AskDefine | Define vibraphone

Dictionary Definition

vibraphone n : a percussion instrument similar to a xylophone but having metal bars and rotating disks in the resonators that produce a vibrato sound [syn: vibraharp, vibes]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • IPA: /ˈvɑɪ.bɹə.ˌfoːn/


From vibrato + -phone.


  1. A percussion instrument with a double row of tuned metal bars, each above the tubular resonator containing a motar-driven rotating vane, giving a vibrato effect.


percussion instrument

Extensive Definition

The vibraphone, sometimes called the vibraharp or simply the vibes, is a musical instrument in the mallet subfamily of the percussion family.
It is similar in appearance to the xylophone and marimba, although the vibraphone uses aluminum bars instead of the wooden bars of those instruments. The vibraphone also has a sustain pedal similar to that used on a piano. When the pedal is up, the bars are all damped and the sound of each bar is quite short; with the pedal down, they will sound for several seconds.
The most common uses of the vibraphone are within jazz music, where it often plays a featured role, and in the wind ensemble, as a standard component of the percussion section.


The first musical instrument called "vibraphone" was marketed by the Leedy Manufacturing Company in the United States in 1921. However, this instrument differed in significant details from the instrument now called the vibraphone. The Leedy vibraphone achieved a degree of popularity after it was used in the novelty recordings of "Aloha 'Oe" and "Gypsy Love Song" by vaudeville performer Louis Frank Chiha ("Signor Frisco").
This popularity led J. C. Deagan, Inc. in 1927 to ask its Chief Tuner, Henry Schluter, to develop a similar instrument. However, Schluter didn't just copy the Leedy design, he introduced several significant improvements such as making the bars from aluminum instead of steel for a more "mellow" basic tone, adjustments to the dimensions and tuning of the bars to eliminate the dissonant harmonics in the Leedy design (further mellowing the tone), and the introduction of a damper bar controlled by a foot pedal enabling it to be played with more expression. Musser was an accomplished marimba and xylophone player famous for touring the United States and Europe leading "marimba symphony orchestras". He applied his experience and observations with the current designs of mallet instruments to his eponymous company and the result was a high-quality line of mallet instruments. His vibraphones emerged as quite comparable in quality to Deagan vibraphones and Musser was able to garner a share of the top-end market.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a shakeup in the vibraphone market. Leedy and Jenco ceased operations. The Deagan operation was purchased by the Yamaha Corporation. Although Yamaha used the Deagan knowledge to improve their own designs, they discontinued the use of the Deagan name and Deagan model legacy and as of 2008 no visible trace to Deagan remains. The Musser Company was purchased first by Ludwig Drums, and then, through Ludwig, was purchased by Conn-Selmer, Inc. Unlike the fate of Deagan, the Musser brand and model line were retained by the purchasing companies, and Musser vibraphones remain a major force in the vibraphone market.
This period also saw the emergence of new vibraphone manufacturers. Notable companies include Adams Musical Instruments of Ittervoort, The Netherlands and Ross Mallet Instruments, now owned by Jupiter Band Instruments of Austin, TX, USA.
As of 2008, the vibraphone marketplace is remarkably active, considering the specialty nature of the instrument. The major players include Musser, Yamaha, Adams and Ross. Bergerault, Premier, Studio 49 from Gräfelfing, Germany and the Saito Gakki Company of Japan continue in operation. In addition to the "mass" producers of vibraphones, custom manufacturers, notably vanderPlas Percussion of The Netherlands, are also active.


The standard modern instrument has a range of three octaves, from the F below middle C (F3 to F6 in scientific pitch notation). Larger three-and-a-half or four octave models from the C below middle C are also becoming more common (C3 to F6 or C7). It is generally written at concert pitch, but sometimes some composers (for example, Olivier Messiaen) write parts to sound an octave higher.


The major components of a vibraphone are the bars, resonators, damper pad, motor and a frame to hold them all together. Vibraphones are usually played with mallets.


