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How to Get the Best Sound Out of a Marimba

Kevin Lucas • GoodVibesMarch 2022 • March 18, 2022

There is an equation to optimizing your students’ sound on the marimba. There are many factors involved. I am going to go over the basics in this article, so a fundamental understanding of the approach to the instrument is established. 

First of all, having a quality instrument that is properly maintained is the first step. Rosewood marimbas, although very expensive, have the best and most natural sound. Your students must remember to keep the bars from drying out. Nothing will destroy a marimba bar faster than lack of moisture. This tends to cause them to become brittle and crack over time. The best lubricant for rosewood marimba bars is Old English. This can be purchased at most stores in the cleaning aisle. Every part of the bar should be oiled and the oil should be left to sit and soak into the marimba for about 30 minutes. Afterwards, the bars can be wiped with an old towel to remove excess, leaving them shiny and new looking. An oiled bar will bring out the best and most pure sound of the instrument. This should be done every few months to keep the bars maintained.

Mallet choice is another big factor in maximizing the sound of the instrument. As a general rule, your students want to use mallets that are well wrapped but have weight. Weight does not mean volume, as a marimba stroke that has “weight” can happen at the softest volumes in music. This helps bring out the full tone of the bar as well as the overtones to ring out. Mallets can have weight at all levels of softness or hardness. It just depends on what the inner core of the heads is made out of. Mallet choice in terms of musicality is also very important. For legato segments of music, softer and fluffy mallets that don’t have an attack when striking the bar are best. There are a large array of mallets from extremely soft to hard. Your students should never use a hard mallet that is overly abrasive or that compromises the instrument. Your students should always examine the style of the music to determine how hard or soft of a mallet should be used. I highly recommend the Jeff Moore series through Salyers Percussion. Jeff Moore is professor of percussion and dean of fine arts at University of Central Florida in Orlando. You can find his mallets at salyerspercussion.com.

Mallet stroke and a technical approach to the instrument are also huge factors in sound quality. Your students should practice the “piston” stroke, named after the pistons in an automobile engine that move up after striking. Pulling the sound out of the instrument is very important. Another analogy I like to use is bouncing a basketball. The ball is not forced upwards. Rather, the ball is thrown down and the natural rebound comes up to the hand. This is the same concept that is applied to mallet stroke. Pulling the sound out of the instrument is crucial, and your students should not have to work hard for this to happen. They should allow the mallet to simply rebound off the instrument. This same concept applies to playing with four mallets using both the Burton and Stevens grip as well. Another aspect of the technical approach is where the bars are struck. The marimba bars should always be struck in the middle if possible. During very fast passages, your students may strike the edge of the accidentals. They should always avoid the “nodes” which is the part of the bar right above the strings.

If your students put everything together above, they should have no problems getting a beautiful sound out of an instrument that creates more pleasing overtones than most. Taking the time to refine your students’ approach to the instrument and technique is well worth it. 

In 2016, The Huffington Post called Kevin Lucas “The most talented percussionist since Lionel Hampton, Ginger Baker, and Tito Puente.” He has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards. Kevin Lucas performed with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps from 1992-1994 and won the DCI Midwest Individuals in 1994 for keyboard percussion. He placed second in the United States for concert hall percussion at the Music Teachers National Association collegiate competition in 1997.

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