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Traditional marimba de tecomates of the Mayans in Guatemala with bottle gourds as resonators

The marimba , also known as the marimbaphone , is a serve idiophone , whose serving rods are struck with mallets, usually wooden mallets. It belongs to the family of wooden chopstick games ( xylophones ) and has a pitch range of up to 5½ octaves from C to G 4 . The musical instrument, which goes back to its African predecessor ( balafon ), was developed in Guatemala and is also widespread in other Central and South American countries as well as in Japan .

The marimba is not to be confused with the lamellophones in Africa, which are known under regional names such as Mbila , Mbira, Kalimba or Likembe.


A modern marimba with a mobile frame

In contrast to a vibraphone with metal sound sticks, the marimba has wooden sound sticks, mostly made of Honduran rosewood ( Dalbergia stevensonii ). These are arranged in two rows, chromatically tuned , like a keyboard . A vertical resonance tube, mostly made of aluminum, is attached under each wooden sound stick for more intensive sound radiation. The length of each resonator is dimensioned for a quarter of the generated wavelength . The effective pipe length is greater than the actual length by a correction factor . Because the wooden soundplates are thinner and softer, the marimba sounds darker and fuller than a modern European standard xylophone . In order to limit the radiation to the fundamental tone, the cuboid, mostly 4.5 to 6 cm wide rod is hollowed out parabolically on the underside and stored on its fundamental nodes. The length of the rods is inversely proportional to the square root of the fundamental resonance frequency. Tuning is done by grinding the rods, whereby you can tune both higher and lower by reducing the mass or the rigidity.

The bass marimba also uses bulbous cavities as resonators - so-called Helmholtz resonators . They can be used to reduce the overall height. For a tone G1 with a frequency of 49.5 Hz, a tube would have to be about 174 cm long. That would be unreasonable for a player.

The mallets are made of rattan , rosewood or maple wood , less often plastic, and usually have a head that is tightly knitted from wool. A player usually uses one or two mallets in each hand, less often three mallets.


The range of different sized marimbaphones varies from 4 to over 5 octaves. It is always expanded to the lower octave range. The highest note on all instruments is the c 4 .

  • Marimba with 4 octaves range: c – c 4 ,
  • Marimba with 4 13 octaves range: A – c 4 ,
  • Marimba with 4 12 octaves range: F – c 4 ,
  • Marimba with 4 23 octaves range: E – c 4 ,
  • Marimba with 5 octaves range: C – c 4 .

Instruments with a pitch range up to c 5 are the marimba xylophone, also known as xylorimba (xylomarimba).

  • Marimba with 5 octaves range: c – c 5 ,
  • Marimba with 5 13 octaves range: A – c 5 .

The bass marimba includes the tones of the minor and major octave ; the range varies between 1 and 3 octaves.

  • Bass marimba with 1 octave range: C – H
  • Bass marimba with 1 12 octave range: C – f
  • Bass marimba with 2 octaves pitch range: C – c 1
  • Bass marimba with 3 octaves range: C – c 2 .

Occasionally, instruments can also be found that start with 1 A or 1 G.


Like the piano, the marimba is notated on two staves and not transposed . The lower system is in the bass clef, the upper system in the treble clef. If the situation requires it, both systems can be in the treble or bass clef.


The marimba comes from Africa. From the 16th century onwards there are numerous written sources and illustrations of xylophones in Africa. The oldest reference - a report by the Arab traveler Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta about his visit to the Kingdom of Mali - dates from 1352, an era long before the start of the transatlantic slave trade . The instrument types found in the early sources are in the vast majority frame xylophones with calabash resonators or spar xylophones. Trough or pit xylophones, on the other hand, rarely appear, or at least very late. In the Manuscritti Araldi, a codex created between 1654 and 1678 by the Italian missionary Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi and now in Modena, one of the musicians is referred to as “Marimbero”, which is the oldest known use of the term “Marimba” in the Represents connection with a xylophone.

