December 23rd, 2002

abstract butterfly

In praise of the kazoo

The kazoo symbolizes for me many of my core beliefs about music, and for that matter, about life. The kazoo is a "membrane" instrument, which is played by humming a tune into a tube into which a membrane has been placed to receive and vibrate, creating a new sound. Most kazoos in use now are soprano kazoos, but deeper-toned kazoos also exist.

I like the kazoo because it requires no talent to play. The breathing can be a bit tricky, but is an eminently solvable problem. The simple reality is that anyone who can hum can play a kazoo. Kazoo requires no attendance at any academy of music, no years of memorization of scales, no fingerings or bar chords, and no lesson books in which one plays moronically simple songs for five years and spends one's whole life wishing to get to use the damper pedal.

The kazoo has both ancient origins and a suitably American story.
The mirlitons, of which the kazoo is one, are quite ancient, animal skin membranes stretched against horns, for use in African ritual observances. Some have suggested that mirlitons are among the first musical instruments. But the kazoo as we know it today dates only from the 1840s, when an African-American man from Georgia, Alabama Vest, conceived of a hollow tube with a membrane over the hole, and had Thaddeus van Clegg fabricate such an instrument. The result was displayed at the Georgia state fair, and caught on. By 1916, the first metal kazoo factory in the world opened its doors for mass production of kazoos. It still operates today, turning out The Original American Kazoo.

In the 1920s, the kazoo appeared on many jazz and blues recordings. It was seen as an instrument with avant-garde potential, as it distorted the human voice in ways no other instrument could do. But time eclipsed the kazoo's popularity.
Now it is a hobbyist instrument and a child's toy.

I found myself this year to be something of a collector of kazoos.
I do not have a museum-worthy collection, but I found that many different varieties of kazoos are very affordable. That's "very affordable" as in dirt cheap, not "very affordable" as in "I spent too much money, and I'm ashamed to tell you how much". Each kazoo varies slightly the sounds it can achieve.

Why do I like the kazoo so much? After all, the soprano kazoo's rather high pitched razzy rasp can annoy in large doses. I suppose I like it because I believe that music should not be limited to "musicians" or a matter of "talent". I believe that we all do make music when we sing, and we all should have the facility to make music when we play kazoo. I love hearing a talented keyboard player play something subtle and difficult. I listen to a lot of music by very accomplished people. But the fact is that although I admire "musicians" immensely, I believe music should be a fundamentally universal thing. We should not all be divided into musicians and listeners alone. Everyone who wants to make music should be able to do so without learning any secret scales. The kazoo fits my theory perfectly.

You see, I have learned that there are 24 hours in the day. The days each of us allotted are numbered, apparently by either some seamstresses who are not over-generous with the thread, or by a recording angel who gets writer's cramp and often seems to leave off writing far too early. As we choose the various artistic and professional pursuits we will use to fill those days, we need to have some things we can more or less do by picking up the instrument and having a go. The kazoo fits that bill perfectly.

It is my theory that the kazoo is not more popular because one cannot build a cottage indusry around it. Kazoos can be produced for a dollar or two each. No sheet music is required, no elaborate equipment, no band lessons, no academic infrastructure, and nothing else that corporate America can market to is required to learn the kazoo. One can learn the kazoo as soon as one learns to hum. But let me here register my vote for things that cost nothing to learn, and cost little to own. Let me tell you that I am still working on hitting all the right notes to "Young Americans" on the kazoo, and that I can already do a perfectly credible "Warzawa". I believe each of Satie's Gymnopedies are within my kazoo reach, which is certainly the nearest to classical music I will ever approach. We are all only as good as the songs we hum, after all.

I went to, the website for the United States Patent and Trademark Office. I ran the word "kazoo" through the patent search engine. I found that in November 2002, a Ms. Lauren Miller of Kansas City was awarded Patent Number 6,491,654, for a new, improved design for a kazoo. I took great heart from this discovery. The kazoo's predecessor instruments were patented as far back as 1896, of course, and the modern metal kazoo was patented around 1923. But my sense of the rightness of things makes it just seem right that even as I write, kazoo inventors are working to bring buzzy sounds to more Americans. As the kazoo improves, so, too, will life improve. In my ideal world, we would all play the kazoo, and gingerbread men would be served at concerts.

Poll #86053 Would you like a kazoo?

I have a dozen or so extra kazoos, which I got in bulk for nearly nothing this year. I would love to spread the gospel of the kazoo, which promises universal salvation. If you would like a kazoo, please provide me with an address (feel free to use a work address or similar to preserve your privacy. The answers will not be visible to anyone but me). If you wish to do so, please tell me what the first song you will play with your kazoo might be. Quantities are mildly limited, but the kazoos shipped will be entirely free. The only thing I ask is that you play the kazoo you receive, because what the world needs now can probably be summed up in a kazoo song. Enter your data below:

Remember, in Heaven the angels play kazoo, and in Hell everyone has an instrument, but nobody can follow the sheet music.