Marimba FAQ’s (see http://www.nancyzeltsman.com/)
"Where did the instrument originate?"
The marimba's roots are ancient, as a folk instrument in the cultures of Africa, Latin America and Asia. The first crude beginnings of the marimba were several slabs of wood placed on sticks set over a hole in the ground which served as a resonating chamber. Later, slabs of wood were suspended over large gourds or wooden boxes which served to enhance the tone. Sources differ on the specific area in which the marimba originated; however, the frontrunners in this debate are Africa and the highlands of Guatemala. The modern Western concert marimba is quite different from these original folk instruments. The development of the modern marimba in this hemisphere can be traced to the Central American marimba builders, notably Sebastian Hurtado, who developed a chromatic arrangement of the bars laid out like the piano keyboard during the 1890s. In 1880, John Calhoun Deagan founded the first U.S. company to manufacture percussion instruments, and built the first real precursor to the modern Western marimba in Chicago around 1910.
"Is the marimba what Lionel Hampton played in jazz?"
No - he played a vibraphone. It's a close relative of the marimba with keys arranged the same way, like a piano keyboard, but the vibraphone's keys are made out of metal. Another difference is that the vibraphone has a pedal which can be used for sustain like the pedal on a piano. It also has a motor which can be turned on to rotate discs (one at the top of each resonator tube) which leave-open and close-off the resonators. This gives the impression of vibrato — which is how the instrument got its name.
"Well then, what is a xylophone?"
The xylophone is another close relative of the marimba — like the marimba, its keys are also made of wood and it has no sustain pedal or motorized "vibrato"-discs. However, the xylophone's range includes a full octave above the marimba's — which means it extends up to the top note of a piano.
"What is the marimba made out of?"
The keys are usually made of rosewood, most of which comes from Guatemala. The frame of the marimba could be made out of anything (various woods or synthetics); it doesn't affect the sound in any way. Most resonator pipes are made of aluminum. On some marimbas they are made of brass (but these can be extremely heavy and difficult to move).
"What do the pipes hanging down do?"
They amplify the resonance of the bar. Without the resonators, the bars of the marimba do not make much sound.
"What do you call the hammers or sticks you're playing with, and why are the heads different colors?"
They're called mallets. Frequently, they are different colors simply as a coding system for mallets of varying hardness. In general, softer mallets are most flattering to the lowest notes on the marimba, and harder mallets are most flattering to the higher notes. Players can achieve a wide range of different tone colors by their choice of different mallets, in conjunction the specific type of stroke they use to bring the mallets into contact with the keys.