What is a Vibraphone?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

A vibraphone, also called vibes or vibraharp, is a percussion instrument, one of the idiophones. Idiophones are instruments that produce sound like vibration of the entire body of the instrument. Other examples of idiophones are triangles and cymbals.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

One group of idiophones is played with mallets, and it is to this group that the vibraphone belongs. Other mallet instruments include the xylophone, the marimba, the glockenspiel, the chimes or tubular bells, the crotales or antique cymbals, and the steel drums.

Like the glockenspiel, the vibraphone is a set of metal bars. This distinguishes it from the marimba and xylophone, both of which have bars of wood. The vibraphone is also distinguished by having vibrato or tremolo produced by a series of electric fans on top of its resonator tubes. The speed of the motor controls the speed of the vibrato. As you may have gathered, this vibrato feature is the source of the name vibraphone.

A typical vibraphone has either a three octave range beginning on the F below middle C, a two and a half octave range beginning on middle C, or a three and a half octave range beginning on the F below middle C. The bars of the vibraphone are arranged with the lowest pitches to the player's left.

The vibraphone is customarily played with a variety of mallets. Hard and medium cord mallets as well as rubber mallets are used. Yarn mallets may be employed for soft passages, and glissandos on the vibraphone can be effectively rendered with wire brushes.

Two vibraphone techniques that are less common are the following: dead stroking or dead sticking refers to striking a bar of the vibraphone and leaving the mallet resting there, i.e., not lifting it again immediately so that the bar can vibrate. The result is a muffled staccato. Another technique is to play the end of the vibraphone bars with a cello or contrabass bow.

The vibraphone is included in jazz, band, and orchestral ensembles, and it is used both for back up and solo playing. Famous vibraphone players have included Roy Ayers, Milt Jackson, Gary Burton, Red Norvo, Cal Tjader, and Lionel Hampton.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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