Annals of musical instruments: improvised instruments

Probably since the beginning of time, people have made music using materials at hand: improvising percussion instruments, devices to modify or amplify the human voice, ways to create sound by blowing on pipes or making fibers vibrate. Here, two examples that have come past me recently: the ugly stick and the comb kazoo.

The ugly stick. From Wikipedia:

The ugly stick is a traditional Newfoundland [percussion] musical instrument fashioned out of household and tool shed items, typically a mop handle with bottle caps, tin cans, small bells and other noise makers. The instrument is played with a drum stick and has a distinctive sound.


An assortment of ugly sticks

Origin: In outports and remote villages, social gatherings such as concerts (colloquially referred to as “times”), mummering and kitchen parties, were an important part of the rural culture. The principal melody instruments were accordions and fiddles with rhythmic accompaniment from the ugly stick.

Construction: The instrument’s main body is a mop or broom handle cut to approximately four feet. An old rubber boot was attached to the bottom and a cymbal attached at the very top. At strategic intervals along the length of the shaft, nails affixed with bottle caps, felt tins and other noise makers would be nailed into the shaft. The instrument would then be decorated with items of colour and fluff to the artist’s taste.

Playing: The ugly stick is held in one hand at about ¾ up the shaft and the musician would hold a drum stick in the other. The instrument would be lifted and dropped on the floor in a rhythmic fashion while the musician would strike the attachments and cymbal to embellish the sound.

You can watch percussionist Ed Reifel performing on the ugly stick here.

(The origin of the name is uncertain. The American slang idiom to beat with an ugly stick refers to an action that is popularly supposed to make someone ugly — He looks like he was beaten with an ugly stick — but the Newfoundland instruments are simply ugly themselves, so its name probably has nothing to the American idiom but is simply a specialization of the composite ugly stick — with the accent pattern of a compound rather than that of Adj + N.)

Well, any tradition of folk or street performance, however homely, can be fashioned into art, as has certainly happened with percussionist improvising using the body and everyday objects — spectacularly, in the theatre group Stomp. From Wikipedia:

Stomp is a percussion group, originating in Brighton, UK that uses the body and ordinary objects to create a physical theatre performance.

Stomp was created by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas in Brighton … in 1991. The performers use a variety of everyday objects as percussion instruments in their shows.

You have to see them in action. You can watch them in a trailer for a recent performance here. (Back in December 1994, Jacques and I saw them perform at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State. Astounding, joyous physicality, combining music and dance. There’s a lot you can do with garbage cans and mops and the like.)

The kazoo. In its origin, a device to modify and amplify humming or singing. The Wikipedia article notes that

hide-covered vibrating and voice-changing instruments have been used in Africa for hundreds of years, often for ceremonial purposes

In modern times, the homely combination of a comb and some paper (waxed paper is the canonical material) creates a simple instrument, the comb and paper or comb kazoo. (One of the simple pleasures of my childhood.) As here:


But then modern kazoos were invented. From Wikipedia:

The kazoo is a musical instrument that adds a “buzzing” timbral quality to a player’s voice when the player vocalizes into it. It is a type of mirliton, which is a membranophone, one of a class of instruments which modifies its player’s voice by way of a vibrating membrane.

A kazoo player hums, rather than blows, into the instrument. The oscillating air pressure of the hum makes the kazoo’s membrane vibrate. The resulting sound varies in pitch and loudness with the player’s humming. Players can produce different sounds by singing specific syllables such as doo, who, rrrrr or brrrr into the kazoo.

The first documented appearance of a kazoo was that created by an American inventor, Warren Herbert Frost, who named his new musical instrument kazoo in his patent #270,543 issued on January 9, 1883. The patent states, “This instrument or toy, to which I propose to give the name ‘kazoo’ “…” Frost’s kazoo did not look like present-day submarine-shaped kazoos. The modern kazoo — also the first one made of metal — was patented by George D. Smith of Buffalo, New York, May 27, 1902.

In 1916, the Original American Kazoo Company in Eden, New York started manufacturing kazoos for the masses in a two-room shop and factory, utilizing a couple of dozen jack presses for cutting, bending and crimping metal sheets. These machines were used for many decades. … By 1994, the company produced 1.5 million kazoos per year and was the only manufacturer of metal kazoos in North America. The factory, in nearly its original configuration, is now called The Kazoo Factory and Museum.

A metal kazoo:


And then of course they were mass-produced in plastic:


The origin of the name is probably the obvious one. From NOAD2:

ORIGIN late 19th cent.: apparently imitative of the sound produced.

One Response to “Annals of musical instruments: improvised instruments”

  1. Ben Zimmer Says:

    Australians have their own version of an ugly stick — it’s called a “lagerphone” (because the bottle caps come from beer bottles). Instructions on making one are here.

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