The marimba is a musical instrument that is rich in history, culture, and innovation, yet somehow is still considered a new instrument. The marimba has roots in Africa, but has developed as part of many cultures including Central America, South America, Japan, Europe, and the Unites States. Here is a quick overview of the marimba as an instrument, a brief history, and where to find it today.

Instrument Basics

The marimba is a musical instrument (Idiophone) in the percussion family that typically contains tuned wooden bars suspended over some type of resonator or chamber. The resonators serve to amplify both the fundamental pitch and certain harmonics of the bars. Typically the bars are arranged chromatically in the same manner as the Piano. Common ranges include 4.0-octaves (C3-C7), 4.3-octaves (A2-C7), 4.5-octaves (F2-C7), and 5.0-octaves (C2-C7). On rare occasions the marimba can extend lower than C2 or higher than C7. The instrument is played with mallets wrapped in yarn, wool, cord, or similar. However it is not uncommon for rubber mallets to be used.

The wooden bars can be made of many materials but are most commonly made of rosewood, paduk, or synthetic material. The resonators or typically made of aluminum, brass, or plastic. The frame is typically made of wood or metal. The resonators also come in many shapes including elongated tubes, oval shapes, or boxes.

The overall sound produced on the marimba is dependent on the mallet. With softer mallets it is warm, mellow, and resonant. With harder mallets the sound is bright, focused, and closer to a xylophone. The marimba is easily confused with a xylophone and the instruments are similar. The principle difference is in the way the bars are shaped and tuned. Xylophone bars are typically shaped thicker (making them less prone to cracking) and tuned to the harmonic of a perfect 5th. The bars on a marimba are shaped thinner (making them prone to cracking more easily) and are tuned to the harmonic of a major 3rd.


The marimba, in one form or another, has been around for hundreds of years. As musician James L. Moore put it, marimba is “one of the oldest instruments known to man.” According to percussionist James Blades, there is pictorial evidence in the temple of Panataran in Java from the fourteenth century and literary references of tuned metallophones as early as 900 A.D. Blades concludes that these were an “extension of the already highly developed trough xylophone.” The modern chromatic marimba used today has only been around for approximately one hundred years.

Predecessors to the marimba have been found in sub-Saharan Africa for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. There are many instruments that are similar to the marimba including the balafongyil, but the instrument most likely originates from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The instrument was brought to Central America in the 14th century during the slave trade. The instrument continued to become more widespread in Central America & South America as time went on. In 1821 the marimba was proclaimed the national instrument of Guatemala.

Guatemalan marimba player Sebastian Hurtado was the first person to apply the chromatic keyboard to the marimba in 1894. Up until then he had performed only Guatemalan folk music, which only required the use of diatonic pitches. In order to perform European classical music on the marimba he needed to add the other five pitches of the chromatic scale and increase the range to 5.5 octaves. He also used wooden boxes to replace the gourd resonators that were traditionally used. With the help of marimbists and composers Mariano Valverde and Rosendo Barrios, the chromatic marimba was developed and the resonator dimensions were standardized. Around 1908, the marimba was introduced to the UnitedStates and Europe via the Hurtado Brothers Marimba Band’s international tours.

In 1910 the J.C. Deagan and Leedy companies began manufacturing marimbas in the United States.6 Musician and conductor Clair Omar Musser (1901-1998) joined theJ.C. Deagan Company in the 1930’s, designing several marimba models. The Century of Progress marimba was built as part of a 100-piece Marimba Orchestra to take place at the“Century of Progress Exposition” in Chicago in 1933. According to the Deagan Resource, an online archive of J.C. Deagan Company information, the Century of Progress came in 3.0, and 3.5 octave standard models as well as a 1.0 and a 1.5 octave bass marimba. The next model produced by Mr. Musser was the King George, which was built in 1934. One hundred and one of these instruments were constructed and were intended to tour Europe with a concluding performance at the coronation of King GeorgeVI. Unfortunately, due to negotiation problems, they were not allowed to perform inEngland or Germany. However, the orchestra did perform in France and Belgium and later gave a performance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall.9 According to the Deagan Resource, The King George marimbas came in two 4.0 octave models (C-C and F-F), a 3.5 octave model, and a 2.0 octave bass marimba.10 In 1934, Musser left Deagan and started his own company (which is still in existence today). Musser Inc. built many more models of marimba, establishing the design, which is still evident in today’s modern marimba.

Marimba Today

There have been many changes to the design and construction of the marimba over the ensuing years. Shigeo Suzuki, a chief engineer for marimba research at Yamaha, secured the services of marimba virtuoso Keiko Abe in 1963 in order to improve the instruments projection and clarity. Following the premier of Minoru Miki’s Concerto forMarimba and Orchestra in 1969, it was decided that the Musser marimba Abe had been using since 1957 could not adequately project through an orchestra. Abe encouragedYamaha to build a new marimba from scratch, one not based on older designs. She made specific requests for clear intonation, a wide dynamic range, a bright sound in the high register, and rich sound in the low register. In 1971 Yamaha came out with a four-octave model, which Abe began using in her concerts. Soon after this, tunable resonators were introduced to allow for optimal resonance in a variety of concert spaces. In 1973, a four and a half octave marimba was introduced. This was the instrument Abe used until 1980when she requested a bass extension be added, lengthening it to five octaves. In 1984Yamaha made a stand alone five-octave instrument, the YM 6000, which is still in use today by Abe as well as many other marimba players.

Other manufacturers have since offered their version of the five-octave marimba.This has come with many different designs and construction techniques. Today major manufacturers include: Marimba One, Malletech, Demorrow, and Musser in North America; Majestic, Adams, Bergerault, Kolberg, Premier, and Vancore in Europe; and Kori, Jiaxuam, and Yamaha in Asia. Malletech, Musser, Bergerault and Demorrow now offer tunable resonators across the range of the instrument, allowing the player to adjust to different performance spaces, temperature, and barometric pressure, Majestic andYamaha offer tunable resonators in the lowest register. Adams, Yamaha, Bergerault, Vancore, and Kori offer a box shaped resonator. For the characteristics of each manufacturer see appendix C.

Rosewood had long been favored for the bars but due to increasing costs as a result of dwindling supplies, alternatives, including synthetic materials and woods such as paduk and babinga, have become increasingly popular. These materials, though cost-effective, do not have the same resonant qualities as rosewood. Specifications like bar size and resonator shape are not standardized and can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Today an instrument of at least 4.3 octaves is still available, but the five-octave marimba is now standard among professionals and universities and is becoming more common for high schools.

*This article is an excerpt from "Composing for Marimba: Tools & Techniques for Composers" by Joe Millea Please visit full version for full list of citations and examples.