping, use it. You obviously have your priorities straight ;)
0) If your pipe is longer than you want, clamp it (firmly but gently) in the vise, and hack the extra length out of it with a saw. Later on, you can also change the tone and resonance of the piece by changing its length, so it's probably best to leave it as long as you can manage right now (try five feet).
1) Decide which end you wish to put your mouth to, and begin filing the edges of the pipe lip till they are rounded and smooth. Focus on smoothening the inside lip, giving it a more gradual slope than the outside. The inside lip is where your lips will be, and the whole end will be pressed against your mouth area.
2) Press the end of the pipe against your mouth so that your lips are mostly inside, and make sure that there is nothing about the mouth piece that bothers you. If you need to file away rough parts or hard edges, hit step 1 again.
You are done with your ghetto didj. Most professional didjeridoo creators use beeswax or other soft padding for the mouthpiece, because, like a Jew's harp, the mouthpiece presses firmly against your mouth and can be uncomfortable, or even painful (there are a great many nerves around your lips). A glass-blower friend of mine likes to put a few layers of duct-tape on the ghetto didj's mouth piece lip, and you can also.
Playing the didjeridoo
1) Breathing from the diaphragm
Making musical tones on a didj is not hard, Australian aborigines can do it, so can you. Mastering some basic concepts can mean the difference between learning how to play and being confused and lost. Here are the two big ones:
If you already perform in a choir, have experience in blown instruments (esp. the bagpipes), or practice a meditative discipline, this is not foreign to you. Basically, instead of breathing so that your chest puffs out (U.S. military style), you breathe so that your tummy moves in and out. Go ahead, take in a breath and pooch out your belly. This not only gives your lungs more room to expand (they don't have to struggle against your ribcage), it gives you finer control over your breathing. Yay. You now only need to master one more secret ninja technique before you try your hand at playing your finely crafted didjeridoo.
2) Burbling your lips like a tugboat
Yawn, make faces, lightly smack your mouth, do anything to loosen up your lips, 'cause we're going to make some serious engine noises. After getting your lips loosened, pucker them like a duck and blow out, making soggy vibratory noises. If you don't know what I'm talking about by now, go hang out with some kids for a while, it will come to you.
Alright, now all you have to do is press the didjeridoo against your lips and burble like a tugboat while breathing from your diaphragm. Tighten your lips slightly but keep the same air out-flow as when you were burbling.
Well, they were just the basics. If on your first try the only thing you accomplished was covering the inside of your didj with slobber and making a river to the other side, you're making progress. Really.
Keep at it. You will probably have to experiment with the tightness of your lips until you get a decent tone, or your may have to play from the side of your mouth (easiest for me), but I'm willing to bet anybody can hit a decent note a couple times in their first fifteen minutes of playing, and it will be like the aligning of planets. It's that groovy.
Alternative playing style
What was that bit about playing from the side of your mouth, you ask? Well, I abhor playing directly into the didj, and can only really get steady tones from playing out of the corner of my mouth. This technique produces the same vibrations, but I believe it gives greater control. If you are having trouble with your first tries, place one side of the didj mouthpiece against the middle of your lips, and the other just off the end. Then experiment with your loose-lips.
Beyond the basics
Aborigines have a very lingual technique that they apply to their didj playing. If you have experimented with the tones created by your didj, you probably noticed that your tongue and cheeks have a lot to do with the sound of your didj playing. It's a fun technique to "talk", or form vowels with your tongue and inner mouth while you are playing, producing a mumbling and sinusoidal chant. Rolling rrrrs and different animal sounds are also incorporate into the Australian natives' playing, producing a plethora of groovy sounds.
Sustaining the tone
After a while, you may start to wonder how other didj players (now you can honestly call yourself one) can play steadily for minutes at a time. The answer is found in a technique called "Circular Breathing". With circular breathing, you can inhale while you are playing the didj.
Here's the lowdown: Whenever you need to take a breath of air to continue to play, start pushing out the reserves of air in your mouth while you quickly inhale through your nose. Of course, the more air you have in your cheeks, the more leeway you will have inhaling. Think Lois Armstrong cheeks. Push out air with your tongue and cheeks while you breathe in through your nose. It becomes natural after you learn how to do it, but at first, this micro-management of air can seem a feet of mind staggering proportions.
ED: Man, this is tougher than I first let on. If you are a smoker, you'll probably have a time of it until you get back into shape. As a result of my unhealthy lifestyle, I have only a limited ability in this technique. Good thing I can make up for it in looping equipment.
Circular Breathing Techniques
Okay, grab a glass of water, and go onto your lawn (or your driveway) and take a swig, but hold the water in your mouth.
Pucker your lips like you were playing the didj, and using only your mouth muscles (no exhaling from your lungs), slowly spit out the water at the same rate that you blow when you play. The important thing is that you are holding your breath for this, and not using your lungs to blow air into your mouth to force out the water. Try this a few times, maybe get another glass of water.
Now, breathe normally while you are spitting with your mouth muscles. Practice for a while, and then practice using real air. Soon, you should be able to apply this to your playing.
