marimba: see xylophone.

In some parts of Africa, the term "marimba" refers to the kalimba.
The marimba 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 to aid the performer both visually and physically.

Modern concert instrument

Modern marimba uses include solo performances, percussion ensembles, marimba concertos, jazz ensembles, marching band (front ensembles), drum and bugle corps, and wind ensemble or orchestra compositions. Contemporary composers have utilized the unique sound of the marimba more and more in recent years, and it is common to find them in most new music for wind ensemble, although less so for orchestra. African marimba music sounds unique to North American audiences because most of the marimba music played in the Western Hemisphere has been South American. However, marimbas originated in Africa hundreds of years ago and were imported to South America in the sixteenth century. The original African sounds were incorporated into and changed by the music of the local cultures.

Bars (keys)

Commercial Western marimba bars, like xylophone keys, are usually made of rosewood, but bars can also be made of padouk or various synthetic materials. Rosewood bars are preferred for concert playing, but synthetic bars are preferred for marching band 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 thinner and shorter as the notes get higher. During the tuning process, wood is taken from the middle underside of the bar to lower the pitch. Because of this, the bars are also thinner near the bottom and thicker near the top.

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


The marimba is a non-transposing instrument with no octave displacement. Other keyboard instruments are pitched one or two octaves higher than written. There is no standard range of the marimba, but the most common ranges are 4 octaves, 4.3 octaves, and 5 octaves, although 4.5 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 probably the most common range. 4.5 octave: F2 to C7, the 5 refers to "half" and goes down a fifth below the 4 octave instrument. 4.6 octave: E2 to C7, one note below the 4.5, useful for playing guitar literature. 5 octave: C2 to C7, one full octave below the 4 octave instrument. 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 because as the bars become thinner (more fragile), the resonators become longer or larger, and the sixth overtone becomes more present than the fundamental tone.


Part of the key to the marimba's rich sound is its resonators. These are metal tubes (usually aluminum) that hang below each bar, and 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 Malletech, compensate for this by bending the ends of the tubes. 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 is also achieved by 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. 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 fiberglass. 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). Also, 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 softer 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 use of two mallets in each hand, the most common grips are the Burton grip (made popular by Gary Burton), the traditional grip (or "cross grip") and the Musser-Stevens grip (made popular by Leigh Howard Stevens). Each grip is perceived to have its own benefits and drawbacks. For example, 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 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. Six mallets grip is normally based on the Stevens Grip. Kai Stengaard has written several pieces for this grip and it is becoming more and more popular to play with six mallets.

The traditional instrument

The term marimba is also applied to various traditional folk instruments, the precursors of which may have developed independently in West Africa (the balafon) and in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The tradition of the gourd-resonated and equal-ratio heptatonic-tuned Timbila of Mozambique is particularly well-developed, and is typically played in large ensembles in coordination with a choreographed dancing performance, such as those depicting a historical dramatization. Traditional marimba bands are especially popular in Guatemala and Costa Rica, where they are the national symbol of culture, but are also found in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and parts of the highlands of southern Mexico, as well as among Afro-Ecuadorians; gyil duets are the traditional music of Dagara funerals in Ghana.


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. , quoted in

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.

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 United States, there are Zimbabwean marimba bands in particularly high concentration in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, 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 one of the few key people who first brought Zimbawean music to the West, coming to the University of Washington in 1968.


The Marimba or Shilimba or Shinjimba as the Nkoya People of Western Zambia call it are believed to be the introducers of the Shilimba or "marimba" instrument in Southern Africa. The Nkoya people use the Shilimba at their Traditional Royal Ceremonies like the famous Kazanga Nkoya Cultural Ceremony held annually between June and July in there 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 1700AD.

The Shilimba is now used in most parts of Zambia although roots of the instruments come back to Western Zambia among Nkoya people.


  • 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.
  • Robert Garfias: 'The Marimba of Central America and Mexico' Latin American Music Review. Vol. 4 No. 2 (1983) 203-227. pdf file
  • Dieter Lehnhoff: Creación musical en Guatemala. Guatemala: Universidad Rafael Landívar and Fundación G&T Continental, Editorial Galería Guatemala, 2005. ISBN 99922704-7-0.

Classical works with the marimba

The marimba in jazz

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

See also


External links

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