Didgeridoo Tutorial – Part 1

Controlling The Tone

Copyright 1996 David Blonski…. (taken from David’s CD Tutorial)

Good day and welcome to this Comprehensive Guide to Contemporary Playing of the Didgeridoo. My name is David Blonski and it’s my hope that these instructions will make learning the didgeridoo as easy as possible by separating the basic playing techniques into simple, easy to learn, individual components that you can put together later in any fashion that you desire. You will find that as we go along, the didgeridoo itself will teach you quite a bit as you become more experienced and comfortable with the instrument.

We’ll explore didgeridoo playing in three segments. First we’ll work on the various ways that we can create sounds with the Didgeridoo. Next we’ll work on circular breathing and then we’ll finish up by learning rhythmical playing techniques. If you follow this tutorial closely and master the material covered you will have made considerable progress in becoming a proficient player.



Let’s begin by loosening up the muscles of the mouth and lips.  Open the mouth wide then tighten and loosen up the lips around the teeth.  Try making a few unusual faces as you stretch and loosen the muscles of the mouth tongue and lips.  Now try vibrating your lips loosely by expelling air from the lungs using your diaphragm.

We’ll use this loose lip technique while blowing into the didgeridoo to create and evenly sustained fundamental tone.  Creating this droning tone is a very important first step and it is the foundation for everything else you will learn in this tutorial.

You do this by buzzing your lips together into the didgeridoo the way you would when playing the larger brass instruments.  The lips should be very relaxed and much looser than when playing the trumpet.  It’s really much more like the tuba.  Keep in mind that although I prefer a central straight ahead blowing technique, many prefer playing from the side using the corner of the mouth.  Either is correct and some Aboriginal players use both techniques.  Try both ways and use the one that you prefer the most. Make sure that you form a good seal on the didgeridoo and don’t let any air escape around the edges of the mouth piece.  Now try, once again, buzzing your lips into the didgeridoo.

When you first get a tone on the didgeridoo it may sound a bit ragged or strained or perhaps not quite the full sound that you want.  This is where we all start so just remember to keep the lips relaxed.  Once you get any sound at all just relax the lips and concentrate on getting the lips to vibrate with just a soft breath. Sooner or later you will slip into that place that will create a full and deep didgeridoo tone.  After  some practice you’ll find that you can start right in with the correct basic tone.  You should practice this fundamental tone quite a bit without worrying about getting into other things.  Make sure that you are getting a good clear  tone before going on.  At first it may take quite a bit of air pressure to get the lips vibrating, but ideally, very little air is needed once you become familiar with the technique.  Once you get proficient you should be able to sustain a single tone for 15 to 30 seconds on a single breath.  You should really concentrate on a soft breath technique that will allow you to sustain a clear note for as long as possible.

Once you can play a clear note for more than a few seconds you can experiment with modulating the sound by varying the volume as you sustain a single tone.  Try playing loud then soft and then loud again without causing a break in the tone.

This is generally accomplished by controlling the volume of air expelled from the lungs and more specifically it should be controlled by the diaphragm.  By reaching deep within you for the source of the sound you will get better tone and more control over the dynamics of the sound as well.  Now let’s try speeding up this modulation of the volume…

Now that we’ve experimented with modulating the volume let’s explore the world of tone modulation.  This mainly involves how you tighten and loosen your lips and cheek muscles and how you move your tongue around inside your mouth to change the shape of your mouth and to change the way the air flows to your lips.  I find it very similar to shaping vowel sounds without actually vocalizing them.

The next modulation we’ll try is by shaping the shape of your cheeks.  First we’ll play the drone sound with our cheeks puffed out.  Then we’ll slowly tighten the cheek muscles and constrict them inward.  This will change the shape of the mouth cavity and therefore the tonal characteristics of the sound. Think of shaping the sounds of “ooooo” and “errrr…”

Now let’s try speeding up this modulation like we did before with the volume.

If we accentuate this modulation sharply we can get rhythmic and or percussive sounds commonly know as cheek pops.

