The kazoo is a type of mirliton - a device which modifies the sound of a person's voice by way of a vibrating membrane. Such instruments have been used in Africa for hundreds of years, to disguise the sound of somebody's voice or to imitate animals, for example, often for ceremonial purposes. It was on such an instrument that the kazoo, invented by an African American named Alabama Vest in the 19th century in Macon, Georgia, is based. 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 or wax 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.
The kazoo is not often found in classical music, a rare exception being David Bedford's With 100 Kazoos, a piece which emphasises the simplicity of the instrument - rather than being played by trained musicians, kazoos are handed out to members of the audience, who accompany a professional instrumental ensemble.