Everything you need to know to find a good basic mallet set for marimba of vibraphone.
Today’s percussionists have access to a larger selection of mallets and instruments than ever before. This makes choosing mallets that sound good on your instrument and plays well a big challenge. Rattan or birch, yarn or cord, round or oval, long or short, heavy or light? The choices seem endless. It is no surprise that we at Show & Marching Music frequently receive requests for advice when it comes to purchasing the “right” mallets. The problem? There is no one “right” set of mallets. We can help you with tips to avoid buying the "wrong" mallets.
While we all love to save money, it is important to remember that the instrument you play sounds only as good as the mallet you use to play it. Even a top of the line instrument can sound unpleasant when it’s played with the wrong “tools”. Often a few extra euros can be the difference between a good sound and a great sound. As your collection grows, it is wise to store your precious mallets in a sturdy mallet bag.
The majority of mallet handles are made from either birch or rattan. Birch is a light but stiff wood which will retain its shape quite well over time. Rattan is a slightly heavier and more flexible material. Over time, rattan handles may develop a slight curve. It is important to note that both birch and rattan mallet handles are used by players of all levels all around the world, and that choosing one over the other is simply a matter of personal preference. When I play vibraphone I usually choose rattan. Thanks to the flexibility of the material you can damp individual bars with your mallet.
Like the other factors we have listed so far, handle length will ultimately come down to the player’s personal preference. That being said, it is worth mentioning that the majority of Stevens-grip players tend to prefer a shorter handle, while cross-grip (or traditional) players tend to prefer a longer handle. This is a logical trend, as longer mallet handles are required to achieve the same intervals for cross-grip players. Stevens-grip players sometimes find that a longer mallet handle feels heavier than they prefer. Most marimba mallets are longer than vibraphone mallets because the distances you have to overcome on a marimba are usually larger, certainly with today’s 5 octave marimbas.
It is fairly common for cross-grip players to prefer a heavier mallet, due to the mechanics of the grip they are using. Once again, the opposite is true for players using Stevens grip, who tend to gravitate toward a somewhat lighter mallet. When you start playing with four mallets, you might want to start with lighter mallets so you can focus on proper technique and learn how to play relaxed without getting tired.
Yarn versus Cord
Yarn mallets are used primarily for wooden instruments, particularly the marimba, due to their warm sound quality. Using yarn mallets on a metallic instrument such as a vibraphone will typically not produce the strong fundamental tone the player is generally looking for. As you may have guessed, the inverse is true of cord mallets, which produce a more articulate tone, making them much more suitable for instruments like the vibraphone. Cord mallets can be used on the marimba as well, when the player desires a more pointed tone with a faster decay.
For these reasons, yarn mallets will often be marketed as “marimba” mallets, while most “vibraphone” mallets are made with cord. If I have to switch between vibes and marimba quickly during a gig, I mostly use cord mallets because these are working well on both instruments.
Most mallets today are produced in a line, or series, of different hardnesses. As one might expect, soft mallets will generally sound their best in the lower range of the instrument, and may not speak well in the upper register. Of course the opposite will be true of harder mallets. I always recommend beginners to start with a medium mallet. From there, a medium-hard and then medium-soft mallet would be the next logical addition to your set. Try to avoid extremes (ie, very soft, two-toned, etc.) until you have a comfortable selection of medium, general-purpose mallets. Remember, it is ultimately the player’s job to achieve the desired dynamic, not the mallet’s.
When you add up all of these different factors, it is easy to see that there is no perfect set of sticks or mallets out there. Most players spend years building their collection of mallets, ensuring that they always have the right mallet for the task at hand. It is important to remember that the ultimate goal when selecting mallets is to produce the best tone possible on your instrument. For most of us, it will take some experimentation to find the combination that feels good in our hands and produces the sound we want. We can pay you a visit to try out different mallets on your own instruments. For example, we can plan this during your weekly rehearsal. Be sure to take note of what you like and dislike about each and every set of mallets you play, which will help you avoid the “wrong” mallets we mentioned earlier. From there, it’s just a matter of time before you know exactly which mallet to reach for on your next piece. Through our extensive network we can also help you, besides our own brands Smith Mallets and Salyers Percussion, with sticks and mallets from other suppliers. A quote can be made quickly.