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 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.
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.