Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Kazoo: “Ineffably Cool”

Or should that be “ineffably kool”? Anyhoo, as you may have figured out by now, Eberle & I have a thing for odd instruments, including instruments that don’t get much respect. To a degree, this is true of the uke—the respect part, I mean, tho folks who’ve heard a competent player play a decent instrument acknowledge ukes as the real deal; the same goes for the melodica, one of Eberle’s main instruments; even really nice melodicas, like Eberle’s 36-key Hohner, are often greeted with puzzled faces—until the folks hear Eberle play, that it.

But let’s face it: while they may not be widely known or accepted by the general public, ukes & melodicas are used in lots of bands by really fine musicians. So let’s take things a step further—let’s talk about that least respected of all instruments, the kind you get imprinted for the office bash or that you give as favors at a kid’s birthday party. I’m talking about the kazoo.

First point: kazoos are cheap. Sadly, in a society that values brand name & cost as signs of virtue & quality, this is a big strike against them. Th
ey also can be home-made quite easily (if you don’t mind having your lips tickled) with a tissue paper & comb. & on top of this, it doesn’t require much skill to produce a recognizable version of a melody on a kazoo (should this really be a mark against an instrument?) Of course, you do need to be able to carry a tune, but beyond that the basics are about as basic as they can get: more elementary than harmonicas or jaw’s harps or slide whistles or nose flutes.

But here’s the thing: while most folks can make music with a kazoo (a good thing), it’s not like the instrument’s possibilities end at the basics. As evidence: Red McKenzie & Dick Slevin of the Mound City Blowers (also see yours truly writing about these guys here); further evidence: listen to Dave Van Ronk’s Ragtime Jug Stompers perform “You’s a Viper” or “Stealin’,” or listen to Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band perform “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me”; or you can go back to roots music with Cannon’s Jug Stompers doing “Mule Get up in the Alley,” the Memphis Jug Band’s “Bob Lee Junior Blues” or The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Crazy Blues”—just to name a handful. For the rock fans out there: Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Crosstown Traffic”; Queen, “Seaside Rendezvous”; Beck, “Steal My Body Home.”

These folks sound like they’re having fun, but I also don’t s
ense they’re using the kazoo “ironically” (well, I can’t speak for Beck or Queen on that one). The Mound City Blowers, who were all about the kazoo, were more than a novelty act in their day (tho of course they had that aspect, too—but so did the great banjoist/guitarist/uker Roy Smeck, who is given his due as a masterful instrumentalist). As I mentioned in my earlier review, the Mound City Blowers played with big name hot jazz folks like Eddie Lang, Harry Reser & Paul Whiteman.

& as further evidence of the kazoo’s musicality: my own dear wife, Eberle Umbach, who fulfilled what she called a lifetime ambition by playing a f
ull on melodic kazoo solo for our Grub Stake soundtrack (backed by yours truly on plectrum banjo). You can hear that piece in the clip below. The scene is a dancehall where Nell’s villainous husband is giving her a “coming out party”—however, he has some truly nefarious schemes percolating at the same time…. You can learn more about our Bijou Orchestrette incarnation here (including a link to a few more musical excerpts). The picture illustrating the clip is Nell Shipman in 1922, the same year The Grub Stake was filmed. Our soundtrack for Nell Shipman’s The Grub-Stake is available on vol. 3 of the Idaho Film Collection’s complete Shipman dvd set, & you can even purchase it here or here if the spirit so moves you (we did the soundtrack for a flat contractual fee, so I’m not trying to separate you from your hard-earned dollars for my own benefit). In working on her kazoo composition & playing, Eberle was really inspired by Red McKenzie & Dick Slavin; & Eberle’s the one who describes the kazoo as “ineffably cool.”

So what’s the history of this wondrous device? The kazoo comes from what is known as the “mirliton” family of instruments, along with the 16th & 17th century “eunuch flute (AKA “onion flute”). These instruments have an African origin, where they served as ceremonial devices. In essence, the mirlitons are a “voice-activated” drum, since the vibrating membrane is what creates the sound.

The kazoo as we now know it had its origins in the mid-19th century, tho similar instruments were used in North America earlier than this. However, in the 1840s an African-American man with the fantastic name Alabama Vest invented the prototype for the modern kazoo, which he had manufactured by a clockmaker in Macon, GA, one Thaddeus von Clegg. The kazoo was first manufactured under the name “Down South Submarine.” The instrument caught on, & eventually migrated north to western New York state where a traveling salesman named Emanuel Sorg joined forces with tool & die maker Michael McIntyre, & they started mass producing metal kazoos. This was the origin of the Original American Kazoo Company, still a going concern, & also the home of a Kazoo museum in Eden, NY. You can take a look at their website here.

