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The Didjeridu

                                     Buyer's Guide

In this section I will outline a few things that you should look for when purchasing a didjeridu. I will concentrate on "originals," that is Australian termite bored didj's, but much of what you will read here is also applicable to hand bored, and even synthetic material didj's. Not all didj's are created equal. After this section, I hope that you will know why !

My suggestion is to go to the store where your favourite didjeridus live, and play them all many times, trying everything that you know, narrowing down the selection you are interested in at each iteration. You will naturally want to choose the best one, but which one that is will not be at all obvious! Buy one that you know that "plays" better than you can, so that you will have some room to grow. You'll know what I mean. You'll get the feeling that you have some way to go before you master the particular instrument.

The following list should give you some ideas as to what to look for, or at least be cognizant of before you fork out all that cash for the didjeridu of your dreams.

Playing Characteristics

Key of Basic Drone

When buying your didj you will be faced with the decision as to what key you are looking for. The physics of musical instruments dictates that the longer the didjeridu the lower the fundamental frequency, and vice versa. Lower pitch instruments are usually better for more meditative styles of playing, while the brighter E's and F's want to be played fast, with lots of rhythm and fireworks.



For me, much of what makes a wonderful didjeridu is the richness of it's harmonics. The difference between a piece of PVC with a ring of beeswax, and a "real" didjeridu has everything to do with the harmonics which can be emphasized by a skilled player. My recommendation is to play every one in sight and find the one with the most beautiful timbre. Emphasize the harmonics and see what sounds you can get from the instrument. A musician on a good didj will have harmonics sounding like a second voice in a fugue !


Back Pressure

Backpressure is the word used to describe the pressure that fights against your breath when you play the instrument. You will have noticed that doing a raspberry in the open air feels different from doing the raspberry into the didj mouthpiece. This is because the entire air column in the didj has to be moved, as opposed to just the little pocket of air around your lips in the open air case. Now the air mass in the didj is quite happy just sitting there, and doesn't particularly want to move. As you force it to move, it does so reluctantly - it's reluctance is experienced as backpressure.

All this talk about backpressure makes it sound as if it's a bad thing, but in fact the right amount backpressure is your best friend, as it makes circular breathing a snap. As you circular breathe, while snatching a breath in through your nose (hopefully nowhere else!) you're maintaining the playing by pressure built up in your mouth and the pipe. During the breath snatch, the backpressure in the pipe actually helps you to maintain the drone !

The important thing here is that you're looking for the right amount of backpressure.


Too much backpressure
means the didj will not play well at all. You'll have to fight the didj all the way and will not be able to play all those fancy passages which require the didj to quickly respond to sharp bursts of air. Too much backpressure is a problem that cannot be rectified without physical modification of the instrument.
Too little backpressure
means that playing and circular breathing will be more difficult, as the didj will be more likely to stop playing without a strong, continuous stream of air. As your playing improves though, too little backpressure will become less and less of a problem.

For more on backpressure, see the heading in the Physical Characteristics section (below).


Speed of Play

Some didjeridus play "faster" than others. By faster, I'm referring to the latency of response to an input. Didj's that respond very quickly to a burst of air from say a gut or tongue slap, are better suited to playing fast, rhythmic passages with lots of detail. As fast as you can wiggle your tongue around, puff the air and squeeze your cheeks, the didj just keeps up, rendering in all detail the glory of your spectacular skills and regrettably, also your less than regal errors. You see, a fast didj is also an unforgiving didj.

Fireworks will require a quick didj. But remember that when playing with fireworks, its easy to be burned !



Overtones are an important part of didj playing. When testing a didj to buy, try out the overtones - as many of them as you can get. A good didj will have 2 or 3 overtones available. These overtones should ideally be fairly easy to hit, but it will probably take some time to master the higher ones on a new instrument. Remember that it's much easier to get higher overtones on didjeridus in a low key, than ones in higher keys. It is noteworthy that in traditional Aborigine playing, (field recordings) only the first overtone appears to be used.


Gut Slaps

As I'm sure you know, gut slaps are those very powerful, short bursts of air caused by your diaphragm forcing air rapidly from your lungs. You create these bursts using a vigorous, "Huh-Huh-Huh," forced expulsion of air. Since such forced expulsions are such a fundamental part of rhythm in playing, it is essential to see how the didjeridu responds to them. Ideally you are looking for a sharp, short, well defined burst, which is clear over the sound of the basic drone of the instrument. Sometimes even with a "popping," sound is present, and desirable.



Central to didjeridu playing is the vocal imitation of animal calls. It very important that your vocalizations sound sharp and clear though the didjeridu. You do not want the didjeridu to muffle your vocalizations. Also choose a didjeridu in a key where your vocalizations are clear above the basic drone.



Physical Characteristics

Mouthpiece Size

The mouthpiece of a didjeridu is critical, since it has to fit just right for you to be able to play comfortably for long periods of time. Fortunately though, with a bit of beeswax you can shape the opening to your taste (sic). Ideally you would like a mouthpiece which you can play without any wax (raw), but this is rare, and most play with wax. The important thing is that the wood mouthpiece is not too small for your mouth, and if you are a beginner, that there is ample room to widen the wax as your playing improves. Personally I like a slightly oval shape, but you have to find your preference and stay with it.



What is a didjeridu besides a bored out tree trunk ? The bore is what makes a great didj or a hollow stick. Since we have little control over what the termites do to the log, besides fairly minor modifications, we can only approve or disapprove of the end product. Here are a few characteristics that should be examined.


