The marimba is another in the struck key percussion family like the xylophone, although this one originates from Africa. You will often see it played with the djembe or doumbek in a rhythm session. Like the xylophone, the marimba has bars made from wood. It is often used in concert music and it produces a remarkably warm sound as you can see here:
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We did a write up similar for xylophone which highlights what to look for so be sure to check it out for additional information.
Due to the way it is tuned (predominance of the 5th overtone for those that are interested), it produces a warmer sound than others in the struck key family. Full size to be used in concert they range between 4 and 5 octaves, the most common being 4 ⅓ (four and a third) octaves. You can get smaller (and usually cheaper) models, whether it be 3 or 3.5, which are more than adequate to start on. If you are serious about playing then we would suggest a 4.3 which is very reasonably priced and standard for students, meaning you won’t have to upgrade to larger model any time soon.
In fact, we would not recommend 5, 5.5 octaves or any high-end model until you are a little more seasoned or are pursuing it professionally. The extra octaves accommodate the higher end of notes which aren’t found on the xylophone.
Made from fiberglass, padouk or rosewood, you will see rosewood used at a professional level due to the warm, resonant tone. As with the xylophone, Padouk is less expensive than rosewood and so is more common at home for practice or at junior and middle schools. These wooden marimbas should not be used outdoors as the wood will be affected by the temperature and weather.
Another thing to watch for is bar width. At the lower end such as student models, the bars will be narrower the cheaper the instrument is, whereas on professional instruments the lower bars gradually get wider which gives the marimba a fuller sound on the lower register. At the outset you will have to settle for narrower bars unless you willing to spend a bit more.
You will need to consider whether these are to be used for solo or ensemble playing, whether a single pair or a matching set of four. As a student, it is likely that you will need four (or more!) and that they are a matching set. Our reviews should help make your initial choice easier.
Usually overlooked and under respected is the stand. You wouldn’t put your brand new ming vase on a wobbly old cabinet? The stand is what will be bearing the weight of the instrument for many years to come and determine how it holds up. If you are traveling a lot be sure to get one that is durable and easy to disassemble.
If you are still young and growing makes sure the stand is height adjustable, you don’t want to pick up improper techniques or become a hunchback.
If playing outdoors then you will want one with a field frame to roll it around on. It will more than likely have places for additional attachments like suspended cymbals and snares. Buy a cover!!! If you don’t the marimba will get scratched, damaged or someone will probably spill their beer on it.
So if you read our article on Timpani you will know that due to their cost we would not recommend a rookie buys one (not even 2nd hand!) and so we won’t be reviewing any. For example, one of the more affordable products, the Marimba Warehouse MWX 3 Octave Student Xylophone with Stand costs $1000! Practice at school on the ones they have. When you get to a more advanced level then go for it. In the meantime, the most important thing you can do is find the right mallets!
What we would say is if you want something to practice on at home, buy a cheaper struck key instrument like a glockenspiel or xylophone which will allow you to practice playing when not at school. Just be aware that the response and feel will not be the same. If you do not get the chance to practice on a marimba then when you finally do it will feel different, the force you hit the bars with, the spread of the keys and the bounce will all be different so will take quite a bit of adjusting too, HOWEVER… at least you will have experience with struck key instruments which will make the transition and learning curve much easier!
Nearly as important as the keys, we have looked to simplify the minefield that is mallet selection and the options available. As we commented on earlier, as you advance you will need at least 4 pairs of marimba mallets to cover all playing styles, however, for now, we would suggest getting yourself a decent pair of medium mallets and seeing how you get on. In our reviews we have included 2 medium pairs, a hard pair and a complete set of 4 so we have covered all the basic bases! Be sure to check out Vic Firth’s guide on mallet selection if you need some help.
An incredible high-quality product by Innovative Percussion, these are wonderful mallets with high-calibre yarn. The birch is comfortable and the length and weight make them ideal for four-mallet work. They are pricier than some others, so if you are looking for something more basic we would highly recommend the Innovative Percussion F1.5 Fundamental Series Medium Marimba Mallets with Birch Handles which are half the price but still great quality.
If you are looking for a rubber pair then this is it. They are perfect for a student marimba player and are great for softer tones. Designed specifically for use in the classroom, with durability and budget in mind. They feature a 1 1/8″ medium rubber head on a birch shaft.
No drumstick list would be complete without at least one pair of Vic Firths and marimba’s no different. This wonderful pair is reasonably priced and you can see Vic Firth’s classic quality and immaculate wooden shafts as always. With a mushroom-shaped head wrapped in strong nylon yarn, these sticks have great response and produce a warm wonderful tone when they connect with the bars. Birch handles on these mallets provide players with an increased reach without compromising the mallet’s rigidity and you can tell they are solid and durable.
In a range of colors, this basic set of 4 pairs of mallets for under $40 is incredible value for money and perfect for a student to get started. What we really liked about them is that they are really light, which will really help a first time player who doesn’t have the chop strength. They are more medium-hard than medium but overall great quality with a good padded tip and birch shaft.