Introduction to My Six-Mallet Technique
This in-progress article contains information on my six-mallet technique. In the future, I will add musical examples, charts and even video clips. Eventually, I plan on writing a more comprehensive six-mallet technique book that will include exercises, a little historical background and other related information.
Clicking thumbnails opens larger images.
Variations of the six-mallet grip embodied in my technique are explored in a few publications, such as the Lionel Hampton Vibraphone Method. There are other interesting writings on six-mallet technique by other keyboard percussionists,  such as Bill Molenhof.
Like Leigh Stevens, I switched from the “traditional”, cross-sticked grip to the Burton grip and then to Musser grip, then to the Stevens grip, but I then switched back to the Burton grip. The main reason I initially switched was because I began to develop a six-mallet technique and grip based on the Burton grip. I continue to use Burton-based grips for reasons I will mention below.
I discovered my version of this grip on my own in 1990, before doing any research to see if other versions had been explored. Initially, I picked up six mallets in a makeshift grip to demonstrate a "merry go round" type figure to a girlfriend. At that point, I had never picked up six mallets before. From that day forward, I began exploring the possibilities of this newfound grip and technique.
One common trait among all of the grips and techniques similar to the one I use is that they ignore the possibility of the middle mallet being lifted out of the way so the two outer mallets in either hand can play a double-stop (see the section entitled Double Stops with Outer Mallets below). Almost all of the previously existing six-mallet documents view six-mallet technique from a primarily harmonic standpoint and not a contrapuntal one. This is probably because most of these grips were developed for a flat keyboard (vibraphone) and not a terraced keyboard (marimba, xylophone or orchestra bells). This technical oversight is probably subconscious on the part of these musicians, and may be a result of not seeing the forest for the trees. The other percussionists who use a grip similar to mine may also not have a need for moving the middle mallet out of the way. Middle mallet movement, probably more than any other deviation, sets my technique apart from the others.
My technique also covers six-mallet independence, a subject that is not covered in any of the sources I have encountered. Again, most musicians who currently use a grip and technique similar to the one I use seem to be primarily interested in playing more notes at once. Generally, they seem less concerned with expanded melodic and contrapuntal possibilities.
General Observations on Technique
Probably the most important point to keep in mind about technique is that it is not an end unto itself. Having the most developed technique possible enables you to more easily achieve your ideal sound at all times. One of the primary goals of this six-mallet technique is for all of the mallets to function equally and independently. This helps you achieve maximum communication by enabling you achieve what you hear in your inner ear without technical limitations.
No two musicians' techniques are exactly the same, nor should they be. Amazingly, some teachers attempt to force students to play exactly the way they do, which usually fails. Each musician needs to adapt a technique to suit their musical philosophy and physique, and directed toward what they want to portray both musically and even visually. In fact, no two hands are the same, just as no two human-beings are the same—even each of your own two hands are different from one another. Therefore, your technique needs to work for you, not someone else.
Refining your technique will be difficult if based on someone else's personal, idiomatic preferences or physique. The details of any technical interpretation should always be based on your own body's design and what you think will feel most comfortable and produce the best sound once your technique is fully developed.
Basic technique is obviously essential, and it can be taught. However, keep in mind that it is impossible to teach every aspect of technique or interpretation. At some point, you must take it upon yourself to do your own exploration. This chapter will attempt to at least get you started on that journey by giving you the tools of this basic six-mallet grip and technique.
Positioning of Three Mallets in the Right Hand
Stand in front of a flat surface (e.g. a table, counter, etc.) and invert your right hand, with fingers extended, so it is palm side up.
Place the outer mallet against your palm, between your index finger and the middle finger (ex. 1). Rest the mallet head on the flat surface. The mallet should rest outside the hand pad of your thumb, with 1/4 inch of this mallet shaft-end hanging over the edge of your hand pad, as seen below.
Place the middle mallet on top of the outside mallet (ex. 2).
At this stage, your thumb and index finger should be gently griping the middle mallet. 1/4 inch of the middle mallet shaft-end should be hanging over edge of the palm of your hand.
With your thumb and index finger still gently gripping the middle mallet, open your other three fingers (ex. 4).
Place the inner mallet across the middle mallet and the first joint of your thumb (ex. 5).
Close your other three fingers around the inner mallet and press your ring finger against the outer mallet (ex. 6). 1/4 inch of the inner mallet shaft-end should be hanging over the edge of the palm of your hand.
Flip your hand over (ex. 7). You should now be holding three mallets in your right hand. Repeat the same process with your left hand, so that it mirrors your right hand.
