Lessons Pages

© 1999 James Walker

It amazes me that so many jazz mallet players started their studies on classical marimba, but then set aside the benefits of those years of training when performing jazz. One need only look to guitarists to see how effectively classical techniques and textures can be incorporated in an improvised context. Given the limitations on jazz vibraphonists and marimbists (range; inability to vary pitches; limited timbral possibilities, etc.), it would make sense for players to explore every avenue possible to develop a creative style.

Even though they may hold four sticks when playing, many vibraphonists improvise single-line solos almost exclusively, utilizing only two of the four mallets. Most classical performers, however, will play single lines which require the use of sequential sticking patterns. These techniques allow one to play lines which would be much more difficult to execute with only two sticks, such as this pattern based on the diminished scale:

Many (if not most) classical marimba pieces make use of polyphony (multiple simultaneous melodic lines). The use of more than one melody can open up one's playing and make things much more interesting for the listener:

For accompaniment, four-mallet technique offers much more than standard block chords. Compare a simple, struck Cmin9 voicing to this arpeggiated pattern for marimba:

These rhythmic "hits" can be embellished with a pedal tone, made possible here through the use of an interlocking four-mallet sticking:

Most mallet players rely on the traditional "right-left-right" roll, when sustaining notes on the marimba. The use of different roll stickings can create a variety of musical effects, adding interest to a performance:

When performing on marimba, the basic sound of the instrument can be varied by two basic methods: mallet choice and varied striking spots.

Just as different stickings may be used to achieve variety in rolling, a softer stick can be used to create a smoother sound, by minimizing the contact sound of each stroke. This can be a nice alternative to using a synthesizer patch for long, sustained voicings (especially in the recording studio, where these sorts of subtleties may be heard to their best effect.):

Also, so-called "one-handed rolls" can be used (on vibes or marimba) for playing your own accompaniment to an improvised line. (And don't think that you have to use a Musser-grip type of technique to do this; these rolls are possible with crossed-stick grips as well.) Guide tones (the 3rd and 7th of a chord) are obvious choices:

Traditionally, the classical approach to sound production on any instrument is geared towards consistency, maintaining a constant timbre within a phrase. Percussionists spend endless hours trying to get a consistent sound while alternating hands. In jazz, however, more of a vocal element is needed, incorporating greater variety within a given phrase. To demonstrate this, play the following example two ways: first, play all of the notes with the same timbre (striking all notes the same distance from the nodal point of the bar); then, select different striking spots for the accented notes (i.e., play non-accented notes halfway between the nodal point and the center of the bar, and play the accented notes right in the middle).

It simply requires a change in one's concept of sound production to take the skills necessary to play with a consistent timbre, and use those skills to intentionally vary the timbre. (By the way, classical marimbists have long used this sort of technique to differentiate between the voices of a Bach fugue, using one timbre for one voice, another timbre for the second, etc.)

With a little bit of work and thought, all those months and years of classical marimba practice can be used as source material for jazz performance. Having more tools to work with can only be beneficial to a player, in any style of music.


stick numbering

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