Love it or hate it, the kazoo is here to stay. The wholesome little kazoo buzzed its first tune to the free world at the Georgia State Fair of 1852, but legend says it was invented by a man named Alabama Vest of Macon, Georgia sometime in the 1840s. After its debut at the Georgia Fair, the kazoo kicked around for a bit before getting mass marketed in 1912, and the rest is history!
The kazoo is part of a class of instruments called “mirlitons”, which are characterized for making sound by way of a vibrating membrane. Inside the body of the kazoo you’ll find an open tube running from end to end, but right underneath that little metal disk at the top of the instrument you’ll find a thin membrane of wax paper. When you hum into a kazoo, this membrane vibrates and creates that distinct buzzy melody. Some say that the kazoo can be called a “singing drum”!
The closest musical relative to the kazoo is called the Horn Mirliton, an African instrument that looks strikingly similar to the kazoo:
This kazoo grandfather is rumored to be made with the horn of a cow and the membrane from spider eggshells. Quite different from the little tin kazoo we have today. The iconic kazoo had a grand life from its inception, and this transformation isn’t the first in its history and certainly not the last.
The kazoo gained popularity in the 1920s and was featured in a wide variety of bands and music. The sound of the instrument can actually be altered and “tuned” by manipulating the opening at the top, and this versatile and easy to play piece was featured in jazz and blues bands for years. As production of the kazoo continued, it soon became available to the general public where it was often given as gifts to children. Now, the kazoo is a popular toy that everyone can enjoy!