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Percussion instrument (Idiophone)
Playing range

Marimba, model Antonko AMC-12
A marimba player (NDR Radiophilharmonie, Hanover, 2003)

The marimba (About this sound pronunciation) (also: Marimbaphone) is a musical instrument in the percussion family. Keys or bars (usually made of wood) are struck with mallets to produce musical tones. The keys are arranged as those of a piano, with the accidentals raised vertically and overlapping the natural keys (similar to a piano) to aid the performer both visually and physically.

The chromatic marimba was developed in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala[1] from the diatonic marimba, an instrument whose ancestor was a type of balafon that African slaves built in Central America.

Modern uses of the marimba include solo performances, woodwind ensembles, marimba concertos, jazz ensembles, marching band (front ensembles), drum and bugle corps, and orchestral compositions. Contemporary composers have utilized the unique sound of the marimba more and more in recent years.

Bars key

The marimba bars, like xylophone keys, are usually made of rosewood, but bars can also be made of padouk or various synthetic materials. The specific Rosewood used universally is from Honduras, Dalbergia stevensonii. This wood has a Janka rating of 2200, which is about three times harder than Silver Maple. Wood bars are preferred for concert playing, but synthetic are preferred for marching band and other outdoor use because they are more durable and less susceptible to pitch change due to weather. The bars are wider and longer at the lowest pitched notes, and gradually get narrower and shorter as the notes get higher. During the tuning, wood is taken from the middle underside of the bar to lower the pitch. Because of this, the bars are also thinner in the lowest pitch register and thicker in the highest pitch register.

In Africa, most marimbas are made by local artisans from locally available materials.

When playing the marimba it is preferred to strike just off center or right on the edge (for the "black keys") for the fullest tone, while striking the bar in the center produces a more articulate tone. Playing on the node (the location where the string passes through the bars) is sonically very weak, so it is only used when the player or composer is looking for that particular muted sound.


There is no standard range of the marimba, but the most common ranges are 4 octaves, 4.3 octaves and 5 octaves; 4.5, 4.6 and 5.5 octave sizes are also available.

4 octave: C3 to C7.
4.3 octave: A2 to C7. The 3 refers to three notes below the 4 octave instrument. This is the most common range.
4.5 octave: F2 to C7. The .5 means "half";
4.6 octave: E2 to C7, one note below the 4.5. Useful for playing guitar literature and transcriptions.
5 octave: C2 to C7, one full octave below the 4 octave instrument, useful for playing cello trascriptions e.g. Bach's cello suites.

The range of the marimba has been gradually expanding, with companies like Marimba One adding notes up to F above the normal high C (C7) on their 5.5 octave instrument, or marimba tuners adding notes lower than the low C on the 5 octave C2. Adding lower notes is somewhat impractical; as the bars become bigger and the resonators become longer, the instrument must be taller and the mallets must be heavier in order to produce a tone rather than just a percussive attack. Adding higher notes is also impractical because the hardness of the mallets required to produce the characteristic tone of a marimba are much too hard to play with in almost any other, lower range on the instrument.

The marimba is a non-transposing instrument with no octave displacement, unlike the xylophone which sounds one octave higher than written and the glockenspiel which sounds two octaves higher than written.


Part of the key to the marimba's rich sound is its resonators. These are metal tubes (usually aluminium) that hang below each bar. The length varies according to the frequency that the bar produces. Vibrations from the bars resonate as they pass through the tubes, which amplify the tone in a manner very similar to the way in which the body of a guitar or cello would. In instruments exceeding 4½ octaves, the length of tubing required for the bass notes exceeds the height of the instrument. Some manufacturers, such as DeMorrow] Malletech, compensate for this by bending the ends of the tubes. This involves soldering smaller straight sections of tubes to form "curved" tubes. Both DeMorrow and Malletech use brass rather than aluminum. Others, such as Adams and Yamaha, expand the tubes into large box-shaped bottoms, resulting in the necessary amount of resonating space without having to extend the tubes. This result is achieved by the custom manufacturer Marimba One by widening the resonators into an oval shape, with the lowest ones reaching nearly a foot in width, and doubling the tube up inside the lowest resonators.

