FAQ pages

“The Stevens grip is for marimba and the Burton grip is for vibraphone, right? My teacher had me learn Stevens grip for my marimba lessons, and now that we’re doing a vibes piece, he’s making me learn the Burton grip.”

Oh, I hate’s one of my biggest pet peeves regarding percussion education in this country. “This is the marimba grip, and that is the vibraphone grip.” It’s a myth that has gotten passed on from generation to generation over the past few decades.

Let’s see...Leigh Howard Stevens is a marimbist who has developed his technique to the nth degree with the aim of performing concert marimba literature, so in that sense, one might say that it’s a “marimba grip.” Gary Burton is a jazz vibraphonist who developed his grip for playing vibraphone, so in that sense, one might say that it’s a “vibraphone grip.” HOWEVER...the idea that one “has to” use Stevens grip on marimba, and ONLY Stevens grip on marimba, or that one “has to” use Burton grip on vibraphone, and ONLY on vibraphone, is absurd. There are one or two bar dampening techniques which are a bit easier to execute on vibraphone using Burton rather than Stevens, and it’s a bit easier to phrase individual lines independent of one another (as in a Bach Fugue) with Stevens grip since the two mallets in either hand don’t touch one another, but the idea that one is a marimba grip and the other is a vibes grip is a myth, and should be discarded as soon as possible.

My take on the subject of learning several different grips is: while I recommend trying several different grip techniques, I also recommend eventually selecting one and sticking with it. The common ground of what’s technically possible with each of these grips is far greater than the differences. Yes, each has its strengths and weaknesses - it’s easier to hold a constant interval between the mallets of one hand with Burton than it is with Stevens, and it’s a bit easier to do quick interval changes using the Stevens grip vs. the Burton - but those are initial tendencies, not absolute limits! If your Stevens chops are good enough, you can hold an interval quite consistently; if your Burton chops are together, you can change intervals quite rapidly. If you learn two (or more) different grips, you’re going to spend a lot of time covering the same ground with each grip, which strikes me as a big waste of time - time that could be better spent learning literature, or learning to improvise, or sight reading new literature...pick a horse and ride it (metaphorically speaking!). Take a look at so many prominent mallet players: Leigh Stevens, Keiko Abe, Dave Samuels, Gary Burton, David Friedman, Bill Molenhof, Bill Moersch, Ed Saindon...each one has settled on one grip - they don’t switch grips from instrument to instrument or from piece to piece! (Gordon Stout does occasionally switch from his grip to Musser grip if a piece calls for a one-handed roll, but 99% of the time, he stays with his crossed-stick grip, even on vibraphone and bells.)

- JW