Center Mallet Extended and Retracted 
There may be instances when you will need to manually adjust (with the aid of your other hand) the middle mallet in either hand by retracting it (pushing it in) so that the middle mallet head is closer to your hand. This may be done either with the aid of your other hand (examples 8a - 8c), or by pushing the middle mallet against something, such as the brace of the keyboard percussion instrument closest to you (ex. 9).
Some percussionists have invented attachable, extraneous devices that aid in the extension and retraction of the middle mallet. Although these devices are useful, I would rather not have to rely on devices unless absolutely necessary. None of the pieces I have written, come across or commissioned have presented a situation in which manual adjustment with the other hand was not adequate.
Double Stops with Outer Mallets
By lifting the middle mallet out of the way with the index finger (examples. 10a and 10b), it is possible to play double stops with the outer mallets (1 and 3, 4 and 6 respectively) in each hand.
This aspect of my technique is useful for the following reasons:
• It allows the performer to play a triad in each hand and quickly add or subtract the middle mallet (ex. 11 [not shown])
• Widely spaced four-note chords become possible, and are as easy to play as with all four-mallet grips (ex. 12 [not shown])
• One-handed rolls with two notes are easily playable (ex. 13a [not shown])
Note that when you lift the middle mallet with your index finger or push it down with your thumb and index finger, tiered triads using both the upper and lower banks of notes on marimbas and xylophones may be played so that all of the notes sound exactly simultaneously (see examples 18 and 19 below). In other words, if you do not adjust the middle mallet to compensate for the vertical distance between the accidentals and naturals on tiered instruments, some notes will sound slightly earlier than others in one-handed chords.
Expansions, Contractions, Intervals and Spread
The expansions and contractions of mallets are made primarily by movement of the thumb and index finger. Gravity and the gentle pressure created by pressing your fingers against the mallets aid in the movement and stablization of the mallets. To expand the inner mallets in the right hand to their maximum span, position your index finger between mallets 4 and 5 (the inner-most mallets, left to right) and pull the mallets apart using your thumb and index finger (ex. 13b). You will feel pressure exerted on the inside of your ring finger.
To expand the outer mallets in the right hand, position your index finger between mallets 5 and 6 (the outer-most mallets, left to right) and place your thumb on top of mallet 5 (example 13c). Pressing upward with your middle finger should cause the outer mallets to expand.
In order to play small intervals with the inner two mallets in the right hand, you will need to gently grip the middle mallet with the pad of your thumb and index finger and balance the inside mallet (mallet 4) with the underside of the middle finger (ex. 13d).
As I mentioned earlier, it is assumed that before you attempt to master six-mallet technique, you will learn at least one other four-mallet grip. The most relevant grip to learn before learning the one presented here is the one known as the "Burton Grip." By learning the Burton grip, you will notice that it is possible to expand the outer mallets to approximately the same intervals as with holding six mallets. If you can reach expand to an octave with your left hand in the lowest register on your instrument with four mallets (ex. 14), you should also be able to do that while holding three in that hand (ex. 15).
The Musser/Stevens grip lets you expand to slightly larger intervals with two mallets in one hand, but there is also an extreme amount of pressure exerted on the player's fingers when using this grip, particularly while using the six-mallet variation of this grip. Furthermore, one of the main drawbacks of the Musser/Stevens grips is that you need to very gradually buid up callouses on parts of your fingers and hands where they don't usually occur, such as on the sides of your middle fingers.
All intervals that are possible with four mallets are possible with six. Obviously, there are many factors that determine how far a percussionist's interval spread will be. One of these factors is the size of the instrument you are playing, or the size being written for. Larger instruments such as five-octave marimbas usually have much larger bars in the lower octaves than in the higher octaves. Not only are the lower bars larger, they are often spaced farther apart than the higher ones. To complicate matters, there are often varying specifications for bar size and bar spacing between each manufacturer, and even between each instrument by the same manufacturer.
As mentioned earlier, since each player has different-sized hands, some people will be able to reach very large intervals that others cannot reach. However, unlike with piano, this can be compensated with mallet shafts that are slightly longer than usual.
Of course, a practical guideline for possible playable intervals and chords will greatly benefit performers, composers and improvisers (chart forthcoming). Alternatively, more succinctly, a comprehensive guide to what intervals and chords do not work on keyboard percussion instruments will also be useful (forthcoming). In addition, the amount of time given to reach the interval or chord also needs to be addressed. In general, the more time, the better.
Basically, on a five-octave marimba (C - C), the largest interval from the lowest `C' the outer mallets can safely achieve is an octave. Respectively, in the highest octave the largest interval that can be achieved in a major twelfth. Since bar spacing can vary widely between different instruments, even by the same maker, it is always wise for composers to check with percussionists to confirm what is possible.
