Do percussionists still play xylophone solos?


Or is it all marimba these days?

I grew up with the xylophone. Nearly every band rehearsal room had one in some state or another. Resonator tubes leaning against the wall with the other sections hidden under piles of music or even complete in the far corner of the band room covered in posters and cases invariably used as a table. The three, or sometimes three and a half, octave rickety framed wooden noted instrument was an integral part of my musical education in brass bands.

It took a few years for me to understand why most of these instruments sounded so bad with the band. It was not until I took an interest in their construction, and looked underneath the notes, that I found the reason for the obvious tuning discrepancies with the brass instruments. Many of the xylophones I played were in HP, not bought on the never never but in high pitch. High pitch was a common tuning standard in the brass bands up until the 1960s (nearly a semitone above the standard orchestral [A440] tuning) but unfortunately it was not a full semitone different so even by reorganising the notes on the instrument it sounded too flat to the 1970s brass band that had changed to a standardised pitch or very obviously out of tune if left as manufactured.

This was the instrument I learnt on, got to grips with the distances between notes and mastered the target practice. It was very rare to see a xylophone being performed as a solo instrument although Patrick Moore (writer, television presenter and amateur astronomer) was sometimes featured on the BBC performing one of his solos. Representative clip of the style from an early Children In Need special with the brilliant Deryck Guyler on another neglected percussion setup the washboard and pans.

YouTube now features a few more xylophone soloist especially the great Teddy Brown and his band playing drums or xylophone with an effortless, yet years of practice, technique. One of my solos Two Spanish Dances has even made it onto the channel, played by a 12 year old Jess, with piano accompaniment although the majority of the others solos on the channel have brass or military band accompaniments.

To have a marimba in the 60s and 70s was something special, exotic and wasn’t it just a bass xylophone? Even now having a marimba in the UK is not that common. Hopefully most music services in the country invested in one in the past, before the new funding regime came into effect, as spending that sort of money on such an instrument these days would now be regarded as too much of a luxury. What now seems to be the major difficulty for the aspiring percussionist is the access to an instrument. Having spent so much money in the past administrators have now got all the expensive assets locked away, often in storerooms rather than practice rooms and finding the instrument, let alone being able to practice on it, needs determination and guile.

Last week there were many posts and tweets by percussion friends from PASIC 2015 organised by the Percussive Arts Society held in San Antonio, Texas. In a separate event on November 8th Kutztown University organised an event celebrating the life and work of Clair Omar Musser, ‘150 marimbists on over 75 instruments’ was advertised in the press release. Here in the UK we can only admire the spectacle and hope for similar investment somehow in the future. I could find 75 xylophones fairly easily in my locality but that number of marimbas in the country would prove a challenge even taking into account university and conservatoire percussion departments.

I will continue to compose for both instruments and would love to write for a large ensemble of marimbas though getting to hear a performance may be too difficult. The great organisational work by Liz Gilliver and future performances of the Manchester Marimba Orchestra could be an inspiration to UK based composers to explore this set of sounds but this project needs a benefactor as do most music projects in this country.
The sheet music for the Ten Xylophone Solos book with piano accompaniments is available to order from Southern Percussion and the suite Mutual Marimba Music and the new book 12 Solos for Xylophone with CD of accompaniments can be ordered from or as a download from either in sterling or in dollars.
The xylophone and timpani were the start of my musical vocation and I hope you enjoy the xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiels, bells… any and all of the keyboard percussion instruments, I have and continue to do so.

© P. R. Birkby 2015

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T to Z from the A to Z of percussion

World Premiere at The Joseph Bramah

Percussion at the world premiere of DDoDV


Tabla (India) Wooden drum with straps and tuned with pegs.

Tabor (Europe) Long narrow drum.

Taiko (Japan) Large barrel shaped drum.

Talam (India) Finger cymbals.

Talking drum (Africa) Hour-glass shaped drum with rope tension, pitch is altered when ropes are squeezed.

