6 Australian Musical Instruments You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Australia is home to a number of musical instruments that you may not have heard of before. The indigenous people of Australia, known as the Aborigines, created a wide range of instruments that were used for traditional ceremonies and rituals long before Europeans arrived in Australian territory.

From the didgeridoo to the clapstick, each instrument has its own unique sound and history. In this post, we’re going to take a look at 10 traditional Australian musical instruments that hold a special place in the country’s heart and how they came to be.

1. Didgeridoo

The most famous of all Australian instruments, the Didgeridoo, is a trumpet-like wind instrument that was developed 1,500 years ago by the Aboriginal peoples of northern Australia.

The didgeridoo is conical or cylindrical in shape and measures anywhere between 3 to 10 feet long. The longer the instrument, the lower its pitch.

The musician plays it by blowing air down one end with a blowing technique called circular breathing to produce a drone-like sound that is said to be similar to a growling dog.

Traditionally, the didgeridoo was used to provide a rhythm during ceremonies and dances.

Although the didgeridoo is used around the world, it’s mostly associated with Indigenous Australian music.

Even so, only a selected few individuals outside the Aboriginal community can play the instrument, like David Hudson and John Butler. 

Other notable non-Australian players include Brandon Boyd – singer of the band Incubus, the trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, and the Jamaican musician Douglas Ewart.

2. Bullroarer

The Bullroarer is thought to be one of the oldest musical instruments in history dating all the way back to the Paleolithic period of 18,000 BC.

Also known as a Turndun or a Rhombus, it’s an ancient musical instrument used by Aboriginal Australians to communicate across large distances.

To look at, a bullroarer is made from a thin piece of wood that’s joined to a length of cord that is swung around, producing a roaring sound as it cuts through the air.

According to the Indigenous Australian community, the bullroarer hosts the voices of great ancestral spirits that ward off evil influences.

For this reason, the bullroarer is dubbed as a sacred instrument and can only be played by initiated Aboriginal men.

3. Gum-Leaf 

The Gum-Leaf is another unique Australian instrument. As the name suggests, it’s played by taking a leaf and pressing it between your hands and lips, then blowing across the leaf’s surface.

This causes it to vibrate in a similar way to a reed instrument and creates a high-pitched sound.

Originally, it’s believed that the gum leaf was used to mimic bird calls as a decoy by hunters. But’s also thought they were used to communicate with one another and to call children home.

Famous leafist Herb Patten is considered to be one of the few professional gum leaf players in the world.

To help people understand the beauty of this instrument, Patten released two CDs entitled, “How to Play the Gumleaf” and “Born an Aussie Son.”

4. Clapsticks

Next, we have another percussion instrument called Clapsticks. Also known as Clappers, Bilmas, or Musicsticks, they are made of pieces of wood that are struck together to create a sharp, clicking sound.

They would come in pairs with one being slightly larger than the other. The smaller one would then be hit against the larger one.

They were usually used to maintain the rhythm during ceremonies and dances and would have been accompanied by other instruments like the didgeridoo.

5. Lagerphone

The Lagerphone, also known as Monkey Stick, Zob Stick, or Murrumbidgee River Rattler, is a traditional percussion instrument that features metal “jingles” attached to a stout pole. 

The origins of this instrument is still unknown, but experts believe it was developed by Spanish, Romani, and Italian street performers during the Victorian Era.

In Australia, the lagerphone is made with beer-bottle tops. This is to emulate the original aboriginal lagerphones that would have used shells instead.

The unofficial record of the most lagerphones played simultaneously was held in Queensland, Australia. A total of 134 people played the lagerphone in 2009 in the streets of Brooweena. 

6. Wobble Board

The Wobble Board is an unique instrument that was invented by Rolf Harris, an Australian musician and composer.

It’s made out our a thin piece of hard composite and is played by holding the ends of the board and bending each end in and outwards. This causes it to make it’s distinctive whooping sound.

Harris used the instrument in one of his most popular songs entitled, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.”

Summing Up Our List of Instruments From Australia

There you have it, folks; 5 musical instruments that made an impact in Australia’s music history. 

As you can see, traditional Australian instruments have been passed down from generation to generation to hundreds if not thousands of years, with the oldest dating back to the Paleolithic era. 

Some of the instruments featured in this list are almost exclusively used by Aboriginal Australians, but Australia makes an effort to conserve and respect the traditions that revolve around them.

This just goes to show how important these musical instruments are to the country.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.