Some people suggest using a balloon to practice. With an inflated balloon, practice transferring air between it and your mouth, using only your cheeks. Now, while you are doing that, breathe in quickly, and repeat this practice.
My very favorite way of practicing circular breathing is by using a straw and a cup of water. Simply fill a cup with some water, take a coffee-stirrer straw (tiny, strangely shaped straws), and blow bubbles in the cup. While keeping a steady bubble pattern going with your mouth and cheek reserves, breathe in. Keep a steady bubble going, and impress your easily impressed friends.
More Didj Hijinx: Things To Try
Try humming into your didj as you play it. The resulting effect (if you hummed a different tone than your didj) is called a 'beat', a result of two waveforms conflicting.
If you smack the opening of your didj with the flat of your hand, you can create rudimentary, sproingy percussion. Yay!
To make your pipe look snazzy, take some sandpaper, and rub it up and down the length of your didj. This will create a (very faux) wood grain look, so you won’t look like you’re a low-budget Blue Man Group knock off.
I hope to see you at the drum circle!
Advanced Didjeridoo Construction : The Slide Didj
So, you built yourself a didjeridoo, and found that, while it is easy to play, and makes a groovy sound, it only produces one note. Let's kick it up a notch and add another pipe!
What you will need:
- Your Original Didj
- (1) Length of PVC or ABS pipe (2 inches wide, ~50 inches long)
- (1) 2 inch End Cap
- (1) 1 1/2 inch Pipe Connector
- A Bottle of Pipe Cement
- A Drill
- A Round File and/or Sandpaper
- Something Sharp (Like a knife or something with a pokey bit)
Optional: (In case you need to cut your pipe.)
This took me about an hour in my shop, and shouldn’t take you any longer. It cost another $3 ($7 with Cement), and has officialy become a major monetary undertaking for me.
Here’s a basic overview, since this project is a bit more involved:
You are going to stick your original didj in the 2 inch Big Pipe.
In the tradition of simplicity inherent in the original Didj’s construction, you can actually leave it like that, and play your didj while sliding the Big Pipe to make different tones. Try it, see how it sounds.
Though the previous method is elegant in it’s simplicity, you tend to lose your didj inside the Big Pipe, and fishing it out is very inelegant. By using a drilled out 2 inch End Cap and half a 1 1/2 inch pipe connector, we can build a catch that will stop our didj from dropping into the pipe, and finish out the whole piece nicely.
0) Leaving enough of your didj sticking out of the top of the Big Pipe to grab comfortably, make sure the didj isn’t sticking out of the other end. If it is, you will have to saw off your didj (gasp!) or get a longer length of Big Pipe.
1) Place the mouth of your didj against the flat side of the 2 inch End Cap, dead center. Trace around the mouth with your Something Sharp, leaving a circular mark slightly larger than the mouth of your didj.
2) Drill out the insides of the circular mark on the End Cap, filing the rough edges and finishing them off with sandpaper. The didj should be able to slide through the hole easily.
3) Saw the Pipe Connecter in half so that you have two separate rings. Take the best looking one, and finish the edges with a file and sandpaper. This piece will eventually go over your didj, so file the insides until you can slide it on (snug, not too loose).
Optional Step) If you wish to tune your didj, you’ll need a piano, guitar, or something else that is already tuned. Start by putting the End Cap on the Big Pipe, and the didj through the End Cap. Play your didj while plunking your piano/guitar until you find a matching note (when you find one, try a short range around it and you will probably find a better match). Take your Something Sharp, and make a slash on your didj right where it enters the End Cap, and you will be able to come back to this configuration when you need that note. Keep doing this for all the keys on the keyboard/strings on the guitar, until you run out of pipe. My four foot retracted/seven foot extended slide didj has seven half-notes.
You can also use an electronic tuner or a mouth tuner, as these would probably be easier.
4) Break out the Pipe Cement. Glue the End Cap on the Big Pipe, following any instructions on the tin of glue. Wipe up excess cement with cloth.
5) In this step, we are going to glue the Pipe Connector ring to your didj.
If you tuned your didj: You can place the ring so that the bottom edge of the ring rests on the first (top) mark on your didj, making the resting place of your didj the highest note. I would suggest doing this if you tuned your didj. If not, the ring can go any old place (as long as it’s toward the top of the didj).
The ring isn’t going to pass the End Cap (the ring being too big), so glue it where it would do the most good: as close to the top as you can while leaving yourself enough for a sturdy grip.
To start the gluing, smear a light coating all the way around the pipe wherever you are going to put the ring. Then slide the ring till it barely touches the other ring of glue. Now, twist the ring while sliding it the rest of the way over the glue, to minimize any plough effect. Wipe up excess cement with cloth.
You have a slide didj! Let it all dry, and it will be ready to play. Just slide the didj into the hole in the End Cap until it rests on the ring (most of the didj will be in the Big Pipe, now). If you put the ring on the tuning mark, it will be in the highest real-note setting for you to play. Go at it. Slide it around while you are playing. Souper!
Have fun, and don’t let the end of this tutorial stop the didj-modding!