The marimba is one of these instruments that kind of lives in the shadows.
What do I mean by that? Well:
- Most people don’t know what it is exactly or…
- Don’t know they’ve actually heard it much more often than they think.
And the truth is there is so few resources available online about the marimba that you can’t blame them.
Also, for some reason, the marimba suffers from a worse reputation than its cousins xylophones and vibraphone…
Which is a pity since you can play the marimba in absolutely any music genre, whether it be:
- Classical Music
- Traditional/World Music
- And so on…
On top of that, the marimba is unique because of several other reasons:
- It has a wide range – its lowest note is the name as the cello’s
- The wood combined with metal resonator creates a unique tone
Some of the world’s most famous pop hits actually have a marimba part!
Anyaway, if you’re looking to learn more about the marimba, you’ve come to the right place as I hve in today’s post everything you need to know to get started…
Or upgrade your knowledge, and instrument.
Sounds good? Then let’s start.
A Little Bit of History and Some Facts
The Marimba’s origins are not fully known, however, what is known is that “Marimba” was the name of a Zulu goddess, a tribe from South Africa.
It is said the goddess took a xylophone and attached gourds to it so as to make it more resonant.
West-African slaves then tried recreating the instrument in Central and South America, replacing the gourds by resonating tubes, which are to this day used in modern marimbas.
Now, among all “tone-plate instruments”, or “struck idiophones” (which include the glockenspiel, the xylophone and the vibraphone) as they’re sometimes referred to…
The Marimba is the largest of all, offering the widest range of notes among these instruments.
On top of that, its warm sound (due to the resonators’ size and the wooden tone bars) has made the instrument popular in a lot of different music genres.
“Africa” by Toto? That’s a marimba playing the theme! Well, if you actually watch the videoclip you won’t see it but it was played by a guest musician in the recording studio
Ever heard the default iPhone ringtones? That’s a marimba too! Don’t believe me? Watch this video:
Now tell me you didn’t check your phone!
Rings a bell? (pun intended)
So as you can see, although you might think of the marimba as a “rare” instrument, it really isn’t and is much more common than you imagine…
And you’ve also probably heard it more times than you thought.
Marimba vs. Xylophone
Newbies often end up mixing up the marimba and xylophone, and that is mainly because:
- They both belong to the struck idiophones family (which also includes the glockenspiel and vibraphone)
- They both have wood tone bars
- They produce a rather similar sound
But they also show 2 big differences:
- Xylophones are smaller than marimbas – their range is doesn’t extend as much as the marimbas’s
- The mallets used are different – which has a big impact on the sound. Xylophone mallets are hard, marimba mallets are soft.
Anatomy of the Marimba
The marimba is made of various different parts, but since most of them en up being part of the structural part of the marimba, we’ll focus on the 3 main ones…
Which are the ones the affect the sound the most. These are:
- The Size of the Marimba – which is refered to as the amount of octaves it has: 3, 3.5, 4.5 or 5
- The Tone Bars – which are the pieces you hit with the mallets
- The Resonators – these are the tubes fixed right under the tone plates, some can be tunable
- The Frame – which is the part that holds the tone plates and the resonators
So let’s see these parts in more details, shall we?
1. The Size
The very first thing you need to look into is the size of the marimba: the bigger the marimba, the more notes you can play.
There are 7 different sizes of marimbas, referred to with the number of octaves they cover:
Now, generally speaking anything under 4.3 octaves may potentially hold you back and prevent you from playing a significant amount of marimba pieces.
So unless space and price is an issue, or you’re buying for a child, I wouldn’t recommend you get a marimba under 4.3 octaves
On the other end, getting a 5.5 octave marimba will probably be overkill, especially for a beginner, both in terms of price (they’re expensive) and in terms of space they occupy.
Got it? Next up…
2. The Tone Bars
The sound plates on a marimba are are the elements you hit with your mallets in order to create sound.
They have a few varying characteristics, the main ones being:
- The Material– wood or synthetic
- Whether they are graduated, or not – which means their sizes change depending on the note
So first, let’s look at the difference in materials:
Wood is the most common material for marimba tone plates and unless you’re looking for another material, you probably won’t find it.
Now, the range of wood species used for tone plates construction is actually very narrow. You basically get the choice between:
- Rosewood – which is the most common wood on professional/high end marimbas and has a warmer sound
- Padauk – which is used with professional grade marimbas but also with student/practice marimbas and has a brighter sound.
Now, for some reason — well mostly because of woods scarcity — padauk has sort of always been the “underdog”.
In fact, it is pretty rare to see a “professional” labeled marimba built with padauk, and rosewood marimba can easily cost twice as much as padauk’s.
So that’s it for woods. And so, next up…
Although rarer, synthetic tone plates marimbas are indeed a thing, and they offer a bunch of advantages over wood, such as:
- They’re not affected by weather changes – wood being an organic material, it can suffer from sudden weather changes, especially humidity drops or peaks.
- They’re much cheaper – we all know marimbas don’t come cheap, but synthetic marimbas are actually a lot cheaper.
For now though, the only company to produce synthetic sound plates is Yamaha with their “Acoustalon” technology, which they say sound similar to rosewood.
B. Graduated vs. Non Graduated Tone Bars
The marimba’s tone bars can either be:
- Graduated – which means their width changes according to the note
- Non-Graduated – which means ALL bars are of same width, no matter the note
Now, graduated bars are considered the better option by 99% of the marimba players in the community.
Since graduated bars are larger than non graduated ones, they produce a better sound.
And that’s a matter of physics: the more material vibrating, the louder the fundamental and the sound in general.
Generally, graduated bars marimbas are more expensive, but you might stumble upon mid-range models offering this feature.
3. The Resonators
The resonators are the tubes fixed under the tone bars. Their role is to amplify the sound produced by the vibrating tone bars.
Now the p
They also have a few varying factors, being:
- Material – Resonators can be made out of aluminium or brass.
- Shape – most resonators are cylindrical, but occasionally they can be flared, oval or even rectangular
- Adjustable – some resonators are adjustable in
Now, since the material’s impact on the sound is negligible, we won’t talk about it. Just know it is decided purely on aesthetic reasons.
And so let’s start with…
Material choice for resonators is far from being a decisive factor when it comes to sound.
In fact the impact of resonators’ material on the overall marimba sound is virtually negligible.
Just know there are 2 main materials used:
In fact, the most important factor of a marimba resonator is its shape.
Resonators can have either one of these 3 shpes:
- Tubular – which is the most popular
- Cutaway – which are mostly used to reduce the weight of the marimba
- Square – some marimba models choose square shaped resonators on the high range, to address undesired harmonics and overtones
A given model of marimba can either be built with the same shape all throughout all resonators, or mix shapes depending on the note
3. Resonators Length and Alignment
Resonators’ length depends on the note it is fixed to and there is only one rule:
- The higher the note, the shorter the resonator
Which is why most marimbas look like this:
So how come models have fancy alignments, with longer resonators on high range notes or shorter ones on low range notes?
Well, because of aesthetic reasons. Meaning the resonators are actually plugged somewhere inside the resonator, and don’t resonate on their full length.
4. Adjustable/Non Adjustable Resonators
Some resonators come with a movable “end-cap”, while some come with an fixed cap. A movable cap means the resonator can be adjusted.
Note I didn’t say “tuned”, but rather “adjusted”…
And that is because if you truly wanted to re-tune a marimba, you’d probably have to sand the tone bars down and perform a bunch of complicated tests.
And so adjustable resonators are a feature typically found on more high-end instruments. But what exactly can you adjust on a resonator? Well, mainly:
- The sustain
Got it? Next up…
4. The Frame
The frame hardly has any impact on the marimba’s sound, BUT it can drastically improve your comfort while playing.
While normal frames don’t offer much more than wheels, some of the higher-end marimbas often come with frames that offer:
- Adjustable height -which is honestly a must-have you should always look for on a marimba
- Gas lift/Pneumatic Strut – while most marimbas’ height is adjusted with some sort of screw or clamp, some models offer a “gas lift” that you just move up and down with very little effort
- Engraved Measurement Unit – somehow, not all adjustable height marimbas show the actual height. Being able to see exactly what umber is the most comfortable for you allows you to know your preferred height.
That’s pretty much what there is to say about the frame.
- Thomann Marimba Thm 4.3 – (Thomann)
- Adams MSPV 43 Solist – (Thomann)
- Yamaha YM-1430 – (Thomann)
- Bergerault MCHE Campus – (Thomann)
- Adams MCHV Concert – (Thomann)
- Bergerault Marimba GMBH – (Thomann)
- Marimba One Izzy – (Thomann)
- Yamaha YM-5100 – (Thomann)
- Yamaha YMRD-2900A (Synthetic tone plates) – (Amazon)
Although beginners rarely look into mallets further than the ones they get “by default”…
Since they’re essentially the direct link between you and the marimba, you might want to learn the basics about them, so you can get the best for you.
The problem is that there a lot of models and each one basically advertises the same:
- High quality mallets
- Produce good sound
So how do you sort the good from the bad, and how do you even know what type of mallets you personally need?