Vibraphone bars are made from aluminum, which is the most obvious way to distinguish a vibraphone from the other members of the mallet percussion family. Aluminum for vibraphone bars is normally obtained from standard commercial suppliers. For example, Musser has used the #2024-T4 product from Alcoa. Different alloys of aluminum have slightly different tonal characteristics. Manufacturers must choose their preferred alloy carefully, balancing the tonal characteristics with the ability to obtain supply over the long term.
Aluminum stock is purchased in long bars of the desired width and thickness, and then cut into the appropriate lengths. Next, holes are drilled through the width of bars at the two so-called "nodal" points. The nodal points are the points near the ends of the bar where the wave-like fundamental vibration of a sounding bar causes little or no movement of the bar itself, theoretically at a proportion of 0.244 from each end of the bar.


Resonators are thin-walled tubes, typically made of aluminum, but any suitably strong material will do. They are open at one end and closed at the other. Each bar is paired with a resonator whose diameter is slightly wider than the width of the bar, and whose length to the closure is one-quarter of the wavelength of the fundamental frequency of the bar. The resonator for A3 (the lowest A on a vibraphone) is approximately 15 inches long. tend to stick to a single general-purpose mallet type that works well in all dynamic ranges. Often this choice becomes one of the defining items of the player's personal style. Many jazz players alter commercially available mallets to get just the tone they want.


The world of vibraphone players can be roughly divided into those who play with two mallets, and those who play with four. In reality the division is not quite so neat. Many players switch between two, three and four mallets depending on the demands of their current musical situations.
Furthermore, concentrating on the number of mallets a player holds means missing the far more significant differences between the two-mallet and four-mallet playing styles. As of 2008, these differences are not quite as extensive as they were when Gary Burton first introduced the world to the four-mallet style in the 1960s, but they still exist to a large degree.

Two-mallet style

The two-mallet approach to vibes is traditionally linear, playing like a horn. Two-mallet players usually concentrate on playing a single melodic line and rely on other musicians to provide accompaniment. Double stops (two notes played simultaneously) are sometimes used, but mostly as a reinforcement of the main melodic line, similar to the usual use of double stops in solo violin music. In jazz groups, two-mallet vibraphonists are usually considered part of the "front line" with the horn players, contributing solos of their own but contributing very little in the way of accompaniment to other soloists.
Two-mallet players use several different grips, with the most common being a palms-down grip that is basically the same as the matched grip used by drummers. The mallets are held between the thumb and index finger of each hand, with the remaining three fingers of each hand pressing the shafts into the down-facing palms. Strokes use a combination of wrist movement and fingertip control of the shaft.
Another popular grip is similar to the timpani grip. The mallets are again held between the thumb and index fingers and controlled with the remaining three fingers, but the palms are held vertically, facing inward towards each other. Most of the stroke action comes from the finger-tip control of the shafts.
Passages are usually played hand-to-hand with double-sticking (playing two notes in a row with the same hand) used when convenient in minimizing crossing the hands.
The player must pay close attention to the use of the damper pedal in order to cleanly articulate and avoid multiple notes ringing unintentionally at the same time. Since the notes ring for some significant fraction of a second when struck with the damper pad up, and ringing bars do not stop ringing immediately when contacted by the pad, a technique called "after pedaling" is necessary. In this technique, the damper pedal is depressed marginally after the note is struck, shortly enough after so that the recently struck note continues to ring, but long enough after so that the previous note has stopped ringing.
Another damper technique is "half pedaling", where the pedal is depressed just enough to remove the spring pressure from the bars, but not enough so the pad has lost contact with the bars. This allows the bars to ring slightly longer than with the pad fully up and can be used to make a medium-fast passage sound more legato without pedaling every note.

