The marimba is one of these instruments that kind of lives in the shadows.
What do I mean by that? Well:
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 marimbasuffers 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:
On top of that, the marimba is unique because of several other reasons:
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.
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 also probably heard it more times than you thought.
Newbies often end up mixing up the marimba and xylophone, and that is mainly because:
But they also show 2 big differences:
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:
So let’s see these parts in more details, shall we?
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…
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:
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:
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:
For now though, the only company to produce synthetic sound plates is Yamahawith their “Acoustalon” technology, which they say sound similar to rosewood.
The marimba’s tone bars can either be:
Now, graduated bars are considered the better option by 99% of the marimba players in the community because.
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.
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:
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:
A given model of marimba can either be built with the same shape all throughout all resonators, or mix shapes depending on the note
Resonators’ length depends on the note it is fixed to and there is only one rule:
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.
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:
Got it? Next up…
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:
That’s pretty much what there is to say about the frame.
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:
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:
So let’s look into each of these with more details, shall we?
The head of a marimba mallet is always made of 2 parts:
The core is almost always made out of soft rubber.
The wrapping can be made out of:
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.
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:
Now, where things get more complicated is in MATCHING the right hardness for each mallet, and this is called…
There are a few common graduations “combinations”, which are chosen depending on the music you play :
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:
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:
Rattan is a softwood and offers the following characteristics:
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.
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: