A pair of long thin mallets (tabuh), made of flexible water buffalo horn tipped with felt, are used to play the instrument. Gambangs are generally played in parallel octaves (gembyang). Occasionally, other styles of playing are employed such as playing kempyung which are playing two notes separated by two keys. Unlike most other gamelan instruments, no dampening is required, as the wood does not ring like the metal keys of other instruments.
The gambang is used in a number of gamelan ensembles. It is most notable in the Balinese gamelan Gambang. In Javanese wayang, it is used by itself to accompany the dalang in certain chants. Within a full gamelan, it stands out somewhat because of the high speed of playing, and contrasting timbre because of its materials and more because it has a wider melodic range than the other instruments.
In Javanese gamelan, the gambang plays cengkok like the other elaborating instruments. However, the repertoire of cengkok for the gambang is more rudimentary than for other instruments (for instance, the gendér), and a great deal of variation is accepted.
In early 19th century writings on the Javanese gamelan, it seems to have been played like the gambang kayu; that is, as an elaborating instrument. Later, by 1890, it seems to have merely substituted for a saron, and have been restricted to a small range. Mantle Hood associated this use of limited range to a preference for certain octave arrangements of the cadences in various pathet.