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Guide to Marimbas

Marimba : What is it?

Marimbas

Marimbas are closely similar to xylophones, but pitched one octave lower and with thinner and wider bars. This gives them a richer sound and longer sustain than xylophones. Marimba bars are arranged similar to piano keys, with the accidentals occupying a separate row overlapping the first. Each bar is mounted over a metal tube called a resonator, which determines their frequency and amplifies the tones.

Marimba mallets also differ from xylophone mallets, with one- to three-inch heads wrapped in hemp, yarn, or cord to make them softer. Wood is traditionally used for the handle, although newer models can have metal or carbon fiber handles for durability.

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Types of Marimbas

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Kinds of Marimbas include the following:

Zimbabwean marimbas

These marimbas have a single row of bars tuned to the C major scale. They usually have an additional key playing the F# note, which allows them to be played in G major. They often come in pitch ranges corresponding to soprano, alto, tenor, and bass classes. Their resonators have holes covered in cellophane, which produces a distinct buzzing sound. They are often played with the mbira, a native African instrument.

Zambian marimbas

Zambian marimbas, also called Shinjimba, have one row of basic keys and a second row of accidentals. Their bars may be made of rosewood or paduak, an African indigenous wood. They are traditionally used in royal ceremonies by Western Zambia's Nkoya tribe.

Guatemalan marimbas

Guatemalan marimbas come in different sizes. The largest ones are played by ensembles. Their resonators are made of carved wood instead of metal, creating a fuller, warmer sound. The bars and resonators are housed in a wooden box.

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Choosing Marimbas (Buying tips)

Bars: Choose a marimba with rosewood bars for excellent sound quality. Paduak bars are cheaper, but tend to fall out of tune and do not sound as good as rosewood bars. Plastic bars have poor resonance, but may be ideal for children or when playing outdoors. Make sure the bars are uniformly sized and evenly spaced.

Resonators: Choose a marimba with wood or metal resonators for longer note sustains and better volume control. Make sure each resonator is even on the inside to prevent squeaks and skips. Metal resonators usually sound louder and hold notes longer. Choose PVC resonators for easier maintenance and durability when playing outdoors. 

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