Facts About the Marimba

by Joshua Liu

The marimba is a member of the percussion family of instruments. It consists of a set of wooden bars with resonators beneath to amplify sound. Mallets are used to strike the bars to produce musical tones. Marimbas are a type of xylophone but are larger and have a lower and wider variety of tones.


The marimba originated in West Africa. Its ancestor was the balafon, a simple keyed percussion instrument that was struck with padded sticks. African slaves brought this concept to Central America, where the chromatic marimba was developed. The first chromatic marimba was presented to the public in Guatemala in 1874, and the marimba remains the national instrument of Guatemala. Its first appearance in North America was in 1908 by the Hurtado family marimba band.


Marimba bars are usually crafted out of rosewood but can be made out of padouk or synthetic materials. Real wood is used for concert hall settings while synthetic materials are preferred for marching bands and other outdoor uses. In a chromatic marimba these bars are arranged like the keys of a piano on a metal frame. The resonators are typically made of aluminum and vary in length, depending on the length (and therefore pitch) of the bar.

Playing a Marimba

Marimba players usually hold one or two mallets in each hand for a total of two or four. These mallets are generally made of wood and have rubber ends wrapped with yarn. Different mallets are used depending on the range: softer mallets are required for lower notes. There exist numerous different playing styles, from the Burton Grip developed by jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton to the Musser-Stevens Grip of marimba player Leigh Howard Stevens.

Modern Uses

Marimbas are used in many different settings. Traditional marimba bands can be found throughout Central America, especially in Guatemala. Since the 1980s Zimbabwean-style marimba bands playing Shona music have become popular in North America. The marimba is also a common solo instrument as well as a component of an orchestra's percussion section. Many jazz musicians also utilize the unique tone of a marimba. Finally, marching bands and drum and bugle corps make extensive use of the marimba in their front ensembles.

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