A vibraphone is a musical instrument that belonged to the percussion family. This instrument has tuned metal bars, and it is played by holding two to four soft mallets hitting the metal bars. The vibraphone is like a marimbaphone or a steel marimba. The instruments’ significant difference is that the vibraphone’s bars are suspended over a resonator tube with a motor-driven butterfly valve located at the top. In this article, we are going to learn more about the history and different parts of the vibraphone.
Back in 1916, Herman Winterhoff, an instrument maker from the Leedy Manufacturing Company, decided to experiment with “vox humana” effects on a three-octave steel marimba. In order to do this, he attached a motor to the instrument so that he could create vibrato effects. Therefore the name and the instrument “vibraphone” was invented. Leedy Manufacturing Company marketed the said instrument in the United States starting in 1924. However, note that even if it’s called the vibraphone, this instrument had a significant difference from the instrument we now know as the vibraphone. This is because the vibraphone that Leedy made did not have a pedal mechanism; its bars were also made of steel and not aluminum. Nevertheless, the Leedy vibraphone still managed to achieve a degree of popularity after it was used in several novelty songs by vaudeville artist Louis Frank Chiha entitled “Aloha ‘Oe” and “Gypsy Love Song” in 1924.
Leedy’s vibraphone’s popularity led its competitor, J.C. Deagan, Inc., (the inventor of the original steel marimba which Leedy’s design was inspired), to make a similar instrument in 1927. But, instead of merely copying Leedy’s design, J.C. Deagan, Inc., decided to introduce their vibraphone with several significant improvements. They made the bars from aluminum to give the instrument a more mellow tone. They also made adjustments to the instrument’s dimensions and the bars’ tuning to remove the dissonant harmonics produced by the Leedy design. Aside from that, J.C. Deagan Inc. also introduced a foot-controlled damper bar, which allows the musicians to their vibraphone with more expression. These improvements made Deagan’s design more popular than the Leedy’s design. Along with that popularity, Deagan’s design also becomes the template for all instruments we now called the vibraphone.
But, when Deagan marketed their instrument in 1928, they decided to call it the vibraharp. Along with this, Deagan also trademarked the name; that is why other manufacturers were forced to use the name vibraphone to incorporate the newer design.
The original purpose of the vibraphone was to enhance the large arsenal of percussion sounds that were used by vaudeville orchestras. During the 1930s, the vibraphone was developed as a jazz instrument. As of 2020, the vibraphone is still used as a jazz instrument, and it is also considered as a major keyboard percussion instrument. Today, it is often used for chamber ensembles, solos, as well as in modern orchestral compositions.
Anatomy of the Vibraphone
The vibraphone has five main part, and these are:
- The Tone Bars – This part of the vibraphone is the metal bars that the musician hits to produce sound.
- The Resonators – This part of the vibraphone are metal tubes that are placed under each tone bar. They help amplify the vibration created by the mallet that is hitting the tone bars.
- The Resonators Disks – There are small disks that are placed inside the top-end of the resonator, just right between the resonator and tone bar. The resonator disks are arguably one of the most important features of the vibraphone.
- The Controller – This part is made of electronic devices that give the player control of the speed wherein the resonators disks rotate
- The Pedal – This part is considered the “engine” that drives the vibraphone’s disks.
The Tone Bars
As you might know by now, tone bars are the part of the vibraphones that makes the sound. That is why if you are looking at vibraphone tone bars, here are a few things that you need to be aware of:
- Graduated or non-graduated – A graduated vibraphone has tone bars with a width that differs depending on the note. It becomes more comprehensive as the note gets lower, allowing the vibraphone to produce a rich and accurate pitch. While non-graduated vibraphones are composed of tone bars with the same width no matter what the note is, making it a more compact vibraphone.
- Shape – The tone bars come in different shapes depending on the manufacturer.
- Material – Even if most vibraphone bars are made of aluminum 99% of the time, their finish can vary depending on the vibraphone’s manufacturer.