© 2001-2004 by Silvan Saxer, all rights reserved


   The Vibraphone   


1. What Is A Vibraphone

A Vibraphone is an instrument. It belongs to the group of percussion instruments. It looks like a big xylophone that has metal bars instead of wooden. The speciality of the vibraphone - also called vibes - is its vibration sound. This vibrato is made by metal disks that open and close the tubular-resonators, so that a vibrato results. They are animated by a electric motor, so that the vibrato of every note has exactly the same amplitude and tempo. Ancestors of the vibraphone did not have this vibrato-effect. They were called metal-marimbaphones. Today their name is 'metallophone'. Because the metal bars have a longer sound than wooden bars, they have to be damped. This can be done by the player's hand. But normally the notes are damped with a pedal. If the pedal is put down, the one note flows into the other. When the player leaves the pedal, the notes are damped by a felt that comes up to the metal bars. For transport, the vibraphone has four casters, so it can be pushed around. But it should not drive away while the percussionist is playing. So two of the casters can be stopped with brakes which are set on before playing. The normal range of the vibraphone is f4 to f7 (f to f'''). Some special vibes have a range of c4 to c8 (c to c''''), because some composers demand such a range. The vibraphone is played with two or three, sometimes four or six so called mallet sticks. They have mostly wooden sticks, seldom the sticks are made with some synthetic material. They have a head that is wrapped with yarn or synthetic fibre. To have the possibility to give some special shade to the sound, there are different degrees of hardness to play with.

2. The History of The Vibraphone

In Javanese gamelan - orchestras, there was used a 1000 year old instrument that was similar to the later vibraphone. It had six bars of bronze that ware laid on a resonator trough. This instrument is regarded as one of the two ancestors of the vibraphone. The other forefather is the marimbaphone that was originally an African instrument played by African natives and exported to the USA during the world-wide colonisation. It is the same like a today's xylophone, but has a wider range. In the year 1921, they constructed a metallophone that they called 'metal - marimbaphone'. Three years later, the principle of the vibraphone was found by an American called Winterhoff. It had a clock motor instead of an electric one, so the amplitude of the vibrato could nearly not be regulated. In the year 1936, the final vibraphone was constructed. It had an electric motor to make the vibrato and had a pedal to damp the sounds. Modern instrument-constructors changed the tubular-resonators with electronic sensors to produce a electronic vibraphone. But presently, electronic vibraphones are seldom used. The real sound is more wished than the electronical one.

3. The Use of The Vibraphone in Music

Today, the Vibraphone is used in different music styles. In classic orchestras the vibraphone is also wanted by some composers of the 20th century. Some examples are: "Marteau sans maître" by Pierre Boulez, "The voice of Ariadne" by T. Musgrave or "The women without shade" by R. Strauss. A piece especially composed for vibraphones and marimbaphones is "concert for vibraphone, marimbaphone and orchestra", that was written by Darius Milhaud, a French composer. The vibraphone is also used in film - and entertainment music. Also some pop-interpreters use the vibes in their music. Electronically generated vibraphone-sounds are also used in dance music. Very soon, the vibes were discovered as a very good instrument for jazz combos. One of the most famous vibraphone players is Milt Jackson, who plays the vibraphone in the "modern jazz quartet ". Other famous vibistst are Garry Burton and Red Norvo.

4. Lionel Hampton - the most famous vibraphone player

Lionel Hampton was born on April 12th 1913 in Louisville, Kentucky. 1920 he started playing in a children's band, first on the bass drum, then on the drums and kettledrums. Later, he devoted to study the xylophone and then the vibraphone. In the year 1927 he was given a set of drums with built -in flashing lights by his family. Two years later, he entered Paul Howart's band, where he recorded his first record. The year after, he became his first possibility to play one of his solos on record. 1934, he took part of the film "Pennies from Heaven" with Louis Armstrong an Bing Crosby. In the same year, he set up his famous quartet: Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa and himself. In the following years, he played with a lot of famous jazz musicians, exemplary Cootie Williams, Harry James, Ben Webster, Jess Stacy and Jo Jones. During this time, he composed several masterpieces. 1940 he left Benny Goodman and set up his own big band with outstanding soloists, including Bilton Buckner, Illinois Jacqet, Dexter Gordon and his singer Dinah Washington. With this big band he became very popular. He wrote his hits "Hamp's boogie woogie" and "Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop", that let the crowds go wild. Hampton did not only play the vibes, he also sometimes played the drums or the piano. He was also a marvellous entertainer. By dancing, singing and laughing while his show, he transmitted his enormous enthusiasm to everyone. With his band, he made several world tours. Although he had difficulties to keep his band in the beginning of the sixties, he managed to keep them together, but in the year 1964, he gave up his big band and started world-tours with smaller groups. Fourteen years later, he set up his big band again and made international performances until today, although, Lionel Hampton is over 80 years old, with nearly all his enthusiasm. Every year, Lionel Hampton give his concert also in Basel.