Resonator tuning involves adjusting "stops" in the tubes themselves to compensate for temperature and humidity conditions in the room where the instrument is stored. Some companies offer adjustment in the upper octaves only. Others do not have ANY adjustable stops. Still some companies (Malletech and DeMorrow) offer full range adjustable stops.

On many marimbas, decorative resonators are added to fill the gaps in the accidental resonator bank. In addition to this, the resonator lengths are sometimes altered to form a decorative arch, such as in the Musser M-250. This does not affect the resonant properties, because the end plugs in the resonators are still placed at their respective lengths.


The mallet shaft is commonly made of wood, usually birch, but may also be rattan or fibreglass. The most common diameter of the shaft is around 5/16". Shafts made of rattan have a certain elasticity to them, while birch has almost no give. Professionals use both depending on their preferences, whether they are playing with two mallets or more, and which grip they use if they are using a four-mallet grip.

Appropriate mallets for the instrument depend on the range. The material at the end of the shaft is almost always a type of rubber, usually wrapped with yarn. Softer mallets are used at the lowest notes, and harder mallets are used at the highest notes. Mallets that are too hard will damage the instrument, and mallets that might be appropriate for the upper range could damage the notes in the lower range (especially on a padouk or rosewood instrument). On the lower notes, the bars are larger, and require a heavier mallet to bring out a strong fundamental. Because of the need to use different hardnesses of mallets, some players, when playing with four or more mallets, might use graduated mallets to match the bars that they are playing (softer on the left, harder on the right).

Some mallets, called "two-toned" or "multi-tonal", have a hard core, loosely wrapped with yarn. These are designed to sound articulate when playing at a loud dynamic, and broader at the quieter dynamics.

Mallet technique

Modern marimba music calls for simultaneous use of between two and four mallets (sometimes up to six), granting the performer the ability to play chords or music with large interval skips more easily. Multiple mallets are held in the same hand using any of a number of techniques or grips. For two mallets in each hand, the most common grips are the Burton grip (made popular by Gary Burton), the Traditional Grip (or "cross grip" used by most professional marimba soloists) and the Musser-Stevens grip (made popular by Leigh Howard Stevens). Each grip is perceived to have its own benefits and drawbacks. For example, some marimbists feel the Musser-Stevens grip is more suitable for quick interval changes, while the Burton grip is more suitable for stronger playing or switching between chords and single-note melody lines. The Traditional Grip gives a greater dynamic range and freedom of playing. The choice of grip varies by region (the Musser-Stevens grip and the Burton grip are more popular in the United States, while the traditional grip is more popular in Japan), by instrument (the Burton grip is less likely to be used on marimba than on a vibraphone) and by the preference of the individual performer.

The six-mallet grip is generally a combination of these three grips. Six mallet marimba grip has been used for years by Mexican and Central American marimbists. Keiko Abe has written a number of compositions for six mallets, including a section in her concerto Prism Rhapsody. Other marimbists/composers using this technique include Dean Gronemeier, Robert Paterson and Kai Stensgaard.

The traditional instrument

"The Marimba" from "The Capitals of Spanish America" (1888)

The term marimba is also applied to various traditional folk instruments, the precursors of which may have developed independently in West Africa balafon. The tradition of the gourd-resonated and equal-ratio heptatonic-tuned timbila of Mozambique is particularly well developed. These instruments are typically played in large ensembles in coordination with a choreographed dance performance, such as those depicting a historical dramatization. Gyil duets are the traditional music of Dagara funerals in Ghana.

Traditional marimba bands are especially popular in Guatemala where they are the national symbol of culture, but are also strongly established in southern Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as well as among Afro-Ecuadorians and Afro-Colombians.


Folk marimba with gourds, Highland Guatemala

In the most traditional versions, various sizes of natural gourds are attached below the keys to act as resonators; in more sophisticated versions carved wooden resonators are substituted, allowing for more precise tuning of pitch. In Central America, a hole is often carved into the bottom of each resonator and then covered with thin sheep skin to add a characteristic "buzzing" or "rattling" sound known as charleo. Chenowith, Vida. The Marimbas of Guatemala.Page Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css has no content., quoted in Squyres, Danielle (2002-01-02). "The Marimba, Xylophone and Orchestra Bells". Mechanical Music Digest Archives. Retrieved 2006-12-06.Page Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css has no content.