Well, you’d want to start by considering these factors:
- Material of the shaft/handle – it is either made out of birch or rattan
- Hardness of the head – probably the most important factor, hardness refers to how tight the yarn is wound around the head (core)
- Mallet graduation – which refers to when you choose different hardness for each of the 4 mallet
So let’s look into each of these with more details, shall we?
1. Material of the Head
The head of a marimba mallet is always made of 2 parts:
- The core – which is the hard material of the head
- The wrapping – which is the soft material around the core
The core is almost always made out of soft rubber.
The wrapping can be made out of:
- Wool Yarn – which is the most common material
- Hemp Yarn – some manufacturers prefer to use hemp over wool, with no real sound difference
- Synthetic Yarn – which is made out of synthetic fibers
Now, the truth is that here isn’t much material out there documenting the difference between natural wool yarn and synthetic yarn, sound wise…
But it seems these differences aren’t that significant, and the main advantage of synthetic yarn is that it is more durable than wool, since it’s not an organic material.
2. Hardness of the Head
Mallet hardness is THE most important factor to consider when choosing your mallets.
It refers to how tight the yarn is wound around the mallet core. And so:
- Soft mallets – produce a warmer tone and softer attack
- Hard mallets – produce a brighter tone and a sharper attack
Now, where things get more complicated is in MATCHING the right hardness for each mallet, and this is called…
3. Mallet graduation
Mallet graduation refers to the act of using different head harnesses for each mallet, as opposed to using 4 strictly identical mallets.
There are a few common graduations “combinations”, which are chosen depending on the music you play :
- Soft/Medium/Medium/Hard– probably the most common combination, it is also the most versatile one as you get a warm tone in the low range and a bright tone in the high range.
- Soft/Medium/Hard/Hard – which works well when you play a lot of octaves in the high range and medium high range and you need both notes to stand out equally
- Soft/Medium/Medium/Medium – which is suited for more linear pieces, with few dynamic changes in the medium and high range
3. Material of the Shaft/Handle
Although the material of the shaft virtually doesn’t have any impact on the sound, it does make a huge difference in terms of comfort, and ultimately playability.
Mallets shafts can be made of either:
- Birch – which is a hardwood and produces stiff sticks
- Rattan – which is a softwood and produces more “bendable” sticks
- Occasionally other materials – some models use fiberglass or other woods
But since 99% of marimba mallets are made of either one of the 2 first materials, that’s what we’ll focus on. And so:
Birch is a hardwood and offers he following characteristics:
- It provides a great grip – because it’s a porous wood, it is less likely to slip between your fingers
- Because it’s a hardwood, the stick always remains straight, no matter how long you play it
- Players who use traditional or “Steven” grip generally prefer birch – because most of the weight is distributed backwards, the stiffness of birch is ideal
Rattan is a softwood and offers the following characteristics:
- It’s great at absorbing shocks – which means more comfort in fast paced parts, for example
- Players using “Burton” grip generally prefer rattan – because the weight is distributed more forward on the palm of the hand, the smoothness of rattan is ideal
Lastly, and just like for mallet hardness, some players like to mix mallet pairs, having 2 of one wood for the left hand and 2 of another wood for the right hand, for example.
4. Mallet Grips Techniques
Of course you can play the marimba with 2 mallets only. But you’d be missing out on a lot of potential.
The marimba’s greatest strength is that you can play it with 4 mallets, 2 in each hands. And there are also 3 main techniques to hold the mallets, called “grips”. These are:
- The Traditional Grip – which the normal grip, non crossed and is usually used in classical music and very popular among beginners for its ease of learning
- The Stevens Grip – which is the most popular grip in western countries and is vastly used in jazz
- The Burton Grip – which is very popular in eastern countries, especially Asia and creates a cross shape
Take a look at this video explaining how to hold your mallets with these techniques:
- Mike Balter Grandioso – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Adams MB4 – (Thomann)
- Adams MB6 – (Thomann)
- Mike Balter n°12B – (Thomann)
- Adams Marimba Mallet M14 – (Thomann)
- Marimba One Double Helix 2 – (Thomann)
- Marimba One KMB3 – (Thomann)
- Marimba One IBR2 – (Thomann)
- Malletech LS10 (set of 4 mallets) – (Thomann)
- Malletech LS20 (set of 4 mallets) – (Thomann)
- Vic Firth Gary Burton Signature – (Amazon/Thomann)
And That’s It
So there you have it, The Ultimate Guide to the Marimba.
Hopefully this post answered all the questions you had!
‘Til next time.