Quick guide to popular Marimbas

The Marimba

The Marimba actually falls under the classification of xylophone. It is African in origin and usually would have a calabash resonator for each wooden bar.  The calabash is an American tree with gourd-like fruits. The Marimba name is being used to distinguish it from other gourd-resonated xylophones. A person who plays a marimba is called a marimbist.

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Orchestra Instruments

History of Marimbas

The Marimba, before it became known for that name, was brought from Africa to South America probably before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. It was in South America that it came to be known as the Marimba. It is a wooden xylophone attached to a frame with legs or a frame that allowed it to hang from the player’s waist. In Central America it became a popular folk musical instrument. It is sometimes played by 4 musicians; within a range of 6 ½ octaves.  The resonator nowadays uses a metal resonator. Big marimbas are called xylorimbas. The marimba after being featured in Chicago’s World Fair in the 1930’s became popular. Soon after, many compositions, including “Concertino” by Paul Creston, were written for it.

Some music scholars think that the xylophone first appeared in Southeast Asia as wooden slabs over a pit as a resonating chamber.  A good example is the Indonesian gambang or the Thai ranat. The xylophone also appeared in China and in some of its colonies like Vietnam. In Japan, it appeared as mokkin for the kabuki theater in places near Nagasaki.

In Europe, in the 1500s, the marimba was considered as a wooden percussion or straw fiddle. It was in the 1800s that it gained popularity in Europe even being seen as a fashionable musical instrument. Marimbas usually had two rows of wooden, usually rosewood, plates. Each plate had a hollow groove.  Sometimes synthetic materials are used too. The musicians use two sticks or mallets per hand.


Purchasing a Marimba

There are many kinds of marimba in the market nowadays. The most popular brands are Ludwig Musser and Douglas DeMorrow.  A professional Marimba will have a 5 octave range but there are smaller versions which more buyers prefer.  4-Octave Marimbas are used in orchestras. But professionals will want to invest in the 5-octave version.  The 5-octave marimba is large and hard to move which probably explains why people including composers choose the smaller marimba.

A marimba will cost up to $25,000 each but there are cheaper versions depending on who manufactured it, size and model. Serious buyers will want to consider buying the 5-octave marimba. They will most probably already have bought the 4-octave version but will now want an upgrade. When buying, it is best to check the condition of the wooden bars.  The best bars will be made of Honduras Rosewood.  For those who want to purchase cheaper, a marimba with synthetic bars will do just fine but compared to wood, they can be good alternatives.  Furthermore, synthetics are nature friendly when compared the ones made from Rosewood tree. Consider the Yamaha Marimba that has versions made of synthetic wood.


Getting a Used Marimba

Have an expert accompany you… Perhaps a professional drummer who knows what to look out for. They will make sure that the bars are not cracked; or if cracked are economically repairable.  The professional will play the instrument to determine if it is out of tune and may need tuning.  You can ask the seller to tune it up first before you buy it.  The bars may also need replacement so the expert may suggest buying new ones.  Check out the frames too to find out if they have cracks or are broken. It is important to determine if the frame is sturdy still. Checking out the resonators to find out if they dented or scratched. Large cracks and dents can alter the sound of the Marimba.  But minor scratches are ok.

Choosing a large instrument will allow you to play a bigger variety of pieces.  A larger instrument will also allow you to play newer compositions. A lot of artists are venturing on 5-octave pieces. Big marimbas however sometimes do not match up to smaller orchestral instruments like the violin.

Beginners will do well with a smaller marimba – it will have an adjustable height good for new users. But professionals will consider investing on the 5 or even 6-octave marimba.

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