Make Your Own Marimbas

by Jon Madin

  • Box resonated 3 1/2 octave diatonic marimba
  • Pipe resonated 3 1/2 octave diatonic marimba
  • Pipe resonated 2 octave bass marimba
  • Portable minimarimba
The Four Marimba Designs

A marimba is a xylophone with a wide range including deep notes equivalent to those of a bass xylophone.

The diatonic marimbas described here are derived from instruments that Andy Rigby, musician and instrument builder, played in Zimbabwe and Botswana. He passed on the knowledge he had gained regarding marimba construction and certain playing styles. We then began our marimba experiments by trying to recreate the Zimbabwean-style instruments.

I then tried some more extensive changes to the range of the instruments and tried box and plastic drum resonation. (Orff Schulwerk xylophones have box resonators.) These changes helped make the instruments more suitable for school and community situations where large numbers of both musicians and non-musicians want to be involved.

From the original concept I have developed the four marimba designs described in this book.

1. Box Resonated 31/2 Octave 3 Player Diatonic Marimba

This marimba is especially suitable for school classroom or family use. It is a sturdy instrument with folding legs and it can be stored in the upright position. It is straightforward to build. This marimba is approximately 1920mm (6'3") in length allowing 3, 4 or even 5 people to play at the same time. Sharp and flat notes may be substituted to increase this marimba's versatility.

2.Pipe Resonated 31/2 Octave 3 Player Diatonic Marimba

This is the same in range and size as (1), but is resonated by P.V.C. pipe. The pipes are capped and need to be tuned and fitted exactly to resonate the tone bars. This makes the instrument a little more difficult to build than the above model. Some people prefer the sound of tube resonation. Having pipes also means that it is possible to obtain the distinctive African marimba timbre (the buzz) by fitting mirlitons (holes with plastic coverings) to the resonators.

3. Pipe Resonated 2 Octave 2 Player Bass Marimba

The deepest note on this marimba is an octave below the 3-player instruments. The overall length is slightly shorter than (1) and (2), and construction is a little more challenging than (2) owing to the fitting of pipe resonators that have bends. This marimba has optional adaptors for the pipes which are necessary when using sharp and flat tone bars.

4. Box Resonated 13 Note, 1 Player Minimarimba

This compact instrument is a fully portable soprano xylophone. When not being played the bars and beaters are stored inside the instrument and secured by a well fitting lid. A handle makes it easily carried even by a child.

Design Principles

In designing these in instruments I have kept in mind the following important points.

Jon Madin

Jon Madin has been running workshops in marimba playing for 6 years. He has also been involved in designing and making marimbas and other do-it-yourself instruments. His musical background includes playing in bush and old-timey bands, playing in early music consorts and an orchestra, singing in choirs and exploring the sound possibilities of many ethnic and wacky instruments. He has also taught classroom music at all school levels.