The kazoo, a simple musical instrument (membranophone) that adds tonal qualities when the player hums into it, was invented in the 19th century in Macon, Georgia by an African American named Alabama Vest, who based it on an African device called the mirliton which was used to disguise the priest's voice in ceremonies. The first kazoo was manufactured to Vest's specifications by Thaddeus von Clegg, a German clockmaker in Macon. The kazoo was first publicized at the Georgia State Fair in 1852.
The first metal kazoos were manufactured and patented in Eden, New York, where they are still made in the original factory. A temporary kazoo can be made by combining comb and tissue paper.
The kazoo is played professionally in jug bands and comedy music, and by amateurs everywhere. It is one of the few acoustic instruments to be developed in the United States and one of the easiest melodic instruments to play well, requiring only the ability to hum in tune.
In the Original Dixieland Jass Band 1921 recording of "Crazy Blues", what the casual listener might mistake for a trombone solo is actually a kazoo solo by drummer Tony Sbarbaro. The Mound City Blue Blowers had a number of hit kazoo records in the early 1920s. The Mound City Blue Blowers featured Dick Slevin on metal kazoo and Red McKenzie on comb and tissue paper kazoo.
A kazoo is a tube-formed, American musical instrument, with both ends of the tube uncovered.
One end of the tube is flattened, while the other end of the tube has a small circular opening.
Around two thirds down the instrument there is another circular hole. This hole leads to a small chamber, where a wax-membrane is situated. The membrane, which is fixed around the edges by a circular cylinder-ring, is free to oscillate.
A kazoo may be made out of plastic or metal and can have all sorts of different shapes.
The whole idea behind the instrument is, that a kazoo player by singing or speaking through the instrument induces an air current which makes the membrane vibrate and thus creates a summing, "nasal" sound.
By wholly or partially covering up the membrane hole a great diversity of sounds are created.
The membrane is the key point of the kazoo. This membrane gives the kazoo its distinction from the "horn-section-instruments". The kazoo should be viewed as a singing-drum.
Therefore it is of no use to simply blow through a kazoo, which is a common mistake among first time kazoo-users.
Further it is not recommended to make a hole in the membrane, since this ruins the instrument, and shows ones lack of understanding the physics of the kazoo.
The kazoo is categorised among the type of instruments known as the "mirlitons".
This group of instruments are characterised by having a vibrating membrane.
It is believed that the kazoos closest relative is the African version of a mirliton: the horn-mirliton. The building materials of the horn-militon were of a more primitive nature. The tube was made out of the horn of a cow and the membrane consisted of the egg-shells of spiders.
The African horn-mirliton was used to distort voices at tribe gatherings. An analogy here is the use of the mask in the theatre. The first mirlitons in Europe were the "eunuk"-flutes from 17th and 18th century.
Konig Ludwig von Bayern had an enormous 2.13 meter long mirliton build for use in a Wagner opera. To construct this mirliton the king imported extremely "fat" eunuks from the kingdom of Ottoman to do the job.
Through the 18th hundreds instruments of different construction but similar to the kazoo could be found in the major part of North-America. These instruments were based on the African mirliton and were used for folk music.
In the mid-18th hundreds the kazoo in its present form started making an impact on the history of the world.
A guy by the name of Alabama Vest got the idea for the kazoo in the 1840's in Macon, Georgia. He teamed up with the German clock manufacturer Thaddeus Von Glegg to construct the first kazoo.
Emil Sorg, who was a travelling salesman, came across a Vest and von Glegg's kazoo on one of his business trips. He showed great interest in the kazoo and was eager to get the kazoo into mass-production.
With this thought in mind Emil Sorg travelled to New York. Here he became partners with Michael McIntyre, who was an iron smith. Together Sorg and McIntyre created the first production of the kazoo in the year 1912.
McIntyre had now gained enough knowledge to maintain the production of kazoos all by himself. All he needed was a larger factory. In 1913 he separated from Emil Sorg and teamed up with Harry Richardson who owned a big metal factory.
McIntyre and Richardson launched the first mass-production of the kazoo in 1914. Selling kazoos was a good business. The sales figures of the popular instrument rose enormously.
In 1916 McIntyre and Richardson renamed their partnership and turned it into a company called The Original American Kazoo Company.
As other manufacturers of kazoos tried to get in on the sales market the pressure of competition was rising. Therefore it was a feeling of satisfaction and pride when McIntyre succeeded to get his product patented in 1923.
The factory itself still exists today and it still produces kazoos. Next to the the original factory a museum has been built to tell the history of the kazoo and to give a detailed description of the manufacturing process.
The looks of a kazoo can vary a lot. Depending on the size of the membrane hole and the shape of the kazoo all sorts of musical instruments can be imitated.
The Soprano Kazoo- the size of a standard kazoo, can bring out the highest pitch, flute.
The Alto Kazoo- 15 cm, imitating the sound of a clarinet and a trumpet.
The Tenor kazoo- 30 cm, saxophone.
The Bariton Kazoo- 46cm, French horn og jagdhorn.
The Kaboom Kazoo- 90cm, a membrane diameter of 12,5cm, tuba.
The dilemma of the kazoo- an appeal:
The last song is symptomatic for the development and role of the kazoo in modern music today. The kazoo has turned into a toy for children and a funny little input in songs without meaning in a world without sense.
The kazoo has lost it’s influence and impact. It had its breakthrough in the 1920’s but none of the great artists gave the kazoo a chance.
The kazoo was originally meant to be a sophisticated disguise of the voice. Like the mask worn by the actor. Now the kazoo wears a mask. A clowns mask- only to step out in the light when the serious musicians have left the stage. A fill in without impact.
It’s time to bring the kazoo back into the top of musical influence and significance.
It’s time to tear off the heavy mask of the kazoo.