Of course we all know the classic kazoo shape, illustrated by a few from our stash. You may not know it, but kazoos come in various shapes: as you can see, there are trumpet shaped kazoos (Eberle’s main kazoo), as well as kazoos shaped like trombones & French horns. I’ve also seen Sousaphone-shaped kazoos, but these don’t seem to be in production anymore. In addition, there are kazoos shaped like planes & trains & cars & tractors; there are kazoos made out of wood, too. You can see a wide collection of kazoos here.

A couple of final points: kazoos do fit in harmonica holders, so you can play a kazoo while accompanying yourself on guitar, banjo or uke. I’ve actually found that cheaper harmonica holders work best for this). Finally, don’t blow into your kazoo—& really, don’t hum either (that is, with closed lips); kazoos respond to vocalization—singing, talking, etc. & then just relax & swing it, gate, swing it—you’re in fantastic company.

I know I've used that pic of Eberle once before—but I couldn’t resist; the photo was taken by Dani Leone during “The Grub Stake” recording session.


  1. My Irish father used to love to put waxed paper over a comb and play it. (Do the comb's teeth vibrate - functioning as the mirliton?) If my dad had known about the whole eunuch-connection, he might have thought twice. He liked to bang around on his knee with the spoons once in a while, but always said it was someone from his family who could really play them.
    I always think of Spike Milligan whenever I hear a kazoo.
    My dad also had a guitar (which he did not know how to play - and never learned) and he bought me a harmonica for Christmas one year, but I didn't master that.
    I did manage to play passable piano however.

    The reason I think I enjoy your posts so much, John, is that they teach me so many new things, I have to dig for information to learn the extras and they (pardon the pun) strike a chord with me and my memories.


  2. Thanks Kat:

    Yes the comb's teeth must transmit & amplify the vibrations on the paper.

    The spoons are actually quite tricky to play-- I've tried a few times & could never really get the feel of it.

    Thanks as always for your great support!

  3. This was such a delightful post, Mr. Banjo! Who knew about the kazoo?! I will now give it the respect it justly deserves.

  4. Thanks Willow:

    All we are saying is give kazoos a chance....

  5. It had never occurred to me before that people are ironic when they play kazoos. Thank you for that. Yes.

    I love weird instruments, too. I love going to see the Folger Consort because they play all those bizarre medieval instruments that eventually feel out of favor because they were just impossible to play. The Consort does a good job with them but you can see it's a strain.

    Very fun post! Not ironic. I salute you!

  6. Forgot to say, my father was a whistler. He could whistle with vibrato and everything, and whistled classical "tunes" often. It was loud, too.

    Not ironic.

  7. kudos! kazoos are most kool.

    there is nothing as fun as having a bunch of kazoos and a bunch of kids together all making music.

  8. Hi Reya:

    Thanks-- the kazoo is great for one thing because it is the human voice in a way that even the most sensitive wind instrument can't be (not that I'm saying along the lines of what's better-- just different); in that sense, besides how easy they are to play, they are very immediate. & thanks for following here-- I really appreciate the RFB followers-- & I enjoy your blog too.

    Mouse: Great K's! Yes, kazoos & kids are fantastic-- nice to get kids to be loose & relaxed about making music.

  9. BTW, the kazoo featured prominently in a "Man From UNCLE" TV music score. The third season (1966-67) episode "The Hot Number Affair" features a Gerald Fried music relying heavily on kazoos. It even swings, in a mid-1960s "Spy Craze" sort of way!

  10. Hi CK Dexter Haven:

    Thanks for the heads up on "The Man from UNCLE"-- one of my favorite boyhood shows. Yes, I believe I know what you by the music swinging "in a mid-1960s "Spy Craze" sort of way!"

    Thanks for stopping by.

  11. I love kazoos. You know, I could use a kazoo to realize my lifelong ambition - to sing "Rhapsody in Blue" - bwa-bwa-bwa-BWAAAAH! etc. (Seriously. I was really annoyed when Bobby McFerrin stole my idea.) But a kazoo version - that would be great!

  12. Rhapsody in Blue on the kazoo: an idea whose time has come (it even rhymes).

    Thanks, Sandra


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