In the last post we saw how "undercutting" marimba/xylophone bars opens the door to harmonic tuning -- forcing the audible overtones to align with a pitch in the harmonic series (of whatever the fundamental pitch of the bar happens to be).

It's possible that the technology of undercutting (i.e. deepening the pitch of a bar by cutting a notch in it) is pretty much universal in all musical cultures that have developed wooden bar percussion instruments. It is extremely useful for two main reasons -- 1) it makes deep-pitched bars shorter, hence instruments are smaller, lighter, more portable. And 2) it makes it much easier to tune a bar to a precise pitch. Without undercutting, a bar has to be exactly the right length (given its thickness, density,etc) to give a particular pitch. Undercutting puts an extra weapon into the tuner's hand -- if a bar is flat to the desired pitch, cut it shorter; if it's sharp, scoop out material from the middle. In practice makers soon discover that it is easier to cut all the bars so they are sharp to the desired pitch, and then approach the pitch incrementally by shaving the scoop and checking from time to time.

Accurate tuning is by no means just a modern concern -- Mandinka balafon makers tune their instruments to an equidistant heptatonic scale and may have been following this tradition for 800 years -- but harmonic tuning was as far as we know not pursued by anybody until the 1920s, when it was introduced by -- well, by whom, exactly?

I guess I've given away the answer in the title of the post ... well, maybe not THE answer, but a possible answer.

...continue reading Herman Winterhoff rides again

So Sebastian Hurtado of Guatemala was, it seems, the first to make a fully chromatic marimba (1890s). We had to wait until the 1920s before the next essential feature of the modern marimba was introduced, namely harmonic tuning .... which is what, exactly?

Explanation, and more, follows below the fold. (This is quite a long post, but there are many illustrations to make it even more confusing).

...continue reading A driftwood marimba on the Beach of Improbability

... I am sometimes asked. And I would like to say that the talented and under-recognised Herman Winterhoff, prime mover in development of the vibraphone, went on to invent the marimba on a quiet weekend.

Well, actually not; although he was -- arguably -- responsible for a crucial innovation, to which we shall return.

The invention -- if that's the right word -- of the marimba was spread over decades; and over continents; and involved contributions from many people, only some of whom are identifiable. One of the most important has the distinction of being celebrated on a banknote (worthy achievement) -- specifically this Guatemalan 200 quetzal note (image from


...continue reading So who invented the marimba?

We interrupt our series on Herman Winterhoff for an update on my "vintage" xylophone build (I suppose that should be "semi-vintage", a true vintage xylo would be a strohfiedel). The instrument is finished except for a final round of tuning (and fitting castors).


When I started making marimbas and xylophones someone said "So where do you get the bars?" --  I was tempted to reply "Ikea" but the real answer is I get them from a tree.

...continue reading THIS is a xylophone

It's time to pay credit to the man who invented the vibraphone, the well tempered marimba bar, and the musical element, Herman E Winterhoff of Indianapolis.

I would have liked to head this post with a striking photo of the talented Winterhoff, but the first image the internet turned up for me was this one:


Never mind, he will appear alive below the fold. ...continue reading Thank you, Herman E Winterhoff

If you know percussion history -- or if you have read my What is a xylophone Part One -- you will know that the earliest celebrity tuned-percussion performer was Michael Joseph Gusikow, a klezmer from eastern Europe (born in Shklov, now in Belarus).

Discounting the fact that he died of tuberculosis at the age of 31 (over a thousand miles from home, and possibly having just suffered the theft of his celebrated instrument) Gusikow seems to have had an outlandishly fortunate career.

The TB supposedly forced him to give up playing the flute, so he turned to the strohfiedel. An odd choice? -- perhaps not; Gusikow was familiar with the tsimbl, a small cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) widely used in klezmer, Ukrainian and Roma music making -- indeed his father played both the flute and the tsimbl -- and it would have been relatively easy for him to adapt the longstanding musical practice of tsimbl playing to the new instrument. Possibly he had a precursor (or mentor, or colleague, or rival) in one Samson Jakubowski, or maybe he worked it out for himself. Or -- just possible -- there was a whole school of players who had mastered both the tsimbl and its wooden cousin the gelachter, the holz- und stroh instrument, the strohfiedel . . . and played whatever was to hand.

Gusikow however was alone in ascending (or descending?) from the shtetl to the salon. He was presumably an exceptionally gifted player, but he surely had other talents beside, um, talent. ...continue reading M J Gusikow

Musicians in the UK who know maker/repairer Paul Jefferies may have heard his critical opinion of modern commercial xylophones -- "They're not xylophones! They're piccolo marimbas!"

(You don't have to take my word for this as he has repeated the point on his blog.)

Which got me thinking about what it is that makes a xylophone a xylophone.

...continue reading What is a xylophone?

Welcome to the Hope Street Marimba blog. As you can see from the rest of the site, I make and repair tuned percussion instruments.

I'm going to use this blog to explore some of the wider issues that crop up when you're involved in this corner of the world of music. I hope it will be of interest to percussion players, teachers, makers ... or anyone else who comes by.