So you want to play the electric vibraphone

First, it's a vibraphone. Oh, you mean a xylophone. I just love the sound of those. No, the vibe is a metallic keyboard, unlike the xylophone, whose keyboard is made of wood.

Second, it's electric. Well, aren't most vibes electric? They have a cord with a plug going into a wall socket. No, that powers the motor driving the valves in the resonators that produce a gentle vibrato. Not all vibraphones come with a motor and some vibists prefer not to use the effect.

So what is it? The electric vibe is an instrument in the mallet family which has been built or modified to generate an electric signal by the addition of a pickup for each bar. These pickups are bused together to an output line which can then be processed by any combination of effects, routed to a mixer or amplifier, then delivered to a speaker system. This can be done to an acoustic instrument, but there are also electronic keyboards such as the Deagan ElectraVibe or the MalletKat.

The first version of the vibraphone was created in 1916 by Herman Winterhoff of the Leedy Manufacturing firm. The instrument was refined by George Schluter of the Deagan Company in 1927.1 It was first used in an orchestral setting by Alban Berg in his opera Lulu, and brought to popular audiences by Red Norvo, Lionel Hampton, and the generations of vibists they inspired.

As music changed in the sixties, the groups became louder and the need to be heard as a mallet player was tested: hard mallets and a strong delivery were necessities. As anyone who has been put into this musical situation will attest, the sound produced by banging is hardly a desirable one.

Like the birth and evolution of the vibraphone, the electric vibe had a number of developers. Mike Mainieri was playing with Jeremy and the Satyrs in the village (NYC) in the late '60s, and Richie Havens was in the audience. When Mike asked him how it sounded, Richie replied, the band sounds great, but I couldn't hear a note you played. Havens was using a hot dot to amplify his acoustic guitar and he offered, Why don't you just put one of those pickups on each of your bars? So the experimentation began: they used glue to attach the pickups at the node of the bar, an electrician friend set up the rails, and Mainieri began using all the outboard effects guitar players use. He's been playing electric ever since.2

At the same time Paul Hoffert was playing with the Canadian jazz-rock band Lighthouse and started collaborating with Deagan, using piezoelectric pickups on every bar, on an instrument that did not use resonators and was more portable. This was in 1969 and was the prototype of the Deagan ElectraVibe.3 There was even a print ad from 1970 featuring Bobby Hutcherson playing the ElectraVibe.

Then there's Oliver Jesperson (also known as Jess Oliver) an engineer and inventor who worked for Ampeg and was responsible for the most-recorded bass amplifier, the Ampeg B-15 Portaflex. His vibraphone pickup design used a variable-reluctance magnetic reversed-coil arrangement and mounted them in rails that floated below the bars. This pickup turned into his fourth patent, (1972 Electric vibraphone ... his mallet invention used humbucking pickups)4 and the unit was pitched to Deagan…. This deal fell through and for a short time, Oliver marketed the device [along with an amplifier of his own design] himself, with the endorsement of musical wiz Gary Burton, before Ludwig picked it up for their Musser line.5 This was the Ludwig Electro-Vibe pickup (not to be confused with Deagan's ElectraVibe) that Gary used on his Good Vibes LP (issued by Atlantic Records, 1970) on the track Vibrafinger. This system was also used by the great Dave Pike, another pioneer of electric playing.

Deagan experimented with their own version of the coil-pickup unit, the AmpliVibe pickup (Model Av 33AVS and 33AVT)6 at the same time as Musser, but eventually chose to go with the piezo system and the ElectraVibe.

The sound generated by the pickup coils was a small step up from acoustic. Dave Samuels in an interview with Rick Mattingly (Mallets, Amplification and MIDI, Percussive Notes, June 1997) had this to say: After I got rid of the ElectraVibe, I got an endorsement with Musser and got this system they had called the ElectroVibe Pickup. It was a magnetic pickup bar that attached to the outside of the rails. It was inexpensively made, and you mostly got a thumping sound -- not much pitch.7

