One for the Vibraphone Geeks

Ever wonder what you can actually do with the vibraphone other then hit it with some mallets and give people vertigo with incessant tremolo. Here are some extended techniques you can use on the vibraphone for adding more colours to your music, a bit of vibraphonic history, and some basic mechanics of the instrument.

Maybe even before I cover the nerdy extended techniques I’ll just briefly introduce the instrument, in case people reading this are not familiar with the vibraphone.

So, the vibraphone, or more accurately titled, vibraharp (it’s original patented name), is a mallet percussion instrument that was first invented in 1921, by a company named Leedy. This version differed from the current incarnation in that the bars were made of a steel instead of aluminum and also had no dampening bar, so all of the notes just rang together. In 1927, Deagan’s (another percussion company) Chief tuner, developed a modified version of this original concept, adding the dampening bar and making the keys out of aluminum to reduce the harshness of the sound. More time was devoted to precise tuning and elimination of unwanted overtones. This began selling in 1928 and is the precursor to the modern vibraphone.

The vibraphone is similar to a xylophone or a marimba but differs dramatically as well. Some things in common are the basic way sound is produced; this being by striking a bar with a mallet and having that sound amplified by a resonating tube situated below each bar.

The bars of the vibraphone are made of aluminum as are the resonating tubes. Xylophone bars are either made of wood or kelon (a synthetic). Marimba bars are made of wood.

A vibraphone has a pedal attached to a dampening bar below the bars, which makes it more like a piano. The bars on a vibraphone will ring until they come in contact with the dampener (not eternally but for a pretty long time). In order to sustain pitches on a xylophone or marimba the player must use a rolling technique, although the lower pitches on a marimba will naturally have more sustain.

The resonating tubes on a vibraphone have a special feature that distinguishes it from the marimba and xylophone. On top of each resonating tube is an aluminum disc. These are all attached together by a thin aluminum rod which spans the instrument and is built into the actual resonating tube assembly. There is one set for the top row of bars, and one for the bottom row of bars. At the high end of the instrument these rods have a rounded disc-like edge which is designed to have a rubber conveyor belt wrapped around it. There is an additional circular disc below which the conveyor belt wraps around creating a triangular shaped cycle. This bottom disc is attached to a variable speed motor which when engaged results in its rotation. The result is a rotation of all of the discs below each bar. This rotation causes the resonating tubes to open and close at varying speeds, controlled by the player, which results in the creation of a tremolo effect. This is something distinctive to the vibraphone and is the reason for its name. The inventors made the choice to refer to this effect as vibrato which was incorrect, and hence the name vibra-harp or vibra-phone. Technically it should be called the tremo-phone, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring.

That’s a brief history and a bit about the mechanics. I’ll briefly mention some basic techniques and then to the focus of the discussion, extended techniques.

Some vibraphonists play with 4 mallets, some with 2, and some dude plays with 6 (I don’t know why, and it does not seem very smooth or pragmatic). I don’t want to go into too much detail except to provide examples of players who use the these approaches. If anyone is even remotely interested in this post I’ll write another specifically about these techniques.

4 Mallet: Gary Burton, David Friedman, Dave Samuels, Chris Dingman
2 Mallet: Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Stefon Harris
6 mallet: Some weird guy in a tux by a pool

Another basic technique for smooth phrasing on the vibraphone is called mallet dampening. To achieve this the player pushes down the pedal, and after striking a bar uses another mallet to dampen the sound instead of the pedal. This allows a player to strike a chord, and have certain notes move while others continue to ring, which in turn makes the vibraphone more pianistic.

The last basic technique is almost too obvious to mention but I will anyway. It is the proper use of the pedal for phrasing. A lot of vibraphonists maybe gloss over this one a bit, but it is absolutely essential for clarity of ideas.

How about some extended techniques?

Here are some extended techniques on the vibraphone beyond just hitting the bars. Below is a piece that i wrote for solo vibraphone utilizing some of these techniques.

Pitch Bending a.k.a bendy vibes

Pitches can be bent on a vibraphone very much like those on a guitar. This requires the use of a hard rubber mallet and a knowledge of the nodes on the vibraphone. Strike the bar in the middle with a yarn mallet, and then using the hard rubber mallet start from the top node (directly above the place on the bar where the string passes through) and pull down towards the center of the bar. As you move towards the center the pitch will fall by about a semitone and then rise back to the original. The mallet is adding mass to the bar which allows it to drop in pitch. I don’t think it would be possible to have a note rise above its original pitch but maybe there’s a way.

This can sound good in a variety of contexts and is not just some fancy trick. Try to double a line with a guitarist, or using it for more expression, making the vibes sound more conversational and voice-like.

Bowing a.k.a terminator vibes

A player can also bow the vibes. You need a bow and some resin so it sticks to the bar. Hold the bow in a vertical position and bow the edge of the bar starting from the thickest section. This will create a singing, eerie, industrial sound which can add beautiful colours and variety to your playing. This technique can be used in combination with mallets, so you can bow notes while playing melodies or chords.

Harmonics a.k.a what do you think you are a guitar vibes

You can get harmonics on the vibes much like the guitar. This is possible because a bar in terms of physics functions similarly to a string. If divided in certain ways certain overtones can be emphasized. To do this on a vibraphone you need 2 mallets. Place one vertically in the centre of the bar with limited pressure. The other will then strike the bar over one of the nodes (directly above the points on the bar where the string passes through). When mallet 2 hits the bar over the node, lift mallet 1 up and listen to the 1st overtone, the fundamental up 2 octaves. Although these are described as harmonics, technically they are overtones.

A player can also get up to the second overtone through bowing.

Rolling with one Hand a.k.a how do you play that fast vibes

If you play with 4 mallets rolling with one hand is pretty easily achieved. All you need to do is surround the bar near the edge with your two mallets, one on top and one below. Then, just move your hand up and down rapidly creating a dense sound. You can do this while playing chords or a melody with your other hand.

Singing into the Vibes a.k.a why bother vibes?

Because it’s just cool. Try it out. You basically use your mouth as the resonating cavity for the bar.

Rolling with two Mallets while limiting the sound of attack a.k.a smooth rolophone

By rolling with two mallets on the vibes but using the top part of the mallets you can reduce the sound of attack on the bars bringing out more of the fundamental and less of the ping ping ping and mallet sound.

Displacing Double Bounces a.k.a buddy rich vibes

This is similar to playing a double bounce roll on the drums but displaces. It will let you execute extremely fast fills on one bar. Use this sticking in sixteenth notes: RLLR RLLR RLLR RLLR etc.. or vice versa. Try with different accents (some examples are in bold). This creates incredible forward momentum.

One Handed Wash a.k.a dreamy vibes

This is achieved by taking two mallets (or one) in one hand while the pedal is depressed and sliding them back and forth across a selection of bars. A player can do this with one hand and play a moving melody with the other. Check out David Friedman’s piece, Midnight Star, to see this in action.

I guess that covers some of the basics and not so basics of the vibes/vibraphone/vibraharp. Check this out before you come to the next hobson’s choice show Feb 12 at the Tranzac. Thanks for reading. The other members will post about their instruments sometime in the near future. I also plan to add some photos and possibly a demonstration video. Keep checking back.