Authentic Aboriginal didgeridoos are produced in traditionally-oriented communities in Northern Australia or by makers who travel to Central and Northern Australia to collect the raw materials. They are usually made from hardwoods, especially the various eucalyptus species that are endemic to the region. Sometimes a native bamboo, such as Bambusa arnhemica, or pandanus is used. Generally the main trunk of the tree is harvested, though a substantial branch may be used instead. Aboriginal didgeridoo craftsmen spend considerable time in the challenging search for a tree that has been hollowed out by termites to just the right degree. If the hollow is too big or too small, it will make a poor quality instrument.
When a suitable tree is found and cut down, the segment of trunk or branch that will be made into a didgeridoo is cut out. The bark is taken off, the ends trimmed, and some shaping of the exterior then results in a finished instrument. This instrument may be painted or left undecorated. A rim of beeswax may be applied to the mouthpiece end. Traditional instruments made by Aboriginal craftsmen in Arnhem Land are sometimes fitted with a ‘sugarbag’ mouthpiece. This black beeswax comes from wild bees and has a distinctive aroma.
Non-traditional didgeridoos can also be made from PVC piping, non-native hard woods (typically split, hollowed and rejoined), glass, fiberglass, metal, agave, clay, hemp (a bioplastic named zelfo), and even carbon fiber. These didges typically have an upper inside diameter of around 1.25″ down to a bell end of anywhere between two to eight inches and have a length corresponding to the desired key. The mouthpiece can be constructed of beeswax, hardwood or simply sanded and sized by the craftsman. In PVC, an appropriately sized rubber stopper with a hole cut into it is equally acceptable, or to finely sand and buff the end of the pipe to create a comfortable mouthpiece.
Modern didgeridoo designs are distinct from the traditional Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo, and are innovations recognized by musicologists. Didgeridoo design innovation started in the late 20th Century using non-traditional materials and non-traditional shapes.
The didgeridoo is played with continuously vibrating lips to produce the drone while using a special breathing technique called circular breathing. This requires breathing in through the nose whilst simultaneously expelling stored air out of the mouth using the tongue and cheeks. By use of this technique, a skilled player can replenish the air in their lungs, and with practice can sustain a note for as long as desired. Recordings exist of modern didgeridoo players playing continuously for more than 40 minutes; Mark Atkins on Didgeridoo Concerto (1994) plays for over 50 minutes continuously.
Fellow of the British Society Anthony Baines wrote that the didgeridoo functions “…as an aural kaleidoscope of timbres” and that “the extremely difficult virtuoso techniques developed by expert performers find no parallel elsewhere.”
Kidman upsets Aborigines by playing didgeridoo: