Percussion Clinic Adelaide

SOLO Percussion Instruments

Just about any percussion instrument can of course theoretically be a solo instrument, in that it is played without any other instruments. Many of the large family of percussion instruments though have a function though which is primarily that of an ensemble, or accompanying instrument. A handful of percussion instruments have enough scope in their sounds, notes or technique though to sustain enough musical interest when played by themselves. There is now a small but growing number of percussionists who tend to specialize in one of these instruments, and exclusively perform solo material in the concert hall. These are primarily the marimba, vibraphone, and snare drum, but some other areas of percussion also have solo repertoire.

Snare Drum
Snare Drum
Multiple Percussion

Standard 4 1/3 marimba
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The marimba is probably one of the oldest instruments in the world, and while it is predated by simpler instruments like drums and clave, its acoustic principal shows a remarkable level of sophistication considering it was around two thousand years before the violin.

The marimba is Musicologically classified as a xylophone and is similar in many aspects to that instrument. Only known to the Western World for a century, the two instruments share a common ancestry. Since the late 1920s the more refined marimba has become the main instrument of choice for percussionists aiming for a solo career.

Although the early development of the marimba has been confined to Central America, its origin, preceding its recorded history, has many possibilities. It is now widely accepted that the marimba originated in Africa and is closely related to the African xylophones.

Relevant links
"Marimbas: Exploring the depths" by Jim Mccarthy.
Marimba as an orchestral instrument
Marimba as a marching band instrument
The modern day concert marimba (as pictured above) is quite different to the traditional marimbas from central America. It is quite refined in its construction, and the sharps and flats have been laid out in the same way as a piano keyboard - half a bar width removed horizontally from the naturals.

A traditional marimba with timber resonators
Photo courtesy of Hotel Tamarindodiria.
The traditional marimbas still use gourd resonators, or square section timber boxes with the bottom ends flared to imitate the shape of a gourd. They also usually have a hole bored in the resonator which is covered with a membrane. This vibrates when the note is struck to produce a buzzing effect. Unlike the westernised marimba, those traditional instruments which actually have sharps, have them laid out directly above the naturals.

The timber used for the "bars" or notes of a marimba is very important, and there are only a couple of timbers that really work well, both of which are now sadly endangered species. Honduras Rosewood is the traditional and probably best choice, although African Padoak has also been used with success in more recent years. The timber needs to be kiln dried to equilibrium moisture content (about 7% moisture and preferably then air dried for a further year or two, before being shaped into bars and tuned. Kelon, which is a synthetic material made from extruded glass fibres is sometimes used for making marimba bars, and is even preferred in some marching bands because of its greater durability, but is generally considered to be inferior in tone etc.

The first commercially produced marimbas were used mainly as an orchestral instrument, or in marimba ensembles. Xylophones were already in popular use, and the marimbas were considered an alternative to the xylophone. It lacked the piercing quality which enabled the sound to cut through an orchestra though, and was not as suitable in character for ragtime music. It was not long however before the mellow warmth of the marimba began to be seen as a useful sound in its own right, and it quickly gained its own place in many compositions.

Modern day concert marimba
Photo courtesy of Marimba One, Arcata, California
After pioneers like Clair Musser and Garry Burton began to develop four-mallet techniques, the marimba quickly came to the fore of a percussionist's solo repertoire. While it lacks the volume and power of the vibraphone which made that instrument synonymous with the jazz bands, its extended range and variety of tonal possibilities makes it the ideal medium for interesting and expressive music.

Making Marimbas, Xylophones & Vibraphones is now Easy
Building Guides for Making Marimbas, Xylophones, Vibraphones and Metalophones
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Adams Xylophone
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We get the word "Xylophone" from the ancient Greek "Xylos" meaning "wood" and of course "phono" which we all know is a reference to sound. So xylophone literally means sounding wood. From a musicological perspective, the word xylophone refers to a category of instruments - in other words marimbas, xylophones, clave, and any other idiophone made of wood can be classified as a xylophone. Instruments with metal bars would come under the musicological heading of "metallophone". From the musicians perspective however, a xylophone is a much more specific instrument. The origin of the xylophone is ancient and not known exactly, but most historians agree that it most likely has its roots in Africa and is related most strongly to the African "Balafon".

Relevant links
Xylophone as an orchestral instrument
Xylophone as a marching instrument
The wooden bars of a xylophone are similar to that of a marimba and are similarly made of honduras rosewood. They might also -like a marimba - be made of kelon the synthetic glass fibre material, but the harder mallets used on xylophone to create that brittle sound tend to damage kelon over a period of time. Unlike a marimba's bars, the "African Padoak" timber is not very suitable as it is not really heavy enough for the smaller bars (they jump around when playing them) or hard enough to withstand the harder mallets.

The mallets used on a xylophone can of course be varied from quite soft to extremely hard for varying tones - just like marimba mallets. Mostly though, harder mallets are used - particularly if the upper register is to be played.

The xylophone can look similar to a marimba to the uninitiated, but there are a number of differences. The main difference is the pitch range which goes an octave higher on a xylophone and an octave lower or more on a marimba. The 2nd harmonic of the bars are usually tuned differently as well being a semitone higher on the xylophone making it brighter - although this is not always the case. The xylophone's notes sound an octave higher than written whereas the marimba is written at pitch. Also whilst a xylophone's bars tend to be all the same width, the marimba's will usually be graduated so they get wider as they get lower.

As a solo instrument, the xylophone is past its heyday - most soloists these days prefer the vastly more versatile marimba which also has a bigger range and warmer tone. Whilst the xylophone began its introduction to western music in the orchestra and still remains a well used orchestral colour - its meteoric rise to fame happened in the 1920s with ragtime music and vaudeville. It remained a popular "show" instrument in early jazz but became quickly outmoded by the vibraphone in the 1940s shortly after that instrument was invented. You can still hear some great examples of period ragtime on xylophone today by performers such as Bob Becker.

Perhaps the most important contribution to the rise of the xylophone was made by George Hamilton Green and his brother Jo. Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1893, George was proclaimed "the greatest xylophonist in the world" by the time he was 21. The extensive composition, teaching and performing of the brothers raised the profile of the xylophone to a high level, providing a market for keyboard percussion instruments. (Barry Bridwell/Scott Lyons 'Focus on performance: Marimba technique - a salute to George Hamilton Green, Xylophone genius.' Percussive Notes. (25#5, 1987) 54-56.)

The Deagan company made its first chromatic xylophones in 1903, and a few years later began manufacturing marimbas as well. At about this time, other companies also began to manufacture keyboard percussion instruments. Gradually marimbas gained space in the catalogue and by the '30s and '40s had clearly overtaken the xylophone. (Linda Pimentel. 'The Aristocracy Of Manufactured Marimbas.' Percussive Notes. (21#1, 1982) 61-64.)

Musser Vibraphone
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The Vibraphone is an expressive percussion keyboard. The bars are made of a high-copper alloy called duralumin which is similar to the material used to manufacture most aircraft wings. The metal bars ring on for a long time, so the vibraphone has a pedal which controls a felt dampening bar, so shorter notes can be achieved easily. The pedal works the same way as a piano's sustain pedal.

The variety of note lengths a playing styles available to the vibraphone makes it an ideal soloistic instrument, however its range is limited to three octaves by constructional necessities of the pedal. For this reason its earlier uses were confined mainly to the jazz idiom, often used as a combination rhythm/solo instrument in smaller jazz bands. In modern times however it is slowly growing in popularity as a pure solo instrument as playing techniques develop. It is now quite often used in conjunction with small groups of other percussion instruments - as the heart of a small multiple-percussion setup.

Relevant links
Vibraphone as an orchestral instrument
Vibraphone as a marching band instrument
The vibraphone gets its name from the fact that it can produce a "vibrato" effect - a trick that no other keyboard style instrument can do. The effect is not actually a true vibrato. Other instruments achieve vibrato by altering the pitch of the note slightly up and down. For example a string player would roll their finger slightly on the string as they bowed with the other hand. On a vibraphone the effect is actually a modulation in amplitude (loudness) rather than pitch. The job of the resonators (those vertical tubes under each note) is to amplify the sound that comes from the bars. Inside the top of each resonating tube there is a disk of metal which closes off the mouth or opens it if is rotated into the vertical position. These disks are often referred to as the "fans" or the "butterflies". The vibraphone has an electric motor which can be turned on or off and run at varying speeds, and it spins these fans so that the amplification of the resonators gets turned on and off by the opening and closing of their mouths. Hence we have a modulating loudness similar in effect to vibrato.

The vibraphone is also growing in popularity as an orchestral instrument as modern day composers realise its potential as an addition to orchestral textures. It can also be really effective played "arco" - with cello or bass bows.

Rudimental Snare drum
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Most of the history of the snare drum comes from military bands, and therefore the marching tradition. The type of playing involved is often called "rudimental" playing, as it is based on an ever-growing collection of rudiments. Put simply - rudiments are little combinations of notes in certain rhythms that are played a certain way. These rudiments are like the words that rudimental language is built on. Most repertoire written for solo snare drum is in a rudimental style. This is most likely because most of the interest in a piece of music played on a single drum tends to be technical. There is a small but growing number of solos written for snare drum that endeavour to create interest by exploiting a variety of more unusual performance techniques and sounds created in imaginative ways.
Relevant links
Snare drum as an orchestral instrument
Snare drum as a marching instrument
Snare drum on the drum-kit

Stick Technique - All the skills you will ever need!

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Timpani are not really all that well suited to solo performance, as they are somewhat limited. A skilled player can certainly play melodies though, and even simultaneously perform simple accompanying parts. Students studying percussion at a tertiary level will usually be required to perform solos on timpani, although there are extremely few people indeed who specialize in this sort of performance. The real strength of timpani lies in their role in an orchestra or band. There is however a much greater scope available from timpani than most people would ever hear or imagine. Some techniques that rarely get used in orchestras but are very useful in the solo repertoire are: dead strokes (played in the drum's middle), forced harmonics, playing with brushes/fingers and a whole variety of alternative things, playing cymbals inverted on the heads, playing the copper bowls and many more. For more basic information on timpani follow the links below.


Articles & Info
Free Lessons& Resources
Instrument Encyclopedia
Links - make / build your own xylophones and marimbas Fully chromatic concert marimbas to orph instruments - xylophones.