Find out how marimbas are made and how they produce their sound
THE MODERN MARIMBA has wooden bars laid out in two rows like the keyboard on a piano. These bars are struck with medium-hard mallets or sticks often made of wound yarn to produce the sound. The bars are usually made of rosewood, and the shorter and narrower the bar is the higher the pitch of the note will be.
Beneath each bar is a vertical tube made of brass or aluminium. This tube acts as a resonator, vibrating as the sound passes through it to make it louder and richer. The tubes vary in length depending on how high or low the pitch of the note is. In the marimba’s earliest days these resonators would be made of different sized gourds.
The origins of the marimba are uncertain, although early versions are known to have been developed in Africa and Latin America. Today traditional marimba bands are still very popular in places like Costa Rica, Guatemala and parts of Mexico.
The first modern marimbas were made in the USA in 1910, and the instrument has since become popular with both jazz and Western classical composers and performers, attracted to its special sound. Probably the most famous marimba-player today is the percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
In 1947 the French composer Darius Milhaud wrote a concerto for marimba and xylophone. This was also the first work asking the player to play with four sticks.
David Hockings plays the marimba and explains how it works and the kinds of sticks which can be used and why.