The Vibraphone is a curious instrument. It is essentially a large metal Marimba. The key difference between the Vibraphone and the Marimba are the rotating fans places in each of the Vibraphone’s resonators. These fans, controlled by a variable speed motor, produce a vibrato effect not heard on any other percussion instrument. This instrument was immediately popular in jazz. In classical music, it had a cooler entry.
The curious thing about the Vibraphone is that most times the characteristic vibrato is turned off in concert works. In fact, many of the Vibraphones I’ve worked with before have had their motors disabled. When writing for the Vibraphone, use of the motor must always be indicated. As most Vibraphones will have a variable speed motor, it is also important to request the speed of the motor – slow, medium, fast. I once wrote a piece where I indicated two separate Vibraphones. One has the motor on the highest speed while the second had the motor turned down one notch from high. This would produce a cross-vibrato effect where the instruments are slightly out of sync. Another thing to think of here, Vibraphones from different manufacturers will have motors that rotate at different speeds. The motor can be changed and turned on or off during a performance. The best instruments will have a silent motor.
Traditionally, the range of the Vibraphone has only been 3 octaves from F3 to F6, but increasingly, makers are now making instruments with a four octave range from C3 to C7. I find it odd that it took so long for the Vibraphone to have its range extended when the Marimba constantly undergoes range extensions. I prefer the 4 octave instrument. The extra bass notes really add a new sound to the instrument.
An interesting effect is to take a cello or bass bow and actually bow the edge of the bar instead of striking it with a mallet. This is a very slow technique. Changing from the top row to the bottom row (black keys to white keys) take a considerable amount of movement. In the piece I mentioned above, I had one of the Vibraphone players play only the top row while the other only played the bottom row to lessen the movement of the players.
The Ring and the Pedal
Because the instrument’s bars are metal, they will have a very long ring after they are sounded. The larger bars will ring longer than the smaller ones. Because of this, the Vibraphone is equipped with a pedal exactly like the sustain pedal on a Piano. Pedal markings should be included in parts for exact clarity. Otherwise, the performer will pedal the part at their discretion. If the pedal is not depressed, the Vibraphone will have a dry staccato sound.
Vibraphones will use either two or four mallets. Two-mallet passages will generally be single lines while four-mallet passages will contain chords. In chords it is best to keep notes spacing to about an octave between mallets held in one hand. Check with a competent player for limitations of four-mallet technique. Six-mallet technique is known, but extremely rare.
A rarely used technique involves bending the pitch. This is done by sticking the bar with one mallet and then dragging a second mallet across the bar. See video below for how technique is done.
4-octave Vibraphone playing a Bach Cello Suite (no vibrato)
4-octave Vibraphone playing Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral (no vibrato)
Gary Burton talking about the Vibraphone. Watch the whole series of videos here!
A piece for bowed Vibraphone. Note, it takes four players on one instrument to play this piece.
Pitch bending technique