Tamborim (Brazil) Small, high pitched single headed drum.

Tambourine Single headed frame drum with pairs of metal jingles around the frame.  Translations Italian tamburo basco/tamborino, French tambour de Basque, German schellentrommel/ tambourin, Spanish pandereta.

Tammorra (Italy) Tambourine.

Tam Tam (World) Large metal disc of indefinite pitch.

Tapan (Balkans) Large tom tom with rope tension.

Tenor Drum Tom tom designed for marching.  Translations Italian tamburo rullante, French caisse roulante/tambourin, German ruhrtrommel/tenortrommel, Spanish canja rodante.

Thavil or Tavil (India) Similar to bata drum.

Thunder sheet (USA) Shaken metal sheet for thunder effect.

Thunder stick see bull roarer.

Timbale (Cuba) pair of single headed metal drums, often with cowbell(s) attached.

Timbalito (Cuba/USA)- Smaller, more piercing version of timbales.

Timpani or kettle drums Pitched drums with a limited range of notes so usually performed in sets of 2 (most common) to 6 (rare).  The lowest note on the largest drum is around C (2 octaves below middle C) and the highest on the smallest drum is B below middle C.  Tuning can be altered by using tuning handles (old) or a pedal mechanism (modern).  Translations Italian timpani, French timbale, German pauken, Spanish timbale.

Ting-ting (Tibet) pitched metal disc (see crotale).

Tom tom Many cultures have single and double headed drums similar to kit or set drums. Each has a traditional or regional name and many of these are included in the A to Z.

Train whistle Imitation of a steam train whistle, often 2 or 3 tones.

Trash (World) Sounds created from rubbish or junk, trash cymbal has little ring but a harsh metallic sound.

Tres golpes (Cuba) 3 tumbadora set (conga).

Triangle Various sizes of ringing metals and alloys.

Tsuzumi (Japan) Talking Drum.

Tubular Bells Usually manufactured as chromatic sets with a range of C to F (octave +). Translations American chimes, Italian campane, French cloches, German glocken, Spanish campanas.


Udkka or Udakai (India) Talking drum.

Urumee (India) Hourglass shaped drum.


Vibraphone or vibraharp (USA) metal bars with a usual range of 3 octaves from F below middle C upwards.  The instrument has small paddles in the top of each resonating tube that can be turned by a motor for a vibrato effect.


Washboard (Europe/ USA) corrugated metal played with thimbles on the fingers (often has pans and horns with it).

Waterphone Metal rods welded onto a bowl with water inside, rods are struck/ scratched or bowed to produce an ethereal sound.

Whip or Slapstick Two flat pieces of wood (hinged) that slap together imitating a whip sound.  Translations Italian frusta, French fouet, German peische/holzklapper, Spanish fusta la tigo.

Whistle Many used for effects, police, referees, boatswain, swanee, siren…

Wind chimes (World) Various lengths of hanging material- wood, bamboo, shell, glass, metal, keys….

Wind machine (Western) Stretched canvas and wood mechanical sound effect.

Wine glasses Pitched and performed by running finger around the edge, bowing or soft beaters.

Wood block Translations Italian cassa di legno, French blocs de bois, German holzblock, Spanish bois de madera.


Xylophone Wooden bars with a range of 3 or 3.5 octaves down from the top C of a full sized piano.  Translations Italian Silofono, French Xylophone, German Xylophon, Spanish Xilofon.


Ya-kou (Africa) Barrel shaped drum.


Zabomba (Brazil) Bass drum. for the latest news about percussion publications.  The A to Z information is taken from the Drum Kit and Percussion Jotter.

© P.R.Birkby 2015

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R and S from the A to Z of percussion



Rain maker (Brazil) Tube with baffles and seeds inside.

Ratchet Usually made of wood with a cog turning against fixed slats. Translations Italian raganella, French crecelle, German ratshe, Spanish carraca.

