Suggestions for Purchasing a Marimba

One of the most difficult decisions a marimbist has to make is which instrument to buy. There are many fine, yet radically different marimbas on the market. Some are made by large companies such as Ludwig Musser that have been around for a long time, while others are hand-made a few at a time by instrument makers such as Douglas DeMorrow.

Since I recently went through this process myself, I would like to offer a few thoughts on what to consider when purchasing a marimba. There are four basic questions you need to think about when deciding which instrument will be most appropriate for you:

  1. How large of an instrument do you need, i.e. how many octaves?
  2. How much money do you want to spend?
  3. What type of literature will you be playing?
  4. Are you young and/or a beginner? Will this be your first instrument?

1. How large of an instrument do you need, i.e. how many octaves?

Although the recent, more-or-less standard size for a professional, solo instrument is 5-octaves, many fine instruments exist that are smaller, such as 4 1/3 octave models and even 4 octave models. Unless you are planning on playing a substantial amount of literature meant for a 5-octave marimba, a smaller instrument might be just right for you. However, if you at all serious about playing the marimba, it would be a wise investment to purchase a 5-octave instrument.

If you will primarily be using your instrument in an orchestra or in a group that does not require a larger instrument, then a 5-octave instrument is probably not necessary, as most orchestral marimba parts are written for smaller instruments. Since 5-octave instruments are relatively difficult to move because they are so large, the marimbas that composers usually write for in orchestral percussion sections are 4 1/3 or 4-octave instruments.

2. How much money do you want to spend?

Often times, one of the critical deciding factors in purchasing an instrument is how much it will cost. Marimbists and percussionists are somewhat fortunate: unlike older orchestral stringed instruments, a fine marimba can be purchased for the same price as a low to mid-level bowed, stringed instrument.

One comforting aspect about purchasing an excellent musical instrument is that if it is taken care of, it will most likely increase in value rather than decrease like a car or computer. A typical marimba these days usually costs between $10,000 – $15,000, depending on the maker, size, model and condition of the instrument. If price is a major factor—as it usually is—then it might be a good idea to initially purchase a used and/or smaller instrument. Later, when you know that you are serious about playing the marimba and you have more money, you can purchase a larger, higher-quality instrument.

Another important factor is the quality of the bars. There are different types of wood that bars can be made from, the best being high-quality Honduras Rosewood. If at all possible, try to purchase an instrument with high-quality Honduras Rosewood bars as it will be worth more in the long run and most likely sound better than an instrument that has bars made of lower-quality wood.

If you are really under a tight budget, you could alternatively purchase an instrument with synthetic bars. These instruments do not sound as good as instruments with wood bars, or at least not as "authentic." However, if you plan on treating your instrument roughly (perhaps you are in a hard-touring rock band or are playing in extreme weather conditions?) then maybe a marimba with synthetic bars would be a wise choice. Two companies that make instruments with synthetic bars are Ludwig Musser and Yamaha. The one major advantage of synthetic-barred instruments besides being lower in price is that they will stay in tune much longer than marimbas with wood bars.

If you are considering purchase a used instrument, it is crucial to inspect the instrument first or at least get an appraisal from a well-respected percussionist who knows what to look for. Some details to check out when considering purchasing a used instrument are:

Bars: make sure none of them are cracked. If they are cracked, then they might be able to be repaired. You can often tell if a bar is cracked because it will buzz when you play on it. You also need to make sure the bars are not out of tune. If they are out of tune, you can send them to Bill Youhass of Fall Creek Marimbas; he does an excellent job of tuning keyboard percussion instruments. Alternatively, you could ask the person or organization who is selling the instrument to have the instrument tuned before you purchase it, or you could purchase the instrument and pay to have the bars re-tuned yourself. If there are one or more bars that are so badly damaged that they need to be replaced, this can also be done by Fall Creek Marimbas.

Frame: is the frame sturdy? Make sure the frame is in good condition, nothing is cracked or broken and all of the parts are included. Also make sure that when you play on the instrument it does not rattle. If it rattles a little when you play on it before you buy it, chances are that it will rattle at least as much if not more when you take it home. This may seem like a minor inconvenience, but it will surely annoy you to no end very quickly! However, the good news is that there are people like Brian Stotz of Repaircussion who specialize in repairing percussion instruments, and even reenforcing the frames so they are much more sturdy than they were when they were originally built.

Resonators: look closely at the resonators to make sure they are not dented or severely scratched. Large dents are particularly worrisome because they could alter the sound. The most that scratches will do is alter the appearance of the instrument. If the instrument has tuning caps, make sure they fit snugly and work properly.

3. What type of literature will you be playing?

The type of literature you plan on playing is a major factor that can help you decide on what type of instrument is right for you. For example, if you are planning on primarily playing Guatemalan music and you want to play on the same instrument with one or more other players, you would probably want a larger instrument. However, if you are content with the body of literature that already exists for 4 1/3-octave or smaller marimbas, then a smaller instrument would be fine. Obviously, a larger instrument will allow you to play more literature. For example, you can play violoncello and lute transcriptions on a 5-octave instrument, but that would be more difficult to accomplish with a 4-octave instrument.

Another point to consider is that the body of 5-octave marimba literature is dramatically increasing every year. Since the 5-octave range has been fairly standard for solo marimba literature for many years, composers are becoming more adventurous and willing to write for this larger range. Also, thankfully, marimbists such as William Moersch, Leigh Howard Stevens, Gordon Stout and Nancy Zeltzman are continually commissioning new works for solo 5-octave marimba.

The key consideration regarding literature is whether or not you want to play a lot of solo literature on a 5-octave instrument. If not, then a smaller marimba such as a 4 1/3-octave instrument might be adequate. However, if you want to really focus on advanced solo marimba literature, purchasing a 5-octave instrument is a wise decision.

4. Are you young and/or a beginner? Will this be your first instrument?

If you are young, a smaller instrument might be a better choice for one simple reason: a standard-sized, 5-octave instrument is very large and is easier to play as an adult than as a child. However, unlike with many other instruments such as violin, it is difficult to find smaller marimbas that are equivalent to the smaller Suzuki-sized instruments in the string world. If you are a parent and your child is interested in playing the marimba, you might be able to find smaller, student models that have adjustable height and that are not as wide, but beware—they are somewhat difficult to come by.

If you are a beginner, there is plenty you can do for the time being with a smaller instrument. If you are a professional and especially if you are fully-grown, then purchasing a 5-octave instrument could turn out to be a very wise investment.

The following list contains a few of the major marimba makers and also two helpful links:

Percussion and Marimba Music by Robert Paterson

 [Updated October, 2014]