How to Play the Vibraphone: Introduction and Dampening

First things first, what is a vibraphone?

I used to be surprised when someone would ask me what a vibraphone was, but then I realized that while people might have heard of the instrument not many people have had the opportunity to see one up close let alone play on one. And I’m not talking about non musicians here; high school and college music students who haven’t had a great deal of exposure to the percussion family of instruments outside of snare drums and cymbals don’t always know about this member of the percussion family.

A vibraphone is a cousin of the xylophone, but instead of the wooden bars that make up a xylophone the vibraphone or vibes bars are made of a metal alloy. Vibes have a range of 3 octaves usually from the F below middle C up three octaves to F.

Watch a Quick Video Tour of the Vibraphone

Unlike the xylophone that has a short staccato sound when played the vibraphone bars can resonate for a very long time if desired. The length the sound is determined by the use of a dampening bar covered in felt that is pressed against the bars until a pedal mechanism pulls the bar away from the bars which allows the notes to ring freely. With practice the percussionist can learn to control the length of the notes played on the vibes with the pedal.

How to Use the Vibraphone Pedal

Try to keep a little weight on the pedal while you’re playing the instrument so that you don’t slap the pedal causing an unwanted noise to occur. If you have your foot, or big toe constantly in contact with the pedal you can work the mechanism very subtly.

What Makes the Vibraphone Vibrate?

Each bar of the vibraphone has a resonating tube underneath the bar that amplifies the sound. Inside each resonating tube there is a fan disc that is attached to a motor and spins so that the resonating tube is alternately closed and opened. The opening and closing of the resonant tube creates the vibrato effect. The motor that controls the fans is usually one of variable speed which gives the percussionist the option of a slow or fast vibrato effect.

You don’t always need to play with the motor running and I would say that in the majority of instances the motor tends to be in the off position. When you are playing with the motor vibrato off you must make sure that the fans in the resonant tubes are all in a vertical position so that the tube is open. This will make sure you are producing as much sound as possible for the instrument.

How to Dampen the Vibraphone Bars with the Vibraphone Pedal

The most obvious way to dampen the vibraphone bars is with the pedal that moves a felt covered dampening bar away from the bars. When the pedal is depressed the felt dampener is not touching the bars and so the notes will ring.

Most of the time you don’t want the notes that you are playing to all ring together so you must develop a sensitivity with the pedal to control how long the notes will ring.

Take a look at this video for a quick demonstration and to see what the vibraphone pedal can do.

How to Dampen the Vibraphone Bars with your Mallets

The vibraphone is a very expressive instrument especially when you learn how to dampen the bars with your mallets.

This method of dampening involves playing a note with one mallet and dampening the note with your other mallet. For instance; if you play a note with the mallet in your left hand you can dampen that note with the mallet in your right hand and vice versa.

To dampen the bar with the mallet you have to slide the mallet firmly on the ringing bar. Place your mallet on the bar near the node and slide the mallet toward the center of the bar while pressing firmly down onto the bar. This will stop the sound.

It’s a little tricky at first, but once you work out the coordination you’ll be able to play a nice legato passage.

In the following exercise you play all the notes with one hand and dampen the bar with the other hand’s mallet. The X indicates that you should use stick dampening and for an ascending or descending line you will dampen with the mallet that hasn’t played.
vibraphone exercise 1

Watch the Video Lesson on How to Dampen the Vibraphone with Your Mallets

You can also use the same mallet that just played the note to dampen the bar.

When you strike the bar of the vibraphone leave you mallet very close over the bar. Don’t lift your mallet too high off the bar otherwise you will have trouble performing this technique and you will probably have trouble remembering which of the bars you just played.

To achieve a nice legato effect you need to dampen the note you played with the same mallet that just struck the bar at the exact time you play the next note with the mallet in your other hand.

If you dampen too soon there will be a gap in the sound and if you dampen too late you’ll hear both bars ringing at the same time. This is much like rubbing your stomach and patting your head, so take your time and work on the coordination.

In the following exercise you dampen with the same stick that just played.
vibraphone exercise 2

Watch the Video Demonstration on How to Play this Vibraphone Exercise

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Comments

  1. I’m playing a piece on vibes for the first time and there are some markings I don’t recognize in the music… What does rall. And leo______________^ mean?