The bore down the didj should be fairly regular, without any serious constrictions, or very tight corners. Unless the didj is curved, you should be able to see through to the other end without too much obstruction. If you are going didj shopping, it does not hurt to take a little flashlite to check out the bore. If the bore is contorted and constricted, the instrument is likely to have too much back pressure.
The ideal didjeridu bore starts from a mouthpiece opening that is just the right size for your lips, and which widens ever so gently towards the bottom. The ideal bore thus approximates the frustum of a cone whose height is much greater than its diameter. This configuration results in good back pressure, which makes playing easier. Often the inside of the bottom end of the didjeridu will be deliberately chiseled out by the maker to emphasize the flare of the pipe. This also has the added advantage of acting like an amplifier (much like the horn on a gramophone).
As mentioned above, the bore should taper from a comfortable sized mouthpiece to a flared bottom. At the mouthpiece, the diameter should be around 3 to 5 cm, and the bottom should be anywhere from 3 to 8 cm.
All those little termite tracks that you see down the pipe tend to make a big difference in the sound that is produced. It appears that a bore that is very smooth and regular tends to result in a very well defined fundamental tone, with the higher harmonics being less defined. A didjeridu with more "features" in the bore will tend to have richer higher harmonics, and a more subdued fundamental. In short, termites with character add character to the sound.


Wood Hardness

The hardness of the wood from which the didj has been made makes a very big difference to the sound that you get. Hardwood didj's (high density woods which require many evenings of hard work to manually hollow) sound brighter, and more lively than a softer wood equivalent. Australian didj's are made from a number of different kinds of wood, so don't expect them all to sound the same. There are also hundreds of kinds of Eucalyptus trees too !


Wall Thickness

I'm told that the thinner the wall thickness the better the sound. Of course the thinner the wall thickness, the more likely the didj is to crack as well. My feeling is that the wall thickness should be somewhere between 1 and 2 centimeters. During your physical examination of your prospective purchase, look carefully for places where the wall becomes very thin, as this is where cracks are likely to develop.



Probably your biggest risk with a wood didj is cracking. Unfortunately the very act of playing the didj will exacerbate the problem, as moisture (saliva and breath) will penetrate the wood and cause expansion which leads to cracking. When you purchase a didj, be very sure to examine every inch of it for cracks which may grow. Unfortunately this is hard for painted didj's, but do your best. Check especially carefully around the mouthpiece and sound end of the pipe.

Once I saw a beautiful didj by George Jungawunga on sale for a great price. The catch though was that it had some serious cracks already. I was sorely tempted to take it, but realized that it was past its peak, and that it would be downhill from there on. All this does not mean to say that cracks cannot be patched. I'm simply saying that if you are buying a new didj, make sure there are no cracks which will cause the deterioration of the instrument. The problem of cracking is especially severe for bamboo and agave instruments. Obviously its not too likely for plastic !

Its usually a good idea to seal the wood with something like linseed oil or melted beeswax (see upcoming page on sealing) in order to reduce the risk of cracking, but don't try to seal an ochre painted didj with oil. The oil will seep through the wood (as expected) and destroy the ochre artwork (not expected and very regrettable).



Usually this is more of a convenience thing than anything else. If you perform at all, a heavy didj will be something of a burden, both carrying and on stage. Even if you support the didj on a table, carrying the weight of the mouthpiece end for an extended period of time will be tiresome. If you can find a lighter did that plays the same, go for that one instead ! I know this is not a supremely important consideration, but consider that David Hudson, when performing in San Francisco, deliberately chose a light weight didj from Clarion for this reason.



Let me begin with decorations on the most traditional didjeridus. The decoration of a good Australian didjeridu will often tell much about which area it came from and even who its maker was. Aboriginal art varies markedly in different geographic areas. (See bibliography for references). As a result this allows the identification of the region of origin of the instrument. Furthermore, given that the content of the design is often the "dreaming" owned by a particular artist, we are able to identify that particular artist with the instrument.
The most traditional method of decoration is with natural pigments or "Ochres." These are usually fairly subdued, matte earth colours. Though exquisite, care must be taken with these pigments as they are easily destroyed by oils. Just the moisture and oil from your hand hold on the didj will rub away the ochre finish. An ochred didj should never be sealed with oil.

More modern methods employ synthetic paints for decoration. These are far more permanent than their ochre counterparts, and are available if a plethora of vivid colours, many of which are used. Didj's decorated with these paints are often very colourful and attractive but are of course less faithful to the original decorative technique.

Of course the decoration on the didjeridu does nothing to alter the way the instrument plays, but if you are interested in your didj as a small reflection of the ancient aboriginal culture then a faithfully decorated didj will bring much pleasure.


Useful Checks

Slap the Mouthpiece

One excellent method to aid in the selection of a didjeridu to which I have been enlightened, is to slap the mouthpiece with the palm of your hand and listen to the response. Give it a good solid flat handed smack. (Engineers out there will immediately associate this with an impulse response test). The didjeridu will ring out, and you will be able to judge, from this sound, whether or not the didj is worthy of consideration. A poor didjeridu will have a muffled and dead sound that will die out almost immediately, not giving a toneful ring at all. If the didjeridu sounds like this, forget it. The other extreme, usually found on perfect bores, such as PVC or ABS piping, is the ringing lasting too long, and sounding very pure. This is a case of what David Hudson, when talking about playing plastic, refers to as "too perfect." A good didjeridu will lie in between these two extremes, having a good sounding ring, which does not linger too long. If you have ever listened to the Dr. Didj album, "Out of the Woods," on track 4, "King Tut," you hear Graham Wiggins playing the mouthpiece of his didjeridu using this technique, though I don't think Graham's trying out this didj with a mind to buy! He does give you the idea though.

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