About the Marimba

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by Nancy Zeltsman

If you're not familiar with the marimba, here are some of the
most often asked questions about it, and relevant information.

"Where did the marimba originate?"

The marimba's roots are ancient, extending to early human instincts to strike wood, stone and metal slabs and objects that produced musical tones. These practices existed in various forms in the cultures of Africa, Latin America and Asia and are all, in some sense, forerunners of the modern marimba.

The first, crude beginnings of the marimba were several slabs of wood placed on sticks set over a hole in the ground which served as a resonating chamber. Later, slabs of wood were suspended over large gourds or wooden boxes which served to enhance the tone.

Sources differ on the specific area of the world in which the marimba originated; however, the frontrunners in this debate are Africa and the highlands of Guatemala. It is interesting to note that symbolic and functional uses of the African marimba are very much integrated into their culture. In Guatemala and Mexico, the marimba is the national instrument; no party is complete without marimba music.

The marimba that I play today is quite different than the original folk instruments. The development of the modern marimba in the northern hemisphere can be traced to the Central American marimba builders, notably Sebastian Hurtado, who developed a chromatic arrangement of the bars laid out like the piano keyboard during the 1890s. In 1880, John Calhoun Deagan founded the first U.S. company to manufacture percussion instruments, and built the first real precursor to my marimba, with metal resonators, around the 1920s.

(Source: "The Mysticism of the Marimba," Copyright 1977 by James L. Moore)


At right: a 1930 ad from the J.C. Deagan

company for their xylorimba which

was a popular vaudeville instrument.

"Is the marimba what Lionel Hampton played in jazz?"

No. He played a vibraphone. It's a very close relative to the marimba with keys arranged the same way, like a piano keyboard, but the vibraphone's keys are made out of metal. Another difference is that the vibraphone has a pedal that can be used for sustain like the pedal on a piano. It also has a motor that can be turned on to rotate discs (one at the top of each resonator tube) which leave-open and close-off the resonators. The speed of the rotation can be regulated by the player. This gives the impression of vibrato--which is how the instrument got its name.

"Well then, what is a xylophone?"

The xylophone is another close relative of the marimba--actually, a bit closer relative than the vibraphone. Like the marimba, its keys are made of wood and it has no sustain pedal or motorized "vibrato"-discs. However, the xylophone's range includes a full octave above the marimb's--which means it extends up to the top note of a piano.

"How do the overall ranges of the three instruments--marimba, vibraphone and xylophone--compare?"

I will relate them to a piano keyboard:

There are eight Cs on a piano; the lowest note is an A. The lowest note on my five-octave concert grand marimba is C2 (which, by the way, is also the lowest note of a cello). There are many marimbas which don't extend quite that low. Other common ranges are 4.5-octaves (with a lowest note of F or E), 4.3 octaves (ending on A), and 4 octaves (ending on the C below middle C). Going in the other direction, occasionally the marimba range includes an extra half-octave on the top (for a total of up to 5.5 octaves).

Most vibraphones encompass three octaves, F3 to F6. Most xylophones encompass three-and-a-half octaves, sounding F4 to C8 (although xylophone music is written one octave lower).

vibraphone (top/would be played from near side) & xylophone (below/would be played from far side)

"What is the marimba made out of?"

The keys are usually made out of rosewood, most of which comes from Central America. The frame of the marimba could be made from various woods or synthetics; it doesn't affect the sound in any way. Most resonator pipes are made out of aluminum. On some marimbas, they are made out of brass--but these can be extremely heavy and difficult to transport.

"What do the pipes hanging down do?"

They serve to amplify the resonance of the bar. Each tube is capped off at a particular length which will provide the longest possible resonance. The high notes require only a short amount of tubing before they are capped off.

Consider a bottle of soda or beer; the more you drink (i.e., the emptier the bottle gets), the lower the tone of the bottle when you blow into it. When the pitch of the resonator matches that of the bar, the result is optimum resonance of the marimba bar.

The low note require quite a long tube; in fact, for the lowest notes on my marimba, the tube essentially goes down and curves back up--all within a larger oval tube.

"What do you call the hammers or sticks you're playing with, and why are the heads different colors?"

They're called mallets. Frequently they are different colors simply as a coding system for distinguishing mallets of varying hardness. In general, softer mallets are most flattering to the lowest notes on the marimba, and harder mallets are most flattering to the higher notes. Players can achieve a wide range of different tone colors by their choice of different mallets, in conjunction with the type of stroke they use to bring the mallets into contact with the keys.

"How do you hold two mallets in each hand?"

It is a lot like "glorified chopsticks"! There are several basic "grips," as they are called: methods of holding two mallets in each hand. The one I use is called Traditional Grip.

Sometimes people even hold three mallets in each hand but, oftentimes, that really limits the different variations of widths you can get between the mallets. With two mallets in each hand, however, it's possible to drastically alter widths between the mallets, even very rapidly.

"How do you move the instrument around?"

In a van or station wagon--or even my Toyoto Prius! A marimba breaks down into smaller parts quite impressively. The "white notes" and "black notes" of the keyboard are each strung up like huge necklaces which can just lift off and roll up. Each of the long braces across the instrument fold in half. The banks of resonators fold in half. The end-pieces come off and go in separate cases. Eight or nine cases total.

"Are there very many marimbas like that in the world?"

There are many more five-octave concert grand marimbas in the world than you might think! My guess would be that, all told, there could be several thousand five-octave marimbas in the world. Some can be seen on this list of marimbas available from Steve Weiss Music.

"How did you start to play the marimba?"

The marimba is one of the keyboard percussion instruments--a category which also includes the vibraphone and xylophone, as well as the glockenspiel and tubular chimes--which all fit under the larger heading "percussion instruments." These include the instruments you've seen played at the back of the orchestra: the timpani (or kettledrums), bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle and other "accessories"--as well as the drum set and many ethnic or world drums including congas, bongos, and frame drums.

The marimba is primarily taught within the larger framework of "percussion." I studied piano from the age of five, but switched to percussion at age 13. The marimba was just one of the instruments that I studied within a focus on percussion. But then, in my early 20s (around 1980), I decided to specialize on the marimba as a solo instrument. That was an extremely rare thing to do at the time; now there are many more players deciding to specialize on the marimba.

Most college-level percussion students today are required to study marimba as one facet of their training. Some of them are quite accomplished on marimba.

In the last decade, a handful of colleges have recognized specialized marimba study and appointed specialized marimba teachers to their faculties. I am fortunate to teach marimba in two such programs. Berklee College of Music offers Marimba as a principal instrument of study at the Bachelor level. Boston Conservatory offers a Masters degree in Marimba.

Top photo: Andy Ryan

Nancy Zeltsman 2017 | nancy@nancyzeltsman.com