by Michael Brundage Created: 13 May 1993 Updated: 21 May 2014
The marimba is a musical instrument similar to the xylophone in appearance. It makes a beautiful sound that I think is a little like a cross between a piano and a harp.
The marimba is most commonly played in a larger ensemble, such as an orchestra or percussion group, but increasingly it’s played as a solo instrument. Some music has been composed and/or arranged specifically for the marimba, and you can also play pieces written for other instruments (especially piano, violin, and trumpet) on it.
The marimba can be traced all the way back to Africa (hollow logs over holes in the ground), but the modern marimba shape and style actually came from Latin America. The bars on most marimbas today are made either from rare tropical woods like rosewood, or else synethetic materials like Kelon. The resonators are typically metal (aluminum or brass) and extend beneath the bars.
Marimbas often cover a 5-octave range, although smaller marimbas are available in graduated sizes all the way down to 4 octaves. A new 5-octave marimba can go for around $10K; 4-octave ones for around $3K. And of course you can buy them second-hand for all sorts of prices. Rosewood marimbas tend to be favored by the pros, although synthetic marimbas (and cheaper woods like padouk) tend to be cheaper and require less maintenance.
Marimbas are played with mallets made specially for the purpose, usually holding one or two mallets in each hand (for a total of two or four). Most commonly these mallets have wood handles (commonly birch or rattan) with a rubber disk attached at one end and wrapped in yarn. Some mallets use acrylic or latex heads without yarn (although most of these are for xylophones instead, being too hard for marimbas).
I own a 4.3 octave Kelon Musser M300 Classic Grand, which is ok for my level and use. My favorite mallets are the Nancy Zeltsman series from Encore Mallets. I find that a lot of music written specifically for the marimba tends to be too modern or percussive than my tastes. Personally, I favor more melodic and traditional pieces, especially arrangements of baroque or jazz such as Bach or Brubeck. If you’re a beginner or intermediate marimba player, Four-Mallet Marimba Playing is a good book.
Back in 1993, I wrote the first web page about the marimba. Today there are thousands of pages about its history, music, and performers. Here are a select few: