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I have experience playing gamelan, and this year I wanted to start learning a 'Western' percussion instrument, like the vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, etc.

Are these percussion instruments similar enough that, knowing how to play one, one could also play the others?

Is there one would be better to start with? Why? Are there some playing technique considerations, or is it just a matter of different timbre?

Lastly, if I were to buy one for practice, is a cheaper glockenspiel enough for home training? (Vibraphones and marimbas are quite expensive.)

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3 Answers 3

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In short, yes, the skills you develop on one of the standard western mallet pitched idiophones (marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, and glockenspiel) will transfer to the others. All use the common pitch layout similar to a piano keyboard, and read the same music (although marimba and vibraphone do much more in the bass clef than the others).

Most young percussion students will learn first on glockenspiel (also known as orchestra bells), to develop pitched-note-reading facility. The cheaper price and simpler playing technique (usually single-line, on mallet per hand) makes them the logical choice for beginner students.

Xylophone would be my recommendation if you're serious about learning and can afford it; it's still going to be nowhere near the price tag of a marimba or vibraphone, and it demands the same skills as one would develop on glockenspiel. The reason to choose this over glockenspiel is a wider range, more pleasing tone (in my opinion), and better repertoire choices. The difference in decay prevents the glockenspiel from playing music with a lot of notes; they would just end up overlapping and getting muddy. The slight difference in playing technique requires tremolo sticking in order to sustain a pitch on xylophone; this is just not done on a glockenspiel due to the long decay and different quality of stick rebound. There is professional-level literature written for xylophone; not so for glockenspiel--it is primarily a large ensemble texture instrument.

The next level up would probably be the vibraphone. Here in a jazz context one can develop multi-mallet technique and harmonic understanding in order to comp chords for jazz tunes. An additional layer of technique is introduced with the addition of the damper pedal. Most of the professional-level literature written for this instrument is either jazz or very difficult contemporary classical literature.

The marimba has the widest range, and the players and composers are continuously pushing the limits of its playing technique. Only relatively recently have we seen the advent of insanely expensive five-octave marimbas, and repertoire written that requires six-mallet playing techniques.

So to summarize, I'd go with the xylophone as my first choice; only go with a glockenspiel if it's all you can afford, or if you're really not sure how much work you're going to put into it. Only if you're really driven towards jazz would I recommend a vibraphone, but the marimba should really be left to the professionals. Few players own their own until they've spent four or more years in college studying the instrument.

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This may sound crazy, but if space is a premium, there is a MIDI controller and a physical-modeling virtual instrument solution.

Xylosynth and Pianoteq Chromatic Percussion.

enter image description here

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It's also more expensive than a cheap marimba. A student-grade xylophone would be missing resonator tubes, and thus be about the same size as a MalletKAT or equivalent. –  NReilingh Aug 29 '11 at 14:06
    
besides the feel you get on these is very different from the real thing. The bars (depending on the manufacturer) can have a rebound, which makes rolls much easier! Great fun, though, but not a replacement for a xylo/marimba/vibes. –  gurney alex Aug 29 '11 at 15:31
    
Certainly an acoustic instrument is what most people would choose to purchase. Do they still make the MalletKAT? I would add that with the Pianoteq software, you get digital recreations of several varieties of marimba, xylophone, and glockenspiel. It might suit the needs of someone who is unconventional in their approach. –  Wheat Williams Aug 29 '11 at 15:32

In addition to NReilingh's answer:

  • the space requirements for the marimba are also a good reason not to buy one. These beasts are huge! But the sound is awesome.

  • the layouts for the various western "struck idiophones" is similar, but not identical: xylophone and marimba have a raised "black notes" keyboards, while the vibraphone is flat. This matters a lot on fast parts and when playing with 4 mallets

  • additionally, the better sounding vibraphone / xylophone / marimba generally have wider bars in the low range. This can make it awkward to change instruments if you are used to practise on fixed-width bars (because your arms are tuned to some intervals and you need to switch to a slighly different layout. In the context of a xylophone, 1 cm off can mean hitting the wrong note...)

Same as NReighlingh, don't go for a glockenspiel, as it won't give you satisfaction in the long term, imo. Buy a xylophone, even a cheap "study" instrument, and have fun.

On the other hand, you may find it easier to start with the vibraphone as it has some possibilities (esp. in terms of sustain) with are closer to the gamelan, which would make it easier for you to play tunes you know on the gamelan, whereas the drier sound of a xylophone would make this harder.

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Good points! I forgot to mention the bar width issue, and the vibraphone layout difference is an important technique consideration. –  NReilingh Aug 29 '11 at 14:09

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