What Are The Differences Between Marimbas & Vibraphones?

Mallet percussion instruments are a special group of instruments that deliver defined pitches when struck. They consist of a series of bars, most often arranged in a keyboard layout. Of these, two are particularly noticeable because of their immense sizes: the marimba and the vibraphone, two instruments that share many elements in common but are also quite different.

What are the differences between marimbas and vibraphones? The differences are as follows:

  • Marimbas are larger than vibraphones but with more basic components.
  • The vibraphone has a more expressive tone with greater sustain.
  • The marimba has a wider pitch range than the vibraphone.

For this article, we will focus on the distinctions between marimbas and vibraphones outlined above. But first, let's elaborate on their backgrounds.

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• Top 11 Best Marimba Brands On The Market
• Top 11 Best Vibraphone Brands On The Market

The Backgrounds Of Marimbas And Vibraphones

We will not be dealing with each instrument's history in isolation since their development is intimately interlaced to the point in which it could be said that one derived from the other. The marimba is said to be a descendant of the older xylophone, to which we'll pay attention briefly.

The xylophone is, without question, the oldest mallet instrument in the family (at least in concept). It is said to be born out of the ancient Chinese harmonicon, which consisted of a set of hung wooden bars sorted by size that existed from at least 2,000 B.C.

Others theorize that some African counterparts pre-existed the Chinese model, while the Southeast Asian ranat was making the rounds roughly around that same period, which could explain the burst in popularity that the instrument would earn in that region later on.

Specifically, during the period between the 9th and 14th centuries, many variations of the xylophone began to emerge in Africa and Southeast Asia. One of them was the marimba, which many cultures nowadays try to claim as their own.

Whichever may be the case, the instrument was soon brought to South and Central America by African slaves during the apogee of the European slave trade in the 16th century. The instrument was further developed in the 19th century, being turned into a chromatic instrument thanks to the efforts of Guatemalan musician Sebastián Hurtado.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a novel variant of the marimba – made with steel bars – caught the attention of North American instrument maker Herman Winterhoff, who would use it as the basis for his vox humana project during his tenure with the Leedy Drum Company. This will segway into the creation of what is now known as the vibraphone.

Winterhoff would adapt an electric motor that could transfer current to a series of disks installed at the top of the steel marimba's resonator tubes, which would hence endow the sound with a “tremolo” effect.

However, the instrument was still barely playable due to its unbearable sustain. By 1927, another instrument builder called William Gladstone devised a dampening bar operated by a pedal to deal with the issue.

What Are The Differences Between Marimbas And Vibraphones?

Now, we'll be unpacking the differences between marimbas and vibraphones outlined at the beginning.

Difference 1: Design

In my initial response, I affirmed that:

“Marimbas are larger than vibraphones but with more basic components.”

There's an abundance of topics to touch upon in this respect. Nevertheless, let's begin with the size contrast.

The size of marimbas is capable of dwarfing that of vibraphones by a considerable degree, with some of the largest marimbas (like the Musser M500) coming in at about 107″ in length and 41″ in width. The vibraphone, while not considered “small” by any means, still hardly reaches half the length, measuring roughly 56″ in length and 32″ in width.

In terms of components, the first distinction worth noticing concerns the build material for the bars. The marimbas retain the same wooden bars as the xylophone, built out of exotic types of hardwood such as rosewood or padauk. On the flip side, the vibraphone has metal bars equipped (regularly made of aluminum).

Perhaps the major differences are the ones that are not as immediately visible, to wit, the additional components included in the vibraphone.

As disclosed earlier, the vibraphone comes equipped with two mechanisms not present in the marimba nor any other mallet percussion instrument to date: The rotating fans/disks and the sustain pedal.

The fans are located at the top of the resonators and are tasked with producing a peculiar “tremolo” effect in the sound. The speed of these disks can be adjusted via the controller, oftentimes found on top of the frame, mostly on the right-hand side of the instrument.

The sustain pedal, for its part, is connected to a dampening rod. When pressing on the footboard, this rod (which is situated between the two rows) is lifted to impede the bars from vibrating further, abruptly cutting the sound.

Difference 2: Sound

Next, I stated the following:

“The vibraphone has a more expressive tone with greater sustain.”

This is another obvious difference between the two instruments and is closely tied to their resonant material.

Since the vibraphone is made with metal bars (as expressed earlier), it's bound to resonate more since metal conducts vibration energy much better than wood, which is far more porous. The wooden bars in the marimba produce a sharper staccato with a much more austere sustain, while the decay in vibraphones is significantly longer.

The other apparent distinction stems from the vibraphone's ability to add tremolo effect to its output, resulting in a more expressive tone by contrast, almost matching the expressiveness of the human voice in some instances.

Difference 3: Pitch Range

To conclude, I pointed out that:

“The marimba has a wider pitch range than the vibraphone.”

In this regard, marimbas have an advantage over vibraphones, being able to deliver notes across 5 entire octaves (from C2 to C7). In contrast, vibraphones are more comparable to xylophones, with mostly 3 or 4 octaves available to the player. The largest vibraphones can play notes from C3 to C7.

The marimbas are written in both bass and treble clefs in sheet music. Conversely, the vibraphones are notated in the treble clef exclusively.

Read How Marimbas Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Vibraphones Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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