The largest interval that can be reached between either of the outer mallets and the middle mallet is approximately a fifth (examples 16a and 16b). (Note that mallet 3 (the right-most mallet) in 16a and mallet 4 (the left-most mallet) in 16b are not touching the keyboard.)
Again, how far you can reach between adjacent mallets depends on the instrument, where on the instrument you are playing the intervals, the player's hands, the length of the mallet shafts, etc. As with other technical issues, if the piece is in the process of being written or has not been written yet, it is always wise to consult the player you are writing for first if possible.
Keyboard percussion instruments are somewhat similar to harps and guitars with regard to technical limitations. Modern harps have difficulty playing fast, chromatic passages. Similarly, it is extremely difficult—except at a slow tempo—for keyboard percussionists holding six mallets to play fast chromatic chords or intervals in one hand (ex. 17 [with MM marking], one fast, and one slow [not shown]).
The available chordal possibilities with a developed six-mallet technique are vast. Many seemingly difficult chords can be easily played by using creative solutions. These creative solutions can involve overlapping mallets (ex. 18), a combination of interspersed mallets and/or utilizing the outer edges of bars (examples 18 and 19) and, as mentioned above, outer mallet double stops and expanded and retracted center mallets.
In addition, the placement of mallet heads on the bars figures into how chords are played. Some chords that seem impossible to play if only using the center of the bars (or slightly off-centers of the bars) of the bars suddenly become much easier when carefully utilizing the edges.
As with using two or four mallets, melodic lines (or runs) are just as easy with six mallets, and in fact, may be easier (ex. 21: a fast melodic line played with six mallets [not shown]). Wide leaps and jagged melodic writing are extremely easy for keyboard percussionists, and this is even more true when six mallets are used.
One aspect of melodic line writing needs to be addressed: when a composer adds stacked notes to these lines to create interspersed intervals and chords within the melodic line, the melody will usually become progressively more difficult to play (ex. 22 [not shown]). Another aspect of keyboard percussion melodic writing that composers frequently forget about is that percussionists mostly alternate hands when playing very fast melodic passages. Some doubling is often used, but these instances are usually the exception rather than the norm (ex. 23 [not shown]).
I hope this essay helps you explore the world of possibilities with six mallets. If you made it this far, you may want to try my Basic Six-Mallet Exercises or even play one of my pieces that use six-mallets.
Mention of this grip is made in an article—the earliest known document which describes six-mallet grips—by Linda Pimentel ([Title] Percussionist, Volume XIV, No. 1, Fall 1976, pp. 13 – 22). More recently, two articles by Wesley Bulla (Wesley Bulla, A Study in Expanded, Five- and Six-Mallet Solo Vibraharp Techniques—Part I, Percussive Notes, Volume 29, No. 3, February 1991, p. 47, pp. 49-50; Wesley Bulla, A Study in Expanded, Five- and Six-Mallet Solo Vibraharp Techniques—Part II, Percussive Notes, Volume ?, No. ?, April 1991) explore five and six-mallet technique on vibraphone.
Lionel Hampton and Jean-Claude Forestier, Lionel Hampton Vibraphone Method, Hug & Co., Zürich, 1981, pp. 228 – 239.
IPimentel, 1980 #123
Numerous keyboard percussionists have used, and are using various 6-mallet grips, such as Keiko Abe, Bill Molenhof, Ed Saindon, Dean Gronemier, Mile Manieri, “Polish Guy” and Leigh Stevens. Presumably, almost all well-known (and many other lesser-known) percussionists are using or experimenting with 6-mallet grips. Even the legendary George Hamilton Green has been documented as using more than four mallets: “Audiences marveled at his practice of picking up extra mallets to fill out the harmonies, and occasionally he would dazzle them with stunts of six and eight mallets.” (Bridwell, Barry and Lyons, Scott, A Salute to George Hamilton Green, Xylophone Genius, Percussive Notes, Volume 25, Number 5, Summer 1987, p. 55).
I have since turned that initial idea into my first marimba solo utilizing the six-mallet technique, entitled Merry Go Round.
I had, in fact, studied all three popular grips (“Traditional”, “[Gary] Burton” and “Clair Musser/Leigh Stevens Variation”) in great detail prior to developing this grip.
It is also common for musicians to stop developing their technique when they think they have a developed enough ability for what they need. They may also pander to their own innate physical or mental ability and limit themselves performance-wise or compositionally. See all of Clair Musser's Etudes for examples in this vein.
For the purpose of this chapter, I am separating the idea of technique from the whole of music. Obviously, technique is an integral, inseperable part of a performance concept.
Always be willing to change something technical in your playing (or writing) if it will more easily help you achieve your musical goal.
The example photographs in this chapter provide right hand explanations and positions. The left hand mirrors the right hand.
This will be expanded upon in my book in a chapter entitled Devices.