How New School Tricks Changed The Way We Play With Old School Yo-Yos

Throughout history, yo-yos have evolved to be less and less responsive, but for the first time in 90 years, this trend has changed.

Quick note before I get started though, I have a Kickstarter project live right now for The Weekender Yo-Yo, a brand new yo-yo designed for responsive play.

Responsive Yo-Yos

Simply put, a responsive yo-yo is a yo-yo that spins back to your hand after you tug the string. This is how most people envision a yo-yo, but today’s yo-yos have become so unresponsive that it is impossible to get them to return with just a simple tug [more on that later]. As players started innovating and pushing their yo-yos to the limit, they realized there was only so much they could achieve using a responsive yo-yo, so they made the switch to non-responsive yo-yos.

A Quick Timeline:

  • 500 B.C.- Although the yo-yo most likely originated in china, the first historical mention of the toy was in 500 BC, when the Greeks made y-yos out of metal and clay. The string on these yo-yos was tethered to the axle, so the yo-yos could only go up and down.
  • 1920s- Pedro Flores is believed to have revolutionized yo-yos by using a loop at the end of the string in which the yo-yo could spin. This finally allowed for the yo-yo to “sleep” and opened up a new wave of tricks (Rock The Baby, Walk The Dog, Around the World, etc. ) that we still know today.
  • 1960s– Yo-yos began to switch from wood to plastic. The thinner metal axles provided less friction and the weight was distributed a little more towards the outer rims.
  • 1980- Michael Caffrey patented the “yo-yo with a brain”. Unlike the fixed axle yo-yos before it, this design used a free spinning plastic sleeve to reduce friction around the axle.
  • 1990- Tom Kuhn released the Silver Bullet 2, the first ball bearing yo-yo. Aside from less friction, the silver bullet also featured an extreme distribution of weight along the outer rim to create more inertia for longer spins. Ball bearing yo-yos were now here to stay and enabled even longer tricks, like the Split the Atom, to be performed by intermediate players.
  • 2000- Using less responsive yo-yos, players were able to push new boundaries of play, while still getting the yo-yo back up with a tug. Around this time, yo-yos began using different response systems, like cork or silicone pads, to allow for longer spin times. This wasn’t a perfect solution though, so yo-yoers began having troubles consistently getting yo-yos to return to their hands. Some of the most innovative yo-yo routines from this time also suffered from players struggling to get the yo-yo to return.
  • 2004- This was the first year the WYYC no longer required a responsive yo-yo to enter at the higher levels. Rather than a tug, top players were using “binds” to bring the yo-yo back to their hand at the end of a trick. This technique works best with non-responsive yo-yos and requires the player to manually feed string into the axle until the point where the yo-yo will grab the string and wind back to the players hand. This style was probably inspired by offstring yo-yoers, who used a similar method to bring a yo-yo that wasn’t attached to their string to return back to their hand.
  • 2010s- Non-responsive play dominates the landscape and it’s getting harder and harder to find a responsive yo-yo designed for one handed play. There is, however, a small group of yo-yo players embracing old school wooden yo-yos and responsive play. For some this responsive play embodies smooth flow and an extra challenge, for others it presents a chance to explore new tricks that can’t be done on an unresponsive yo-yo.

Modern Responsive

When I use the term “modern responsive”, I’m reminded of a band called Dawn of MIDI. This experimental jazz trio uses traditional acoustic instruments to perform a style of music that wasn’t heard until the rise of sequencers and computers. In other words, Dawn of MIDI uses classic instruments to create music inspired by the new sounds made possible by machines.

Modern responsive tricks could have been done on the same yo-yos that were around 90 years ago, but it took 90 years of changing technology to inspire the tricks we are doing today.

Why Not Both?

Although we are seeing a bunch of responsive yo-yos being released (shout out to Spencer’s “Walter”, One Drop’s “Deep State”, and Core Co’s “Alleycat”), I don’t believe we are sending the end of non-responsive yo-yos. This style is still niche, but it’s evolving to be it’s own unique community and evangelists. For a long time, responsive yo-yoing was thought of as being old school, but I think we’ve reached the point were responsive yo-yoing is becoming just as innovative and fresh and non-responsive yo-yoing. Players don’t have to pick one or the other because learning tricks in one style can be adapted or used for inspiration in the other.

Reminder I have a Kickstarter live right now for The Weekender Yo-Yo

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

I literally wrote this essay during a midnight flight to Austin for SxSW. I hope it makes sense and I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on the subject.