Playing the marimba is a bit like playing concert piano pieces with four fingers. Percussionists love the rich tones and unique sound of the marimba, and listeners appreciate the extraordinary range of the instrument, which can be heard in classical concert halls and exotic island music. Find out what’s behind our fascination with this instrument of ancient origin.

Parts of the Marimba

The marimba is part of the family of pitched percussion instruments. It looks like a wooden xylophone stuck on top of inverted organ pipes. When the wooden tone plates, lined up like piano keys, are struck, resonating notes sound.

Many percussionists encounter the marimba when required to perform a keyboard percussion piece for regional and state competitions or as part of a music major. The first thing they have to learn is the parts of a marimba.

Longer, wider tone plates produce lower notes than shorter, thinner ones. A marimba ranges from 4 to 5 1/2 octaves. A four-octave marimba has 49 keys, while a five-octave one has 61. The keys are typically made of resonant rosewood. One row of keys is raised behind another, and a large frame supports the keys on rails. A full stand supports the entire instrument, including the resonator pipes that amplify each note.

Beginners start with two mallets to master the technique before moving on to performing with four mallets. Playing with four mallets allows percussionists to achieve chords and a fuller sound. The Pink Panther is a typical song new marimba players might choose for their first recital.

The Marimba Throughout History

The name marimba originated in Africa as did the instrument itself. It’s a commingling of two Bantu words, rimba — xylophone with a single bar — and ma — a great number of objects. In several African languages, ma-rimba describes instruments with many bars.

The marimba came to South America in the 16th century when Africans were brought there as slaves. Guatemalan Sebastian Hurtado designed a marimba with a wooden resonator pipe, which was an innovation over the gourds previously used.

In Mexico, the marimba is ubiquitous as a folk instrument and many versions are available. Some chromatic instruments feature 6½ octaves (C3’F8) with 79 bars. These impressive instruments, found in Mexico’s Chiapas region, are the largest in the world. They’re also found in Guatemala and Costa Rica where locals call them marimbas grande, meaning big marimbas. The Chiapas marimba is made in the shape of a table.

The name marimba was adopted by the concert and orchestra instrument inspired by the Latin American model. In 1910, the U.S. companies Deagan and Leedy developed and produced Latin American marimbas, adapting them to fit symphony orchestras in Europe and the United States.

Famous Marimba Players

A large collection of modern dance pieces featured marimba players and composers, including Domingo Bethancourt (1906-82), the Ovalle brothers and the famous Mariano Valverde (1884-1956) and Belarmino Molina (1879-1950).

Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro is one of a few players to enjoy an international career as a soloist. Born in 1975, Carneiro became one of the world’s premier solo percussionists. Pedro Carneiro studied piano, cello and trumpet before settling on the marimba as his chosen instrument. In this video, Carneiro plays One Study with his magical twists.

The marimba has proven to be an incredible chameleon over the centuries of its existence. It has morphed from a primitive instrument made of sticks and gourds to an incredibly complex modern invention that lets players pound out pieces as diverse as Mozart to tropical mariachi music.