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What is Kazoo and How Do You Play it?

Have you ever seen a small handheld musical instrument made up of a hollow tube pipe with a hole in it? You might have seen it at a party, fair, or sold at markets while traveling. In this post, we will explore what the kazoo is and how you can play it.

The origin of the kazoo

There is a story that suggests that the kazoo was invented in 1840 by an African American named Alabama Vest in Macon, Georgia. However, there is no evidence to support the claim. In 1883, an American inventor Warren Herbert Frost patented his new musical instrument as “kazoo”. The toy trumpet allows the player to play through a hollow sheet-metal tube with a rectangular aperture cut out along the length of the tube, with paper covering the aperture, and a funnel at the end, like the bell of a trumpet.

Frost’s kazoo did not have the streamlined submarine shape of a modern kazoo. The modern kazoo - the first one made of metal - was patented by George D. Smith of Buffalo, New York in 1902.

Where was the kazoo used?

The kazoo, even though it looks small like a toy instrument, has been used professionally in jug bands and comedy music. It is among the acoustic instruments developed in the United States and one of the easiest melodic instruments to play.

Kazoos play an important role in North East England and South Wales in juvenile bands. They are also used in Spain during the Carnival of Cadiz and in the corsos on the murgas in Uruguay.

How does a kazoo work?

Although the kazoo feels like a flute or a clarinet, it actually is closely related to a drum. When the player sings, speaks, or hums into the open end, their vocal cords create sound waves that travel through the instrument. Some of these sound waves bounce off the walls of the instrument and the change in their direction can add harmonics to the sound of the player’s voice - although this is also dependent on the material of the tube.

The sound waves strike the membrane of the kazoo and cause it to vibrate. The vibration adds resonance or harmonics to the sound and creates the characteristic buzzing associated with the little instrument.

How to play the kazoo?

The whole idea behind the kazoo is to have the player sing or speak through the instrument. By doing so, the air current from the player images the membrane vibrates and creates a humming or a “nasal” sound.

If the membrane is wholly or partially covered, it creates a diversity of sounds. The membrane is the key point of the kazoo, it gives the instrument its distinction from the “horn-section-instruments”. The kazoo is like a singing drum.

The most common mistake is to blow into the kazoo to make sounds. It is also not recommended to make a hole in the membrane as this will damage the instrument.

If you are interested in learning about world instruments, check out our World Rhythms program at Ritmo Music Studio.

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