Blues players have long used kazoos, a pocket-sized resonating instrument that produces a buzzing sound, somewhat similar to that of cicadas. A kazoo player hums into a kazoo rather than blows, unlike reed instrument musicians. Kazoos could possibly be categorized as reed instruments, however, though they normally employ wax paper instead of reeds. Earlier models featured a strip of wax or tissue paper wrapped around a pocket comb. Although the history of kazoo-like instruments dates back hundreds of years to West Africa, legend has it that the first American-made kazoo was made by Alabama Vest, a man from Macon, Georgia, in the 1840s.
Some of the biggest users of kazoos are probably those musicians who played (or still play) cigar-box guitars in order to produce a more traditional blues sound. While playing they can simply open the cigar box and pull out a kazoo hidden inside, to fetch an accompanying sound without even having to bend over. If that is not the epitome of sound performance practicality, I don’t know what is.
Officially, it was an American named Warren Herbert Frost who got the first patent in 1883 for an invention he named a “kazoo.” Similar to the diddley bow, the kazoo quickly gained a reputation for being a musical toy for children. It was specifically called a “toy trumpet” at that time. Toy or not, wooden and other types of kazoos had been in use by black (and other) musicians much earlier, even before the outbreak of the American Civil War.
The first manufactured kazoo appeared in the United States just after the turn of the century. It was made of metal and was patented by George D. Smith of Buffalo, New York on May 27, 1902. Mass production started in Eden, New York by the Original American Kazoo Company in 1916. By 1994, the company produced 1.5 million kazoos per year and was the only manufacturer of metal kazoos in North America.
Jug bands and musical amateurs often use kazoo sounds to provide a comedic touch, but kazoos also play more important roles. For instance, in the Original Dixieland Jass [Jazz] Band’s Original 1921 recording of “Crazy Blues,” what the casual listener might mistake for a trombone solo is actually a kazoo solo by drummer Tony Sbarbaro. Red McKenzie played kazoo in a Mound City Blue Blowers 1929 film short. The Mound City Blue Blowers had a number of hit kazoo records in the early 1920s featuring Dick Slevin on metal kazoo and Red McKenzie on a comb-and-tissue-paper variation (although McKenzie also played metal kazoos).
Kazoos were not limited to blues, jazz or comedy either. They are featured in many rock & roll favorites as well. For instance, they can be heard in songs by Del Shannon, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, the Lovin’ Spoonful and Queen. Even Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller, a famous one-man band from the bay area, had a kazoo-employing hit song called “San Francisco Blues.” Covers mimicking Fuller’s style were later produced by blues-rock legends like Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan.
The record for most kazoos ever played simultaneously was set at a San Francisco Giants baseball game on August 9, 2010, when 9,000 kazoos formed the background sound for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Kazoos even have their national day in January. So, I hope you pulled out your kazoos on January 19th of this year and celebrated! Missed it? There’s always next year. Don’t forget to hang up a portrait of Jesse Fuller before you break open the champagne.