December 9, 2021

What is a marimba? A Complete Guide

What is a marimba

The marimba is a percussion instrument consisting of wooden bars. Use yarn wrapped or rubber mallets to hit the bars to produce musical tones. Use rubber mallets to hit the wooden bars to produce music. It uses pipes as they are suspended underneath the bars to amplify the sound of the wooden bars. Marimba can be quite costly.

The bars of a marimba are like piano keys. It has groups of two and three accidentals raised vertically, overlapping the natural bars to help the performer visually and physically. This instrument belongs to the idiophone family but with a more resonant pitch than the xylophone. Find out how to make your own.

Origins of the marimba

The origin of the marimba is debatable. Some believe that it originated in Southeast Asia in the 14th Century, and others believe it came from Africa. However, this is contestable since it is on oral history. 

The story of the marimba began a long time ago in Africa, where people would dig holes in the ground, wooden bars made to cross over this hole, and the bars struck to produce sound. The instrument was brought later to South America in the early 16th Century by either African slaves or by the Columbians returning from Africa.

Types of marimba

  • Diatonic marimba sencilla 
  • Chromatic marimba doble. 

Parts of the marimba and what they do


It gives support and stability to the legs of the instrument.

 A durable frame provides lower support while horizontal legs maintain stability, and therefore the 

Gas Spring

It allows you to adjust the height of the marimba for a comfortable playing position for different players.


They make the length of metallic tubes specific to each note. That results in a projection of each tone bar.


These are wooden crossbars that support the tone bars. 

Reinforcement Stay

It provides structural rigidity that prevents the frame from sagging in the middle.

Slant Shaft

It protects the marimba from sagging over time.

How do you play the marimba?

  1. Gathering equipment determines the quality of sound you need.  These include the marimba and mallets. 
  2. Understand the basics of the marimba. Learning the notes and where they are, is part of the process.
  3. Memorize the keys by learning which bars play each note so that your mallets know where to go while playing. 
  4. Hold the mallet between your thumb and pointer finger. Hold the mallets with your palms down, and mallet heads hovering over the bars.
  5. Stand in the middle of the instrument, so that your weight is distributed evenly while striking each bar. 
  6. Strike a bar gently. 
  7. Practice scales.
  8. Learn to read sheet music.
  9. Master the skill of holding four mallets at once.

Marimba Mallets and Technique

Playing marimba is more challenging than it looks, hence the importance of learning proper technique. That ensures you better sound and avoids injuries to your hands or wrists. Hold the drumsticks and mallets, not tightly gripped. Keep a confident hold but relaxed on your mallets. That allows them to bounce and do much of the work for you. 

If your fingers or wrists grow sore as you practice, you are more likely squeezing the sticks too firmly. Two ways to hold your mallets are matched grip and traditional grip. 

Matched grip techniques involve holding a mallet the same way you do to a hammer. You will be holding the stick using the thumb and index finger of each hand. These are near the balancing point of the stick. Some users keep these fingers bent, whereas others straighten their index fingers along with the mallet. The remaining three fingers rest on the mallet to stabilize it.

The use of the traditional grip involves using the user’s palm facing upward. The stick rests on the loose part of the skin between the thumb and index finger. That is approximately two-thirds of the way up the mallet from the tip. 

Your thumb and index finger wrap around the stick so that the tip of your thumb touches the first knuckle of your index finger. Rest your middle finger on top of the mallet. Also, place your ring finger below so that the stick rests on the fingernail. Your pinky finger will “float” off the mallet or rest against your ring finger. Some use the traditional grip with both hands and some with one.

What sound range does it play?

The marimba is a pitched percussion instrument. It consists of wooden tone plates lined up like piano keys. When struck, the notes sound out. They are longer and lower the note, and are also wider. On a five-octave marimba, the tone plate for the lowest note has a width of 80 mm and a length of around 620 mm.

What musical classification is a marimba?

Marimba is classical music. It constantly features instrumental songs. The marimba also falls under jazz and can be used by rock and pop artists. The most popular type of marimba music is classical.

The marimba has the same key arrangement as the piano and produces a percussive sound. That means any classical song played on a piano, can also be played on a marimba. However, that depends on the performer’s skill and the music’s transposition. Classical music is a result of either a group or solo setting. 

As much as marimba music is under jazz, jazz is also part of classical music. Jazz has a mellow sound, resembling the piano. The marimba is used in small jazz but to a different degree. Some musicians are well-known for their use of the marimba in jazz marimba, and other jazz groups use the marimba.

Traditional marimba bands

Anzanga Marimba Ensemble

Anzanga Marimba Ensemble is a traditional marimba band that has entertained and enlightened audiences for 29 years. It has toured throughout the US, Canada, and internationally with tours in China and South Africa. It has also produced five recordings, some in circulation today.

Boka Marimba

Boka Marimba is Portland’s African-style marimba band that has attracted audiences in the Pacific Northwest with the exuberant music of Zimbabwe and Southern Africa for more than 20 years. 

The band has managed to blend marimbas with percussion, drum sets. Dance and fun are also part of the performance and have attracted numbers. Not only does the group focus on traditional music but diverse music. 

An afro-fusion of jazz and percussion has been part of their performance. However, as much as the music is diverse, they did not abandon Shona, their native language. They imparted the love of language to their listeners, defying the notion that language is a barrier in music. 

The pleasure in sharing music kept the band together and the fire in the band. They tried to reach every part of the world. This is what kept the band together and inspired the members.


Chihera is the Muchineripi family band that originated from Zimbabwe. The band’s name derives from the traditional family totem. The band consists of five members of the armed film and Mary Ellen Garrett. Not only do they play music,but they compose Zimbabwean plays,  traditional and contemporary music using mbira, marimbas, and piano. Chihera has performed many shows around Denver and Boulder, Colorado hence their popularity. 

Resonator tuning

Resonance tuning involves controlling volume, vibration, and wave size. It is affected by the temperature of all marimbas. Tuning resonators allows you to maximize the resonance and moderate the sustain of each note across temperature variations. That is why the instrument features a high budget. Resonate tuning is popular in 5-octave marimba.

Notice the decay rate of each wave ( the distance from one trough to the next), how quickly it returns to quiet.  Consider the wavelength of the 1st two waves (notes from a tuned resonator) and the 2nd two waves (notes from an un-tuned resonator)

When tuning, start at middle C. Lower frequencies are easier to sense relative to the next key. You are allowed to use this alternating strike method up to about C4. The note reduces as much as 50% when properly tuned.  

The more you tune, the more you will want to tune as the environment changes.  That allows you to feel the note, not just hear it.

Famous Marimba Players

David D. Hughes

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