Rattle (Aboriginal/ Australia)- Container or gourd with seeds inside.

Reco-reco (Brazil) Scraper, often metal springs stretched on a piece of exhaust pipe.

Requinto (Puerto Rico) Lead drum in Bomba music.

rGna rGna (Tibet) Drum supported on a pole or suspended in a frame struck with a crooked stick.

Riq (Middle East) Similar to the tambourine though the jingles are larger and heavier sounding (consequently less pairs on the instrument).  Performed with the head mainly in the vertical plain with fingers and palm.

Rolmo Rolmo (Tibet)- cymbals held one above the other and struck by vertical movement.

Rototom (USA) tuneable tom tom with no shell

Rullante (Italy) Snare Drum (or Tenor Drum)

Rute- see Switch


Sakara (Nigeria) Drum with pot shell

Sandpaper Blocks (Western) effect of train/ sandance etc.

Sansa- see Marimbula

Segundo (Cuba) Larger tumbadora of pair (conga)

Shaker Tube or box shape with beads, seeds, stones, shot… inside (pictured). Translations Italian tubo, French chocalho, German schlittelrohr, Spanish chocalho.

Shekere (Africa) (Cuba) Gourd strung with beads

Silnyen Silnyen (Tibet)- cymbals struck by horizontal movement.

Singing Bowl (Tibet) Metal bowl produces a note by running stick round the edge.

Siren- Wind whistle to swoop up (and down with a little practice) Also air raid siren, larger mechanical version.

Sistrum (Arabia) or Spurs Metal discs in a frame.

Slapstick see Whip.

Sleigh Bells Collection of metal bells (often different sizes) with an internal clapper. Translations Italian sonagli, French grelots, German schellen, Spanish sonajas.

Slit Drum (Africa) see log drum.

Snare drum Drum (usually double headed) with a wire, hair or gut snare or snares touching one or both heads. Translations Italian tamburo piccolo/rillante, French caisse claire, German kleine trommel, Spanish caja clara.

Spoons A pair, wood, metal or bone struck together.

Spring (USA) Suspended shock absorbers from vehicles.

Steel Drums (Jamaica) Cut down and tuned oil drums, also known as Pans.

Sticks- or Mallets, Beaters, Rute, Switch, Rattan- mostly made with wooden handles but with various types of heads or tips: wood, felt, metal, rubber, plastic, wool, cloth, fur, leather- to produce different sounds from the instruments.

Stones (World) Struck together of struck with stick(s).  There are also stone and slate keyboard percussion instruments (rare).

Surdo (Brazil) Large and long drum (deep/ bass sound).

Swanee Whistle Whistle alters pitch by changing the length of pipe, swoop up and down.

Switch or Rute (World) Bunch of twigs or split wood that is used as a sound or as a stick. for the latest news about percussion publications.  The A to Z is taken from the Drum Kit and Percussion Jotter.

(c) Peter R. Birkby 2015

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M, N, O, P and Q from A to Z of percussion


Mark tree

Macho (Cuba) smaller timbale drum.

Madal (India) drum like bata.

Mallets (USA) see sticks.

Mambo bell (Cuba) Larger cowbell with timbales.

Maracas (South America) shells/ gourds or constructed pair of shakers with handles.

Marimba (Africa) Wooden bars with a mellow sound due to the size of the bars/register that the instrument can cover.  Various different versions see list below written at pitch.


Marimbula or Mbira (Africa) also thumb piano or kalimba.  Metal or bamboo strips attached to a resonating chamber.

Mark Tree (USA) Long metal wind chime with chimes ordered in pitch (pictured).

Matka (India) Pot drum.

Mexican Bean Very long seed pod used as a shaker.

Mkar-rnga (Tibet) Pitched gong.

Monkey Drum (Asia) Small drum on a handle with balls on strings that hit the heads when the handle is turned.

Motor Horns see Car Horns.