In more contemporary-style marimbas, wood is replaced by PVC tubing. The holes in the bottoms of the tubes are covered with a thin layer of paper to produce the buzzing noise.


According to Professor Andrew Tracey, marimbas were only introduced to Zimbabwe in 1960.[2]

Zimbabwean marimba based upon Shona music has also become popular in the West, which adopted the original use of these instruments to play transcriptions of mbira dzavadzimu (as well as nyunga nyunga and matepe) music. The first of these transcriptions had originally been used for music education in Zimbabwe. These Zimbabwean-style instruments are often made with a single row of keys (without the chromatic "black" notes on a second row) along a C major scale, which allows them to be played with a 'western-tuned' mbira (G nyamaropa). Frequently instruments are fashioned with the addition of an F# key placed inline between the F and G keys, which allows the playing of songs in G major, although the correspondence between mbira tunings and western keys is a much more complex issue. Other variations in tuning exist, and some musicians prefer the omission of the F# key.

In the U.S., there are Zimbabwean marimba bands in particularly high concentration in the Pacific Northwest,Colorado, and New Mexico, but bands exist from the East Coast through California and even to Hawaii and Alaska. The main event for this community is ZimFest, the annual Zimbabwean Music Festival. The bands are composed of instruments from high sopranos, through to lower soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. Resonators are usually made with holes covered by thin cellophane (similar to the balafon) to achieve the characteristic buzzing sound. As of 2006, the repertoires of United-States bands tends to have a great overlap, due to the common source of the Zimbabwean musician Dumisani Maraire, who was the key person who first brought Zimbawean music to the West, coming to the University of Washington in 1968.


The marimba, shilimba, or shinjimba as the Nkoya people of Western Zambia call it, are believed to have introduced the instrument to Southern Africa. The Nkoya people use the shilimba at their traditional royal ceremonies, like the famous Kazanga Nkoya Cultural Ceremony. That ceremony is held annually between June and July in the Nkoya homeland in Kaoma District, Western Zambia, under Mwene (King) Mutondo and his equal counterpart Mwene (King) Kahare of the Nkoya Royal Establishment (NRE) part of the Nkoya ancient State which was started around 1600-1700AD.

The shilimba is now used in most parts of Zambia, although the roots of the instrument go back to Western Zambia among the Nkoya people.

PVC resonators

Classical works with the marimba

The marimba in other music

There have been numerous jazz vibraphonists who also played the marimba. Notable among them are David Friedman, Stefon Harris, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Locke, Steve Nelson, Red Norvo, Dave Pike, Gloria Parker, Dave Samuels and Arthur Lipner.

Marimba was played famously by Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones' hit, "Under my Thumb". "Island Girl" by Elton John and "Moonlight Feels Right" by Starbuck also prominently feature the instrument. Ruth Underwood played an electrically amplified marimba in Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Art Tripp played the marimba on several of Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band's albums, most notably on Lick My Decals Off Baby and The Spotlight Kid. Victor Feldman played the marimba on several of Steely Dan's early albums. It is played at the start of Mamma Mia by Abba.[3] Percussionist Evelyn Glennie has collaborated with Björk and can be heard playing the marimba on Post and Telegram, as well as "Oxygen".Jack White also played marimba in the song The Nurse on The White Stripes Get Behind Me Satan album. In 2003, Marina Calzado Linage recorded an album bridging the gap between academic and popular music, Marimba de Buenos Aires, featuring music by Ástor Piazzolla. In 2009, Canadian musician Spencer Krug, working under the moniker 'Moonface', released a 20 minute continuous piece called Dreamland EP: Marimba And Shit-Drums with Jagjaguwar. The recording consists entirely of marimba, drums and vocals and comprises many movements and recurring themes.

See also


  1. Helmut Brenner: Marimbas in Lateinamerika. Historische Fakten und Status quo der Marimbatraditionen in Mexiko, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Kolumbien, Ecuador und Brasilien (=Studien und Materialien zur Musikwissenschaft 43), Hildesheim–Zürich–New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2007.
  2.[dead link]
  3. "Mamma Mia – The Song That Saved ABBA". ABBA - The Official Site. Polar Music International. Retrieved 25 September 2009.Page Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css has no content.

External links

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