The early seventies saw developments of the piezoelectric system. In Rockville, Maryland, Bill Dreiman (aka Bill Marimba) of Good Vibes Malletworks was drilling each bar at the node and installing Barcus-Berry hot dots in them with epoxy for a more permanent attachment. These all went to a common bus with a preamp. Ray Ayotte, a drum maker from Vancouver, took the concept of one pickup per bar and added a potentiometer to each input, providing a volume control for each bar.8 As the seventies progressed into the eighties, a German musician, Dieter Kaudel, got into vibraphone amplification using a magnetic pickup system with three separate outputs. In 1984 this venture became K & K Sound Systems and the magnetic coils became transducers.9

The electric music world was also developing, thanks in large part to Robert Moog, a New Yorker with a Ph.D. in engineering physics. His first instrument venture was the theremin. Through the late sixties he developed the modular synthesizer and by 1971 he came out with the Minimoog, an affordable, portable synthesizer.10 Mike Mainieri was on top of that: in the early '70s, I bought my first Minimoog. It was monophonic in the very beginning, but later we built a polyphonic pickup system. For the musical situations I was exploring, I was MIDI'd up to the max. I had three synthesizers and was hooked up to an Oberheim, a DX-7, and a polyphonic Moog.11

MIDI is short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface which is a technical standard describing a communications protocol for connecting musical instruments, computers, and related audio devices. In short, it converts a signal from a trigger source into a language of ones and zeroes to be interpreted by a synthesizer. The development of MIDI was announced to the public by Robert Moog in the October edition of Keyboard Magazine, 1982.12

This set the stage for the next advance in mallet technology, the MalletKat. Bill Katoski founded Kat after leaving Mattel where he was developing a hybrid digital/analog keyboard.13 Dave Samuels commented Bill's instrument had capabilities that were very sophisticated and thorough, way beyond the use of most people. His instrument did everything but make coffee. I've used every version of the MalletKat that Bill made. They were always reliable and sound great.14 (For reference, check out All Pass By, a terrific recording by Bill Molenhof.) Mario Decuitiis, vice president of Kat from 1986, took over the reins and regrouped as Alternate Mode in 1996 and now manufactures all the Kat MIDI percussion controllers.15

K & K also had a MIDI system and for a time was the only manufacturer that offered this option. (They have since curtailed the sale of these units). Enter Nico Van Der Plas of Vanderplastal, who created a line of acoustic/electric and MIDI vibraphones that are futuristic and state of the art.

Malletech is the latest manufacturer to bring out a new line of vibraphones and a new pickup system, the V3. It is a portable set of rails and preamp that can be easily transported and installed. Joe Locke had a hand in designing the system and Mike Pope spent many hours fine tuning the preamp. It is a serious addition to the marketplace of pickup systems.

A hundred years of vibraphone history and fifty years for the electric vibraphone makes it all very recent. You can still find various electro-magnetic pickups and ElectraVibes in the marketplace. There is no reason why you should ever have to complain about not being heard. In that article by Rick Mattingly, Dave Samuels had a parting thought: I generally recommend that anyone who is performing on a consistent basis buy a pickup system. It's really going to be your first line of defense in terms of being able to get a consistent sound.16

So you need to play the electric vibraphone. Yes, you do. When giving this advice, it is also advisable to add: when working the high wire, use a net; when skydiving, use a parachute; and when playing loud music, always wear hearing protection. So plug it in, and turn it up.

©2018 Jerry Gentry

Jerry Gentry plays an early seventies Musser M45 One Nighter with a Barcus-Berry System installed by Bill Marimba of Good Vibes Malletworks (EVIBES serial #1002) and a Musser M48 Pro Traveler with a K & K split rail system. His current rack has six stomp boxes along with a handful of older effects and four separate sound systems.


  1. James Blades, Percussion Instruments and Their History (F. A. Praeger, 1970), 408.
  2. Anthony Smith, Masters of the Vibes (Marimba Productions, Inc., Asbury Park, New Jersey 2017), 58, 59.
  6. Rick Mattingly, Mallets, Amplification and Midi Percussive Notes (June 1997): 67.
  7. Ibid: 66.
  8. Ibid: 67.
  11. Anthony Smith, Masters of the Vibes (Marimba Productions, Inc., Asbury Park, New Jersey 2017), 59.
  13. Mike Snyder, All About Electronic Percussion (Hal Leonard, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2006), 13.
  14. Rick Mattingly, Mallets, Amplification and Midi Percussive Notes (June 1997): 67.
  16. Rick Mattingly, Mallets, Amplification and Midi Percussive Notes (June 1997): 68.

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