Lessons Pages

© 2001 James Walker

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At one level, the mechanics of playing the vibraphone are quite obvious and intutive: grab a mallet and hit the bar, and you get a pretty good sound. However, there are other "extended" techniques; some offer sounds unattainable with traditional techniques, and others allow access to notes above the range of the instrument. Please note that the sounds created here were all done acoustically; no signal processing or audio "wizardry" was involved.

I. Harmonics

Vibraphone bars possess not only the fundamental tone of a given pitch (that is, the "written" note of a bar), but also the partials, or harmonics of that note. The first harmonic on a vibraphone bar sounds two octaves above the fundamental tone. The use of harmonics allows one to play notes which are above the high "f," the top note of the standard vibraphone range. Harmonics which fall within the standard range of the instrument (such as the example shown below) will have a different sound compared to the actual note on the vibraphone.

There are two ways to notate the use of harmonics, and these are sometimes used together. One indication is the small circle shown under the note showing the bar to be played. The other indicator is the diamond-shaped note head appearing on the pitch of the harmonic itself. Both are shown in this example:

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The technique for playing harmonics is fairly simple, and with a little practice, one can consistently execute the technique. Simply touch a fingertip, or a mallet head, on the center of the bar (equidistant between the nodal points of the bar); then, strike the bar directly on a nodal point.

II. Pitch Bending

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While the vibraphone will never have the same flexibility of pitch as string, brass, or wind instruments, it is possible to bend the pitch of a bar down. This technique has been around for decades, but its use is a relative rarety nowadays.

To bend a note on the vibraphone, one needs a "normal" vibraphone mallet (cord- or yarn-wrapped), and a hard mallet (with a mallet head made of hard rubber or plastic, or a very hard wrapped mallet head - although this technique is difficult to execute with a wrapped mallet).

  • rest the hard mallet on a nodal point of a bar
  • strike the bar with the "normal" mallet
  • pressing the hard mallet into the bar, drag it away from the nodal point

Several things to remember with this technique:

  • you may have to experiment with your choice of hard mallet.
  • you may have to experiment with the amount of pressure used to press the hard mallet into the bar.
  • the pitch will lower as you move the hard mallet away from the nodal point; if you get past the midpoint of the bar, and start moving towards the other nodal point, the pitch will begin to rise.
  • it is easier to execute this technique by pulling the mallet towards you, towards the center of the bar, rather than pushing it.

This effect may also be used to "bend" one pitch down to the pitch of another bar, if the second note is a half-step or whole-step below the first note:

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III. Bowing

A vibraphone bar may be manipulated with a string instrument bow (almost always a bass bow, whose size is better suited to this use than a 'cello, viola, or violin bow). The sound which is created is quite beautiful, lacking the strong attack of a mallet and producing a different tone as the bar sustains.

Since this technique is borrowed from string instruments, the notation is borrowed as well. Notes to be bowed on the vibraphone are indicated with a down-bow (indicating motion from the handle, known as the "frog," to the tip of the bow) or an up-bow marking (from the tip towards the handle); another method is the use of the term, "arco." (It is your author's humble opinion that the choice of "up bowing" or "down bowing" is of minimal importance on the vibraphone; it's much more significant to string players who have to agree on common phrasing for their section in an orchestra.)

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To bow a vibraphone bar, draw the bow vertically across the extended edge of the bar. Experiment with the amount of pressure used to hold the bow against the bar, with the speed at which you draw the bow, and with the tension of the bow itself.

A few notes about bass bows:

String instrument bows can be very expensive, running into thousands of dollars for the finest horsehair bows. A much better choice for a percussionist is to invest in the least expensive fiberglass bass bows, which will last much longer than those with horsehair, and usually cost fifty dollars apiece or less. Any improvement in the sound one might get on a vibraphone with the horsehair bow is negligible, if any, and certainly does not justify the initial expense or the added expense of restringing the bow.

Also, the use of bass rosin on the bow is vital. Rosin will help the bow grab onto the bar as you draw it, making it much easier to get the bar to speak. Additionally, remember to loosen the tension on the bow when it is not in use; overtightening the bow, or leaving it tightened when not in use, will greatly shorten the bow's lifespan.

IV. Bowing Harmonics

Finally, just as one can use harmonics when playing with mallets, these harmonics can be accessed when bowing as well.

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Here is an example which begins with the fundamental tone, and by placing a finger on the middle of the bar, the harmonic is created for the second note:

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The extended techniques demonstrated in this lesson are more commonly associated with "classical" vibraphone performance, but there is no reason that a jazz musician cannot make use of them as well.

(And finally, keep in mind you can bow marimba bars as well, along with xylophone bars, crotales, cymbals, triangles, music stands...)

(Special thanks to Dave Smith, Professor of Percussion at Western Connecticut State University, for the use of his bass bow in the creation of the sound files on this page.)

(This page and all the materials within copyright ©2000 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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