Marimba Techniques

by Chris Brower
The marimba is made up of long bars that make a sound when struck.

The marimba is made up of long bars that make a sound when struck.

Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

Correct technique on the marimba will lead to better playing and less risk of damaging the instrument. The marimba is the biggest instrument in the keyboard family of percussion instruments. It is made up of rosewood or synthetic bars with aluminum or brass resonators. Correct technique will get beautiful sounds out of the marimba whereas incorrect technique can get a thin, choked sound.

Mallets

The bars on a marimba are sensitive, so picking the correct mallets is important. Generally, yarn mallets are used with rattan or birch shafts. Rubber mallets can be used if played lightly and only on the higher notes on the marimba. It is important never to use drumsticks or plastic or brass mallets, such as mallets used on a bell set, as this can damage the bars of the marimba.

Playing Position

Marimba players stand a few inches away from the instrument, the same as how you would stand for any keyboard percussion instrument. Players should stand up straight and hold their mallets out in a V-shape, similar to how drumsticks are held -- but unlike drums, the marimba has very little bounce-back, so players have to use more of their wrists in playing. Also, because of the marimba's size, it is sometimes necessary to walk to the left or right to reach some of the high or low notes. Generally, the marimba should be hit in the center of the bars, but the bars that make up sharps and flats -- which correspond to the black keys on a piano -- can be played near the end of the bar, the part closest to the player, to make it easier to play quickly.

Two Mallets

A marimba is often played using two mallets, one in each hand. The mallets are held in a manner similar to the matched grip snare drum players employ, with the mallet being held mostly between the thumb and the first joint of the index finger. The remaining three fingers are wrapped lightly around the shaft of the mallet and help its movement.

Four Mallets

The marimba is also often played using four mallets, two in each hand. This makes it possible to play four notes at once. The most common four-mallet grip is the Stevens grip. In each hand, one of the mallets is held between the thumb and index finger, and the other mallet is held between the middle and ring fingers. The mallets make a V-shape in the hand. The hand is then rotated to the left or right, depending on what notes need to be played.

Rolls

Percussion instruments generally can't play long notes like a brass or woodwind player. Thus, percussionists play rolls to extend the note. On the marimba, a roll is played by hitting the note or notes quickly and continuously for as long as the note should sound and alternating which mallet is playing. For four-mallet playing, this can mean rotating the hands quickly and alternating which hand is playing. For two-mallet playing this means simply alternating which hand is playing.

About the Author

Chris Brower is a writer with a B.A. in English. He also spent time studying journalism and utilizes both to deliver well-written content, paying close attention to audience, and knowing one word could determine whether a product is a success or a failure. He has experience writing articles, press releases, radio scripts, novels, short stories, poems and more.

Photo Credits

  • Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images