Four-mallet style

The four-mallet vibraphone style is multi-linear, like-a-piano. "Thinking like a pianist, arranger, and orchestrator, the vibist approaches the instrument like a piano and focuses on a multi-linear way of playing." In jazz groups, four-mallet vibraphonists are often considered part of the rhythm section, typically substituting for piano or guitar, and providing accompaniment for other soloists in addition to soloing themselves. Furthermore, the four-mallet style has led to a significant body of unaccompanied solo vibes playing. One notable example is Gary Burton’s performance of "Chega de Saudade (No More Blues)" from his Grammy-winning 1971 album "Alone at Last".
Although some early vibes players made use of four mallets, notably Red Norvo and sometimes Lionel Hampton, the fully-pianistic four-mallet approach is almost entirely the creation of Gary Burton. Many of the key techniques of the four-mallet style, such as multi-linear playing and the advanced dampening techniques describe below, are easily applied to playing with two mallets and some modern two-mallet players have adapted these devices to their playing, somewhat blurring the distinctions between modern two- and four-mallet players.
The most popular four-mallet grip for vibraphone is the Burton grip, named for Gary Burton. One mallet is held between the thumb and index finger and the other is held between the index and middle fingers. The shafts cross in the middle of the palm and extend past the heel of the hand. For wide intervals, the thumb often moves in between the two mallets and the inside mallet is held in the crook of the fingers.
Also popular is the Stevens grip, named for marimbist Leigh Howard Stevens. Many other grips are in use, some variations on the Burton or Stevens, others idiosyncratic creations of individual vibes players. One common variation of the Burton grip places the outside mallet between the middle and ring fingers, instead of between the index and middle.
Four-mallet vibists usually play scalar linear passages much the same as two-mallet players, using one mallet from each hand (outside right and inside left for Burton grip), except four-mallet players tend to make more use of double strokes, not only to avoid crossing hands but also to minimize motion between the two bar rows. For example, an ascending E flat major scale could be played L-R-R-L-L-R-R-L, keeping the left hand on the "black" bars and the right hand on the "white". For linear passages with leaps, all four mallets are often used sequentially. and contribute significantly to expressive four-mallet playing.
Mallet dampening includes "dead strokes" where a player strikes a bar, and then instead of drawing the mallet back, directly presses the head of the mallet onto the bar, causing the ringing to immediately stop. This produces a fairly distinctive "choked" sound and dead strokes are often used just for that particular sound in addition to the dampening aspects.
In hand-to-hand dampening, the vibist plays a note with one mallet, while simultaneously pressing another mallet onto a previously ringing bar. Usually the dampening mallet and the striking mallet are held in different hands, but advanced players can, in some circumstances, use two mallets from the same hand. This is the most powerful of the mallet dampening techniques as it can be used to dampen any note on the instrument while simultaneously striking any other note. However, the grips tend to lead to limited musical possibilities, with little ability to adjust the interval between the outside and middle mallets and difficulties in playing hand-to-hand lines, and therefore use of five or six mallets is rare.
Other techniques: The vibraphone solo, "Mourning Dove Sonnet," composed by Christopher Deane, utilizes a four mallet grip with two cello (or bass) bows held where the outer mallets would be, with a yarn mallet for the main melodic playing and a plastic mallet for pitch bending in the inner positions.

Solo vibes videos

The large size of the vibraphone and the fast-moving mallets can create a great deal of visual interest during a vibraphone performance. Probably the best way to fully appreciate the capabilities of the vibraphone is to watch and listen to solo (unaccompanied) vibes performances. A number of high-quality solo vibes performances have been made available on the web. Here are some examples:

Classical music and film scores featuring the vibraphone


Video Game themes

Television themes

Popular music featuring the vibraphone

Jazz featuring the vibraphone


  • Introduction to Jazz Vibes; by Gary Burton; Creative Music; 1965.
  • Vibraphone Technique: Dampening and Pedaling; by David Friedman; Berklee Press Publications; 1973.
  • Contemporary Mallet Method - An Approach to the Vibraphone and Marimba; by Jerry Tachoir: Riohcat Music; 1980
vibraphone in Bulgarian: Вибрафон
vibraphone in Catalan: Vibràfon
vibraphone in German: Vibraphon
vibraphone in Estonian: Vibrafon
vibraphone in Spanish: Vibráfono
vibraphone in French: Vibraphone
vibraphone in Galician: Vibráfono
vibraphone in Korean: 비브라폰
vibraphone in Indonesian: Vibrafon
vibraphone in Italian: Vibrafono
vibraphone in Hungarian: Vibrafon
vibraphone in Dutch: Vibrafoon
vibraphone in Japanese: ヴィブラフォン
vibraphone in Norwegian: Vibrafon
vibraphone in Polish: Wibrafon
vibraphone in Portuguese: Vibrafone
vibraphone in Russian: Вибрафон
vibraphone in Serbian: Вибрафон
vibraphone in Finnish: Vibrafoni
vibraphone in Swedish: Vibrafon
vibraphone in Ukrainian: Вібрафон

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