The next modulation we’ll try for is what I call the oooo…eeee… tongue modulation .  If you move your tongue back and forth inside your mouth as if saying the ooo… eeee vowel sounds, you’ll find that your tongue starts out back away from your teeth and then it is forced up against the back of your lower front teeth and lower lip as it arches towards the pallet as you swing into the eeee… part of the modulation.  This narrows the size of the oral cavity and changes the way your lips vibrate, creating a change in the tonal quality of the sound you make.  Now simply listen to the sounds I make and then try to emulate them.

Your first efforts will probably only result in weak and fairly indistinct modulations,  I know that’s what happened for me.  It’s really a matter of personal experimentation to find out what movements work for you in creating tonal changes.  The more you play the more familiar you’ll become with the didge and the more you’ll find techniques to alter the tonal qualities of the instrument.  With time and practice your modulations will become much more distinct.  Here’s what happens when we take the same modulation and play it much faster.

With practice these modulations will become stronger and you will be able to add some very powerful harmonics and overtones to the basic didge drone.  You will find these very useful later in our exploration of rhythmical didgeridoo styles.

Now let’s try a more complex pattern by going through the entire a..e..i..o..u vowel articulations without actually vocalizing these sounds.

Go through these articulations quickly and you’ll begin to see how rhythmical patterns can start to be built.

As you begin to experiment with the vowel and consonant articulations it may have already become apparent to you that the actual vocalization of sounds can add a great deal of depth and complexity to your playing.  The technique of adding vocalizations to your playing is indeed a very large and important aspect to advanced didgeridoo playing.  Things like high pitched screams, barks and grunts are very obvious when heard but subtle vowel and consonant vocalizations are just as important.  Just remember that no matter what type of vocalizations you use, you must remember to keep the lips vibrating the fundamental tome without faltering.

Let’s try some of the more obvious screams and grunts.  Try doing this into the didge as you vibrate your lips. Arrrh….Arrrrh   Uhgh…Uhgh

These are very attention grabbing effects that can add a lot of excitement to your playing but the more subtle vocalizations can be more musically useful and intriguing.

What you have just heard is a wide range of subtle vocalization techniques used with lip, tongue and cheek modulations along with the shaping of vowel and consonant sounds.  There is no other instrument that I know of that can create such a diverse and complex range of sonic textures by a single player at one time.  The best way to learn how to use your voice with the didgeridoo is to simply just do it.  Experiment freely with different vocal patterns and you will quickly learn which ones yield the best results.  Soon you will discover that you’ll be using vocalizations in a major portion of your didge playing.

Another very useful effect is the sound that you can create by using the rolling Spanish R.  Just trill your tongue like this …rrrrr…. You can do this with or without vocalizations.

Now, although what I play and teach should not be considered Aboriginal style playing, it is still very valuable to take some time to learn a little of the traditional Aboriginal vocabulary of the instrument.  This will give you a starting or jumping off point in your own exploration of the instrument.  In the Outback one is encouraged to go out into the bush to emulate the sounds of nature so a lot of Aboriginal playing emulates the sounds of animals which can actually tell a story.

Let’s start out with the Dingo, the wild dog of Australia.  We do this by barking or howling like a dog into the instrument.  Try  ark..ark….woof…wooffor the barks and ar.. ar.. ar.. aahhooo…for the howl.

The bush pigeon is similar in nature to the owl. Hoo.. Hooo   Hoo…Hoooo

A very common sound used in Aboriginal playing is the sound of the Kookaburra Bird… Coo-coo-coo-Kaa-kaa-kaa-kaa

The Kangaroo is a non vocal interpretation of a kangaroo hopping through the bush and my interpretation is created by shaping the sound of  too-eee-aaahh.  Really push with the diaphragm to accentuate the “too” part of the sound.

Getting clear high harmonics on the Didgeridoo usually takes quite a bit of practice but when you can get them they can be used to create the sound of a boomerang as it travels through the air in a non-vocalized yo-yo-yo-yo-yo or ayoee-yoee-yoee-yoee

How about a cricket.  This is done by vocalizing the highest pitch you can while trilling the tongue as in the Spanish R   rrrr…rrrr…rrrr…rrrr

This should give you a good idea of how to come up with sounds on your own.  Just go out and listen to what nature has to say to you.

Continue to part 2

Copyright 1996 David Blonski

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