There are a lot of marimbas out there and it may seem overwhelming when you are deciding what might be best for you. However, when you weigh the major differences between the high end models and the models that are designed more for students, it's easy to decide what you would like and what might be your perfect fit. Here is some fundamental information to consider during your marimba search.
The most obvious characteristic of a marimba is its size. Marimbas usually come in 4.0, 4.3, 4.6, 5.0, and 5.5 octaves. Obviously the larger the marimba is, the more expensive it is. A lot of professional solo repertoire for marimba is written for 5 full octaves, while the most popular student repertoire can be played on a 4.3 octave. Most beginners will start on a 4.3 octave as a minimal initial investment, but it is not out of the question to jump into a full 5.0 to avoid the need to upgrade later. The 5.5 octave marimba is a relatively new concept. The extra octave is added to the high end of the marimba to accommodate more notes in the xylophone range, but there are only a few instances where these extra notes will be required. A few manufacturers sell conversion kits to change a 4.3 instrument to a 5.0 octave and vice versa.
The second aspect most players and educators look for is the bar material. The standard options are Rosewood, Padouk, and Synthetic bars. Rosewood bars are typically found on the more professional models because of its sound quality. Rosewood generally gives a warm, resonant tone, and is often considered the “ideal” marimba sound.
Padouk, pronounced “puh-DOOK” and sometimes spelled paduk or padauk, is another natural wood that has a very similar feel to rosewood, but is normally brighter in tone and is less resonant. Padouk is a great alternative to the more expensive rosewood because of its lower price and its similar feel. A player can typically use the same types of mallets with padouk and rosewood. Many professional players will use a padouk model as a practice marimba in their home because it’s easy to switch back and forth to rosewood. At the same time, many middle schools will use a padouk bar marimba as their primary instrument because of its price effectiveness.
Karinwood is another wood similar to Padouk with slightly higher density. This wood is more popular on xylophones.
Both Rosewood and Padouk, because they are natural wood materials, will be affected by weather and climate changes. For this reason, it is not recommended that these marimbas be used outdoors as the bars may become out of tune or less resonant with the heat of the sun or extreme humidity or dryness. If you purchase a wood bar marimba, don’t be overly concerned if it comes to you with one or two bars slightly out of tune. It probably happened due to climate differences between the manufacturer’s location, the retailer’s location, and your location. Most manufacturers offer warranty bar replacements within one year. Because of the increasing number of outdoor ensembles, most marimba manufacturers offer a synthetic bar marimba.
Synthetic bars, which will have different names depending upon the company that makes them, are designed to handle the elements of weather. These types of marimbas are useful for marching bands that play outdoors or players that perform in outdoor gigs. Their sound quality is typically brighter and somewhat louder than wood bars. Some common brand names for synthetic bars are Kelon, Xelon, Zelon, Accoustalon, and others. Synthetic bar marimbas typically fall between Rosewood and Padouk marimbas in price.
Another bar attribute to watch for is the bar width. Most student models have narrower bars because it is less expensive, while most professional models have wider bars which are graduated, meaning the low bars are wider than the higher bars. This gives the marimba a fuller sound at lower registers.
A marimba’s frame is arguably the least respected and least considered part of a marimba. The frame of the instrument is the structural framework which will determine just how long your marimba will stand on its own. If you are planning to do a lot of traveling with your marimba, make sure the frame is very durable and easy to break down. If your marimba will be used in an outdoor setting or will be rolled around frequently from place to place, you might be interested in a field or off-road frame. Most manufacturers offer a heavy-duty outdoor frame with large pneumatic wheels designed for off-road use. Most field frames will also have a bar on the front for additional attachments such as suspended cymbals, snare drums, toms, etc.
Another characteristic that players and educators look for is the height adjustability option. Most companies offer their marimbas with a frame that is height adjustable. This is very important for younger players who will no doubt be growing taller as they get older. It is also important because not everyone is built at the same height. Playing technique and posture are very important for marimba players. Height adjustability is especially necessary for schools and studios that will have multiple ages of students playing on the same instrument.
From here, the basic differences between brands and models are mostly cosmetic. Some marimbas will have fully arched resonators in the front which is visually appealing. Some models will have brass resonators which look nice while having a very warm sound quality (the standard resonator material is aluminum), but the brass is quite heavy.
Most marimba frames are black, but a few have wood stained rails or frames made entirely of stained wood. Some people prefer the look of a wood-stained frame. Others prefer the simplicity of a black frame. It’s up to you to decide.
Most companies offer their marimbas with a cover as a standard option. Some companies will require the purchase of the cover separately. It’s important to have a drop-cover of some type for your marimba. A cover will protect the bars from scratches, dust, or the occasional spilled beverage any band director will concur.
In addition to covers for protection, if you plan to travel with your marimba, another add-on would be a set of cases. Some companies have a set of gig bags or hard cases specially made for their marimba models. These will give you much more protection for your bars and frame while on the road.
Every manufacturer will stand behind their marimbas with a warranty. The most common warranty period is about one year from the purchase date, but always make sure to ask your dealer what kind of warranty is offered, just in case you have a bar that’s out of tune, or a frame that falls apart. Some companies even offer a complete retune of the entire instrument any time within a year of purchase.
As for brands, it is difficult to say that one brand is any better than another. Each manufacturer and model has its benefits depending upon the specific needs of the player. It is best to determine exactly what you need before deciding on a brand.
Hopefully all of this information will be helpful for you as you venture into the exciting musical world of marimbas.