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Questions on Marimba Design - Discussions with Richard

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-----Original Message-----
From: Richard
Sent: 02 August 2010
Subject: Questions on Marimba Design
Hey Jim,

I've been doing some serious web searching, but am unable to find answers to two issues.
Any comments or help would be appreciated:

Q1: Arrangement of Notes / Bars

I see your site pics show marimbas notes arranged the same as a piano:
Low-to-High from Left-to-Right

But why do I see the notes/bars on a Marimba more often than not arranged from:
High-to-Low from Left-to-Right?

That arrangement is opposite to a Piano, but is the same as a drum kit.
I'm guessing it has to do with placing the lower notes under the right hand (usually the stronger hand)?
But, is it the higher or lower notes that need the hardest strike to sound?
Which is the "correct" arrangement?

Q2: Curved Keyboard

I have yet to see a curved keyboard arrangement - i.e. one which is shaped in an arc, placing all of the bars at a more consistent and natural distance from each arm / elbow.

Has this been tried?
Would there be any special problems with this set-up?


Hi Richard

OK so Q1 - well low on the left and high on the right is certainly the standard arrangement - in fact I've personally NEVER seen it any other way around. Certainly all the Westernized instruments have always been made that way from the very start of the instrument's Western History. The traditional Mexican and Central American marimbas are also all made this way to my knowledge and that is really where the marimba PROPER actually comes from. The type of marimba you are likely to see a lot of in your part of the world is actually based on a slightly different ancestry - the "Balafon" or in the Western world closer to a xylophone - although they are of course incredibly similar. HOWEVER the crucial thing is this - most of those instruments you are likely to see are not chromatic - in other words they do not contain all the traditional Western 12 tones per octave - they are more normally what we call diatonic (the 7 Western White notes only) or even Pentatonic (based on a five notes per octave scale) or sometimes not even using Western tonal systems at all. Almost universally however the thing is this: They do not have TWO rows of notes (white notes and black notes on a piano) but just a single row. What this means is that if you happen to be viewing the instrument from the "non-player" side then it will look just like the low notes are on the left. Do you think this might be the source of confusion?

Q2: - A guy Called Max Krimmel made a bass marimba set up he called "the fan marimba" which kind of used this concept - sort of. He used bars that were wider at the top than at the bottom and some curved frame work so essentially the player was standing in the centre of a fan shape instrument. The curved arrangement is certainly possible - but the logistics of creating a frame to suite this - especially for a proper chromatic concert instrument are just so terribly difficult. The design would be a nightmare and the instrument would use SO much more material and be so much heavier and more expensive and time consuming to build - you would also invariably find such an instrument difficult to dismantle and re-assemble for transport.

Oh - btw - it is not so much a matter of higher or lower notes needing more power in the strike to sound - it is more a matter of the softness etc of the mallet - harder mallets suit the higher notes better but will sound harsh and even damage bass bars. Softer mallets sound nice and warm on low notes but will not produce much volume on higher notes unless they are swung hard! Even then they have a "woolly" contact sound which is generally considered too "thud like"

Hope this all helps!

Jim McCarthy

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Hey Jim,

Thanks due for a detailed helpful response.

Yup, I've worked out that the mistaken Right-to-Left arrangement in my head was due to:
a. the Balafon and local Zimbabwean variants
b. seeing too many pics from the front of the instrument, instead of from the player's perspective

Is it essential that the bars "sit flush" against each other ? Would this consideration be for the purposes of:
- sound quality
- or for ease of striking the notes / bars
- or for ease of stringing the bars

In other words, what would the drawbacks be if the bars were the conventional rectangular shape, but with essentially a widening triangular gap between each bar?

Perhaps it would be best to give you some context:

I'm about to start building my own Marimba - and as usual for my personality type - I'm going the (over) ambitious route.

I want to be able to play:
- Western, as well as African music;
- Solo / Lead as well as Backing

So my target goal is a Chromatic key marimba, with a wide range.

My plan is to build two quarter-circle marimbas, which can be played / transported as two separate instruments ... but which can be bolted / fused together into one semi-circlular wide range solo instrument.

If you look at the PDF attachement, you'll see my planning ideas.
Look specifically at the MID range section, which I want to make as a LOW voice and a HIGH voice component ... giving me a single instrument as follows:

Notes: 48
Range: F-2 to E 2
With a span range covering slighly more than TENOR -> SOPRANO

If I manage to get this right, I may consider making BASS and UPPER voice extensions bringing in the 5 lowest and 5 highest notes needed to give me the full BARITONE -> PICCOLO range.

Notes: 58
Range: C-2 to A 2

So that's the reason for the curved keyboard approach ... to bring the wide range of bars into a comfortable playing range for my arms.

Comments & suggestions & (constructive) criticism welcome.

And a big thanks again for getting back to me - after all I'm just bumming free advice - it shows you have passion and heart.


Hi again Rich
Well it's tricky for me to visualize EXACTLY what you have in mind but I do get the general idea. In principle it is certainly possible, and I can say from experience that you will have all sorts of fun sorting out the various challenges of instrument design! Hanging resonators should prove interesting - I would love to see your solutions as you come up with them, and I'm always happy to lend an idea or two if you feel the need.

In response to Q2 - no, there is no reason at all why you can't just have normal bars with bigger spacing further away from the body as you suggest. Normally you would have a single bar post (string holder) between each bar on each end of the bar. For this type of design though you would want extras - just the one normal one at the end of the bar closer to the player, then two at the end further from the player. At that further end you would have a post immediately either side of the bar to keep it from sliding on the string side to side there and changing the angle - than a gap before the next post and bar. In fact you may even need to do something similar with a little extra bar spacing at the near end as well as the very ends of the bars extending closer to the player than the near bar posts would tend to knock together because of the relative angle of the adjacent bars. The alternative might be to make the near ends of the bars slightly wedge shaped - remove the corners a little.

My 2 cents!
Jim McCarthy

A final comment. You said:
He used bars that were wider at the top than at the bottom

I got this feedback from another marimba builder:

"One design that I saw actually used wedge-shaped notes, which will work fine if they are suspended at the right points. However, I would think that the tuning of partials on these notes would be impossible."


Mmmm I have made similar comments to this to others I have discussed this design with. Maybe not impossible but certainly more difficult. I suspect the wedge shaped bars would lend themselves to producing some unwanted torsional modes and cross tones. I am not a fan of the wedge shaped bar idea.

Jim McCarthy

answers by Jim MCCarthy - 28/02/2008

For more help on instrument building you can email Jim.

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