Solo Vibraphone - Myths and Misconceptions

© 2001 James Walker

Unaccompanied vibraphone performance is not only valuable in its own right, but even those players who have no wish to perform solo, will reap benefits when performing with a full rhythm section, if they take even a little bit of time to try solo playing (if only in the practice room). A vibraphonist who develops his abilities as a solo performer makes himself a more interesting ensemble player, and creates new performance opportunities for himself, such as working as a duo with a bassist, or solo.

Performing solo on the vibraphone - with no rhythm section, no bass player, no outside help at all - is one of the more challenging situations for any jazz mallet player. While this style of performance does indeed require preparation and practice, much of the fear surrounding solo vibraphone is unfounded. This month's lesson will attempt to debunk some of these myths and misconceptions regarding solo vibes performance.

Many of the reasons why vibraphonists approach solo playing with such trepidation (or eschew solo vibes playing altogether), are based in issues related to numbers:

"The vibraphone has a limited range."
"The vibraphone doesn't have enough bass notes"
"Solo vibraphone doesn't sound as full as solo piano"
"I can't play solo vibraphone unless I use four mallets"

As with many things in life, and most things in music, "quality" is always more important than "quantity." It's not how many notes you can play per beat, or how many mallets you hold, or any other "how many" issue, which will determine how successful one can be at unaccompanied performance. Let's take a look at each of these questions, one by one:

"I can't play solo vibraphone unless I use four mallets"

Not true in the least. For centuries, musicians from around the world have been able to move their audiences with the use of a monophonic instrument, or simply their own voice. A quick listen to any of J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, or his 'cello suites, will demonstrate this concept quite clearly.

Certainly, when it comes to the vibraphone, the use of four mallets opens up many textural possibilities not possible with only two, but it is not a prerequisite.

The key to a successful solo vibraphone performance is MELODY. Not necessarily playing the original melody of the song being performed (although that's fair game as well), but playing and improvising music with strong melodic integrity. Listeners - especially non-musicians - recognize and respond to melodic content far more than harmony or texture, and if one's performance contains strong melodic direction, it is far more likely to hold a listener's attention. A simple monophonic line, constructed and executed well, will be much more effective than a scattershot flurry of notes executed with four mallets.

"Solo vibraphone doesn't sound as full as solo piano"

OK, solo vibraphone - with rare exceptions - doesn't afford the same dense textures and polyphony available on the piano. Nor does it afford the same textures and polyphony available with a string quartet, or a big band, or a symphony orchestra, or a rack of synthesizers - so what? Neither does a guitar, and there have been plenty of successful solo guitarists down through the ages. Skillful manipulation of the textures available to a vibraphonist - four or two mallets - will make a piece sound full, not the number of notes you can hit at any given time.

"The vibraphone has a limited range."

Obviously, the vibraphone doesn't have as many notes as a piano (88 on a piano, vs. 37 on a three-octave vibraphone), and unless someone develops a viable ten-mallet technique, pianists are always going to have more fingers available to them than a vibraphonist will have mallets. Still, there is no direct correlation between the number of notes you can strike at any given time, and the artistic merits of a performance. Remember: quality, not quantity, and MELODY.

"The vibraphone doesn't have enough bass notes to be a solo instrument"

Here is a clear weakness of the instrument. For all intents and purpose, once you get above middle C (the lowest "C" on a three-octave vibraphone), the notes lose any "bass quality," for lack of a better term - they simply don't sound like "bass" notes ("in your author's humble opinion"). This does require that a player take care to select an appropriate key for performing a song unaccompanied on the vibes. One is more likely to find a solo piece performed in the key of F or G, rather than Eb or D, for this very reason.

In the past few years, three-and-a-half- and four-octave vibraphones have become more common, although the three-octave model is still the standard range (for the time being). Certainly, these lower five notes will increase one's options in terms of note choice and key selection, but an extended-range vibraphone is not a prerequisite for a successful solo performance.

Other concerns

Variety - if one is not careful, then every solo vibes performance can start to sound the same. Variety can be achieved in a number of ways, but especially through the selection of songs/literature. It will be much more difficult to maintain the audience's interest when performing four consecutive medium tempo bossa novas, than it will if one plays a ballad, then a bossa nova, then a medium-swing standard, get the idea. Also, if one explores each song on its own merits, seeking out those elements (harmony melody, form, etc.) which make it a unique and special piece of music, then one is less likely to sound the same on every tune.

Those vibraphonists who incorporate the use of pickups and amplification in their performances, may also tap into effects processing as a means of creating variety from one song to the next. Perhaps one song uses only a bit of reverb, while the next song uses chorus, and the next uses delay and echo. This may not appeal to those players who choose to use only the traditional acoustic sound of the vibraphone, but the option is there.

Also, remember that a challenge can also be viewed as an opportunity. The lack of any sort of accompaniment means that there will be no other performer(s) creating sound, which means that some of the quieter subtleties of vibraphone technique, may be exploited to greater advantage. Pitch bending and harmonics may not be loud enough to cut through a rhythm section, but a solo performance context - by definition - allows quieter sounds to be heard. Generally speaking, solo playing affords the vibraphonist a greater dynamic range than ensemble playing, in which the vibist is usually making use of only his louder dynamic levels in order to be heard above the rhythm section.

A future lesson at will present some possible solo interpretations of a song, complete with notated examples and sound files. In the meantime, check out some other lesson pages on this web site, which are quite relevant to solo vibraphone performance:

(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.)

(click the "lessons" icon to return to the index of lessons at