Big Band Vibraphone

© 2001 James Walker

(Recently, on message board, the subject of vibraphone performance in a big band context was raised. This month's lesson is an expansion on my particpation in that thread.)

Very few of the big band charts used by high school, college, and university big bands, include parts for a vibraphonist. This places a burden on anyone wishing to perform on vibes with their school's band - unlike the other members of the band, a vibraphonist must create his or her own part for each arrangement. This month's lesson will address some of the issues facing these vibraphonists.

Thinking Like An Arranger

The most important step in this process is to approach the situation like an arranger - find some way to make the new vibraphone part fit in and compliment the existing arrangement. Take your cue from the guitar and piano parts; sometimes, these parts are very precise, while other times they leave a great deal to the interpretation of the players.

There are some basic options available when creating a new part:

  • duplicate another instrument's part exactly
  • adapt another instrument's part to fit the vibraphone
  • create a new part entirely

Often, the band director will simply present his vibraphonist with a photocopy of the guitar or piano part, but it would be better to seek out the score - one can draw from the horn sections as well as the rhythm section in creating a vibes part.

Ensemble Figures (melody): One can lift the melody from the brass or saxophones. If the part is originally written for a single instrument, then you will likely want to leave that melody to that player (to allow him/her to interpret it freely, if that is the director's wish); if an entire section is playing the melody (either unison or voiced), then it is more likely that adding the vibes will work. Pick your spots - background figures behind soloists, "shout" choruses, and even sax soli sections can benefit from the addition of the vibes.

Ensemble Figures (voiced): Compare the piano and guitar parts to the different horn sections (trumpet, trombone, saxophones), in those places where the rhythm section and horns are playing similar figures. Some composers will write out voicings for the rhythm section players, to match what they have written for the horns. If this is the case, then take the same care to make sure that your voicings show the same respect for the arranger's work. If the guitar and piano parts consist solely of slash notation and chord symbols, then you can take more liberties in using your own voicings.

Adapting Guitar and Piano Voicings

If you decide to adapt the arranger's written-out voicings to the vibraphone, consider the following when making your decisions:

  • pianists have more fingers than vibraphonists have mallets; you may need to thin out piano voicings to make them work on the vibes. Keep the melody note, focus on the right-hand of the piano voicings, and rearrange the notes through octave transposition (drop-two voicings, etc.) to make them work on the vibes. (For more on how to manipulate voicings, see my "The ABCs of Chord Voicings" lesson on this site.)
  • guitar voicings tend to use more open positions and larger intervals, compared to piano voicings which are often thirds-based. As a result, guitar voicings often work very well on vibraphone. Remember that guitar is a transposing instrument, and guitar parts are written one octave higher than they actually sound. To match what a guitar player's written part, take it down one octave.
  • Those vibraphonists who are not four-mallet players can still borrow from these piano and guitar voicings. One option is to play the top note of the voicing (in octaves, if one wishes), or to simply play two notes of the voicings. Note: these don't have to be the third and seventh of each chord! Those guide tones are necessary for a chord voicing to sound full, but they're already being played by the piano or guitar - so feel free to leave them out when creating a vibes part.

Comping Behind Soloists

A rhythm section with three chordal instruments - piano, guitar, and vibraphone - can get crowded very quickly, musically speaking, if all three wish to comp behind soloists. There are some ways to make this work, however:

  • Plan ahead - talk with the guitarist and pianist, and map out who will comp behind which soloists. "Piano will comp behind the trumpet solo, vibes will comp behind the tenor sax solo," etc.
  • Comp together - it is possible for two comping instruments to co-exist, but it takes restraint and common sense on the part of both players. Normally, this ends up with one player taking a more prominent role when comping, with the other playing much more sparsely, using long tones. If the rhythm section players are working together for the first time, take some time to talk through these options, and map out these roles if necessary. If a rhythm section has worked together for an extended period of time, they often will have cultivated a musical relationship which will allow them to make these decisions in the spur of the moment - but when in doubt, map it out.
  • Lay out - Don't forget, you can always just stop playing for a portion of the arrangement. The same holds true for the guitar and piano as well. Use good taste in deciding how much - or how little - you will add to the arrangement.

Adapting Parts From The Horns

It is also possible to cull vibraphone parts from the voicings assigned to the horn sections. It is a common technique for arrangers to use the same basic four-note voicings simultaneously, adapting them to the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone sections. Four-mallet vibes players can do the same. If these voicings do not lend themselves well to the vibes (for whatever reason - the speed of the parts, the range of the vibraphone, etc.), then one can always simply appropriate the single-line melody from the horn section(s).

Some ensemble voicings can be taken directly from the horns. This example shows a phrase written for four saxophones (alto/alto/tenor/tenor), which - if the tempo allows - works nicely on the vibes. (Note that this example is not transposed - all parts are written as they sound. More on transpositions in a moment.)

Just as with piano voicings, it is posslble to appropriate a series of voicings from a horn section, but make it fit the vibes better by altering the voicing. Here is a phrase written for four trumpets, followed by a corresponding vibes part, using the "drop-two" technique to open up the voicings for the vibes. (Here as well, the parts are not transposed.)

Common Transpositions

Remember, most of the horns in a big band are transposing instruments, meaning that the written pitch is not the same as the sounding pitch. Here are the transpositions for instruments commonly used in big band arrangements:

Instrumenttranspositionwritten pitchsounding pitch
Bb trumpetup major 2nd
Bb clarinetup major 2nd
Bb tenor saxophoneup major 9th
Eb alto saxophoneup major 6th
Eb baritone saxophoneup major 13th

NOTE: guitar and bass sound an octave lower than written; flute and trombone sound as written.


Keep in mind the final goal: to create a part for the vibraphone which will suit the original arrangement well. It is always risky to add something new to an arranger's work, so one must respect the original work as much as possible while still creating an opportunity to use the vibraphone in a big band context. Consult with your band's conductor, to make sure that his/her musical vision is being served as well. Finally, study recorded examples of the vibraphone used with a big band, including recordings by Milt Jackson, Terry Gibbs, Gary Burton, and others.

(This page and all the materials within copyright ©2001 James Walker, All Rights Reserved.  No portion of this page may be duplicated or distributed without the author's written consent.)

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