    • Hi Lauren,
      rall. is short for rallentando and its a musical direction from the composer telling you to slow down at that point.
      I’m not sure what leo means. Is that all that is written? What’s the piece? Maybe you can scan or photo the page and send it to me at info@freepercussionlessons.com. I don’t think it’s a vibraphone specific indication, so it’s probably a musical direction.
      The _________ may mean sustain with the pedal and the ^ is an accented note I think.
      Let me know if I can help with anything else.

  2. I have a set of vibes (musser 55) and can not play them. They have been sitting in my basement for ten years. I want to get started and can not read music. I am 66 you and can not play any instruments. Any suggestions for me.

    • Thanks for the email and it’s really great that you have an interest in learning to play the vibes. You have a great instrument on which to play and I have the same M55.
      I think the first thing that you should do is to decide what you want to play. Are you interested in playing like Lionel Hampton or Gary Burton or are you interested in learning to play Bach and other ‘classical’ music on your vibes. You may want to do everything and that’s okay too, but your answer tell you what you need to study to accomplish your goal.
      I have not yet made enough vibe lesson videos to help you all the way, but that is my plan. I do have a video on learning to read music so you could start there and there are plenty of other sources out there where you can learn and teach your self. The Percussive Arts Society has a lot of resource material for learning the basics on the vibes, marimba and xylophone so take a look here http://www.pas.org/teach/FUNdamentals.aspx. Take a look at a couple of these for a start. Once you learn how to read music you’ll be able to play almost anything. You have to start with the basics obviously, but with a little effort you can make it happen.
      Another idea is to set up your vibes, get a couple of mallets and just play with it. Listen to the sounds and play anything that you enjoy listening to. Improvising like this can be very rewarding.
      Ultimately the best solution for your problem is to find a teacher to help you walk through the basics of learning to read music. If you can’t find a vibraphone teacher look for a piano teacher to help get you started. Incidentally, the vibes can play a lot of beginning piano music too.
      Good luck and hopefully I’ll get some more videos up soon.

      • Joe Donovan says:

        I appreciate your encouragement for new players. I just ordered an M55. I’ve never played a vibraphone before but I have played a lot of percussion and have rudimentary (pardon the expression) reading skills. I want to be able to play things out of “The Great American Songbook” — ballads mostly. I’ll be checking in for tips!

        • Thanks for your comment and I think playing that type of repertoire is ideally suited to the vibes. Start simply at first by just playing what’s on the page in front of you, but then don’t be afraid to embellish the melody with leading tones, trills and/or arpeggios that match the harmony. You can also play variations on the rhythm instead of just playing it “straight” and as written.

      • Thank you for your assistance. Much like the gentleman you responded to, I played drums as a youngster, but now I’m 67 and bought an old Lionel Hampton Musser vibes and also would like to know the way to begin. I’m assuming to forget the four mallets and learn with two. Should I learn all the scales first? Or chords? Thanks for your valuable time and assistance.

  3. I’m trying to learn how to play vibes (I’m new o mallets) , but I need a lot of help..
    Is there any tips or websites you recommend to help?

    • The best thing I can suggest is to find a percussion teacher who can help you get started. There are some great books out there to help you with your reading and technique, too. Ney Rosauro has some beginner vibe music as well as a technique book for vibes that I recommend highly. Go to http://www.neyrosauro.com to find those things. Vicfirth.com has some great video lessons staring Gary Burton http://www.vicfirth.com/education/keyboard/burton.php that can help you.
      Bottom line though; find a teacher. If you’re interested in jazz vibes you need to study chord progressions as well as practicing your technique and you need to listen to as many different players that you can find.

  4. Patrick Lundeen says:

    is there a video on how to play notes

    • I have a video lesson on how to read rhythm http://freepercussionlessons.com/how-to-read-music-the-basics/ but I haven’t made on for learning to read notes, yet. There are several on YouTube that should be of help to you and remember that the vibraphone keyboard is set up the same as a piano key board so you can learn from any beginner piano instructional video to read notes and to learn how the written note corresponds to the keyboard.
      Once you learn the names of the notes and where they are on the music staff it becomes a matter of practicing, just like anything else. Start with easy melodies and get comfortable playing and looking at the music at the same time so that you’re using your peripheral vision to see the bars of the vibes. As you practice your abilities will improve to where you can play lots of different things, but it takes some time.
      Remember that “Consistency Beats Intensity”. Doing a little practice everyday will help you more than trying to do one long practice session every once in a while.