The marimba did not become the focus of research interest until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in the course of cultural studies . In an attempt to derive the moods of African instruments from Indonesian moods, so to prove the migration of the xylophone from Southeast Asia to Africa and thus to demonstrate the linear spread of cultures from an assumed center - the central element of the culture circle doctrine - the marimba took a central one Role within this theory - Albrecht Schneider speaks of the "xylophone as a historical research tool".

Today frame, spar, pit, leg and trough xylophones as well as loose chime bars can be found in Africa. The oldest known clear evidence of the existence of a marimba in America can be found in the area of ​​today's Guatemala and dates from 1680. Sources that are used by some authors to prove the earlier existence of xylophones, such as La cristianización de los indios de Santa Lucía 1545 from Chiapas, in which a musical instrument called yolotli is mentioned, which according to the description could be a xylophone, and a “pre-Columbian” codex fragment from Guatemala are only available in disputed copies, but not in the original. For South America, the oldest evidence of xylophones is the font Gabinetto armonico by the Jesuit Filippo Bonanni , published in Rome in 1722 , in which there is a "Brasiliano Moro, in atto de sonare la Marimba" ("Brazilian Moor about to play the marimba") , and the pen and watercolors drawn by the bishop of Trujillo, Baltazar Jaime Martínez de Compañón, commissioned between 1782 and 1787, including a depiction of “Negros tocando marimba y bailando” (“Black people playing and dancing marimba”).

In the 20th century in particular, the marimba traditions were often closely linked to the political history of the countries concerned - mostly indirectly, but now and then also directly as part of ideological concepts, for example in Guatemala, El Salvador or Ecuador. In South America, due to the historical and geographical conditions, the African heritage is still clearly visible today. In the case of Brazil, the large proportion of populations of African descent in the total population over a long period of time is probably the decisive factor for the rather low degree of mixing with European cultural elements. In Colombia and Ecuador, on the other hand, the long, extensive geographical isolation seems to be the main factor in the preservation of the African heritage. Comparisons of historical depictions of Brazilian and African marimbas show a high degree of agreement, and even when comparing historical depictions with recent instruments, the similarities are still evident.


The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala . There are living marimba traditions in ten Latin American countries: in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador and - almost extinct - in Brazil. In Peru and French Guyana, where xylophones are documented by historical sources in past centuries, these have now disappeared. The same applies to Puerto Rico, from where the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a diatonic instrument with 27 sound plates, which came into its collection in the 19th century. In the absence of clear documents, it has so far not been possible to determine with certainty whether there was ever a relevant xylophone tradition in Cuba. The Cuban marímbula is sometimes referred to as a marimba, but it is not a xylophone, but a lamellophone . In those states in which there is still a lively marimba culture, this is almost never present in the entire country, individual traditions and / or types of instruments are limited to certain areas and often to very specific ethnic groups. In Central America, in addition to the mestizos, various indigenous groups use marimbas; in South America, especially in Colombia and Ecuador, primarily Afro-American groups are the primary bearers of the marimba tradition, as well as indigenous groups to whom the instrument apparently came through cultural contact. In Brazil today, the marimba is used exclusively by the Caiçara, a group that cannot be clearly defined ethnically, but whose culture clearly contains African elements.

The marimba is also very common in Japan. There are famous players and well-known music schools for the marimba there. Keiko Abe is one of the world's most famous marimba players .

Well-known marimba players

Pieces of music with marimba


  • Adams Musical Instruments / Thorn
  • Antonko
  • Bergerault
  • Coe percussion
  • Concorde
  • Kolberg percussion
  • Korogi
  • Lennback Music Instruments
  • Majestic percussion
  • Malletech
  • Marimba musical instruments
  • Marimba One
  • He must
  • Pré du Rein
  • premier
  • Rosebush
  • Saito Gakki Seisakusho
  • Studio 49
  • Vancore
  • Yamaha


  • Helmut Brenner : Marimbas in Latin America. Historical facts and status quo of the marimba traditions in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. Olms, Hildesheim u. a. 2007, ISBN 3-487-12959-0 (Studies and Materials on Musicology 43)

Web links

Commons : Marimbas  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files