  5. Hi Andrew,

    I’m a composer and am writing a piece that includes vibraphone. Can you tell me if a vibraphone can play staccato, and how that’s done (and about how fast a good player can execute the technique)? Can you also tell me if you ever play with bars damped and how that is notated/ Thanks for any help you can offer.

    David

    • David,
      Thanks for your questions about the vibraphone.
      The vibraphone has a pedal that when pressed down pulls the dampening pad away from the bars resulting in a sustained sound from any of the bars that are played. So, if the pedal is not depressed when the bars are played the result is a staccato effect. Length of notes can be notated in the standard ways of staccato dots over notes or tenuto dashes indicating longer notes or slur lines that would indicate longer sustain on the note.
      If there are no pedaling or articulation indications the player will use a combination of pedaling and stick dampening techniques to achieve a musical result.
      The standard notation for pedal is to write pedal or ped under the stave with a horizontal line like this ped_______________]with the vertical line indicating when the pedal should be released. If you want some notes to sustain and others to be dampened you can indicate that with small x’s above and between the notes. You can also write a note under the stave that says “no Pedal” which will tell the player to play without allowing any of the bars to sustain.
      I hope this answer was helpful, but if not please let me know and I’ll try to answer further.

  6. I’m a freshmen in high school and have been in percussion for about 5 years (7 if you count my 2 years of piano) and have to play vibes for a large group ensemble. In my music I have to play eighth notes and triplets but am not sure how exactly I’m meant to do it, like if I’m meant to let each note ring or dampen them because the piece is called Rippling Watercolors and for obvious reasons it’s supposed to remind one of rippling water. If it would help, I could always send you a picture of the piece.

    • Thanks for your interesting question.
      Vibe parts like these can be confusing because the composer doesn’t always indicate pedaling or dampening directions. In these cases you have to rely on your musicality and make decisions about what you think sounds do best. Based on the title Rippling Watercolors I would assume that letting things ring would be appropriate, but without seeing the music I couldn’t say for sure. Ifor the vibe part has some nice interval and arpeggios I would let things ring through the musical line, and depending on what the ensemble is doing you can decide to let right get or not.
      Having to make musical decisions like these is what being a musician is all about. Experiment in rehearsal, ask the conductor and trust your musical instincts.

  7. Hi there, love your article, I just started playing vibraphone for jazz band and I was wondering how you could recognize middle c on it? Also, even though I play piano, my sight reading isn’t all that great, do you have any tips on how to improve?

    • The Vibraphone keyboard is the same as it is for piano. The obvious difference of course is that the notes are all the same color. The accidentals are in groups of 2 and 3 in the same manner as the black keys on a piano. A standard vibraphone has a 3 octave range from F to F and it starts on the F below middle C.
      The only way to get better at sight reading is to do a lot of it. There are plenty of vibraphone books out there and I like the Goldenberg Modern Method for Xylophone and Vibes Etudes and Songs by Ney Rosauro. Get a hold of a Fake Book and practice playing the melodies. Learning the chords and chord progressions in jazz will be your next step and if you look around you can find online articles and publications that will help you. Playing scales and arpeggios will help you understand where the notes are and your ability to read and play at the same time will improve because you won’t have to always look down for the notes. You’ll know instinctively where the notes are by practicing your scales.
      The first rule for improvisation on any instrument is to keep it simple at first. Stick to the notes in the chord and then once you get more familiar you can add passing tones, leading tones and dissonances.
      Hold on! I take my first rule back. The most important thing to do is to listen to a lot of jazz players and you will begin to understand how they play solos and accompany others. Then apply the theory and the techniques that you have been practicing.
      Have fun and keep practicing.

  8. Norman Black says:

    Hi Andrew, I bought your timpani several years ago. I am now teaching myself to play the vibraphone. I appreciate the dedication and devotion that you give to educating percussionists young and old (I’m going onto 79 soon). If you don’t mind me correcting you, there is a typo in your dialog above. The sentence says: “When you are playing with the motor vibrato you must make sure that the fans in the resonant tubes are all in a vertical position so that the tube is open. This will make sure you are producing as much sound as possible for the instrument.” I believe you meant: “When you are playing with the motor vibrato “OFF” you must make sure that the fans in the resonant tubes are all in a vertical position so that the tube is open. This will make sure you are producing as much sound as possible for the ….

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