Mridangam (India) drum like bata.


Nagara (India) Pot drum.

Nightingale Call whistle in water filled chamber.

Nyma (Africa) Pot drum.


Orixas (Brazil) Beaded gourd instrument, used in afroxé.


Pailas (Cuba) Timbales or play shells of the drums.

Pakhwaj (India) drum like bata.

Palitos (Cuba) Sticks or played on any wooden sound.

Pandeirada (Spain) lively Galician tambourine-based tunes.

Pandeiro, (Brazil) Headed tambourine with heavy jingles.

Pistol (World) Starting pistol to create sound effect.

Prayer Bowl (see Singing bowl).


Quijada (South America) also charrasga or jawbone.  Jawbone (horse, donkey size) that has been dried with teeth intact to rattle when struck.  See the modern equivalent the vibra slap.

Quinto (Cuba) Smaller/ high pitched tumbadora (conga). for the latest news about percussion publications.  The A to Z is part of the Drum Kit and Percussion Jotter.

© P.R.Birkby 2015

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H, I, J, K and L from A to Z of percussion


Hammer (World).

Handbells (Europe) Pitched bells with internal clapper.

Hembra (Cuba) Larger timbale drum.

Hyoshigi (Japan) Wooden blocks struck together.


Iba see Sistrum.

Itótele & Iyá (Cuba) Bata drums.

Iyesá Drums (Africa) Cylindrical double headed drums.


Japanese Temple Bell  Very large single bells often struck with a log for the most resonance.

Japanese Wood Block Circular block with resonating chamber underneath.

Jingling Johnny also Turkish crescent or schellenbaum Bells on a stand, often used in military/ceremonial occasions.


Kalimba or Thumb Piano (Africa) see Marimbula.

Kanjira (India) Tambourine.

Karkabas (Morocco) metal castanets.

Khanjari (India) Tambourine.

Kokoriko (Japan) Wooden slats strung together.

Kpanlogo (Africa) peg drum, similar to small conga.


Leaf Whistle (Aboriginal/ Australia)- Folded leaf.

Lions Roar (Western) See Cuica.

Log Drum (Africa) carved out of a large log.

Lujon (USA) Pitched metal plates with resonating tubes. for the latest news about publications, information from the Drum Kit and Percussion Jotter.

© P.R.Birkby 2015

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E, F and G from A to Z of percussion


Xylosynth copy

Eisa-daiko (Japan) Okinawan style of dancing and drumming.

Electronic Percussion (World) Triggers hit with sticks or fingers often linked to sound modules (pictured is the Xylosynth).

Elephant Bells (India) Sleigh bell like on a stick.

Engalabi (Africa) Long cylindrical drum.


Fanta (soda pop) bottle (Kenya) rhythm instrument to Omutibo music.

Field Drum (Europe) another name for a military snare drum.

Finger cymbals (Asia) light antique or crotale type pair of cymbals struck together.

Flexatone (USA) movable metal strip with clappers, can play melody (similar to a small version of a musical saw).

fósforo- (caixa de) (Brazil) Matchbox with matches.

frigideira (Brazil) Frying pan.


Gamelan (Java) Set of pitched gongs

Ganza (Brazil) Shaker or shakers bolted together

Ghatam (India) Pot drum

Ghungroo (India) Ankle bells

Glockenspiel (Europe) Metal bars that relate to the top few octaves of the piano.  Common versions of the instrument are 2.5 octaves with the top C being the top note of a full sized piano.  Marching version is the Bell Lyra.

English American Italian French German Spanish
Glockenspiel Bells Campanelli Jeu de timbres Stabglockenspiel Timbres

Gong (China) Pitched circular metal sometimes with a raised dome in the centre

Gourd (Tropics) Seed pod of a plant, used as a shaker, carved as a scraper, covered with beads or used to amplify instrumental sounds.  Examples are: berimbau, African marimba, shekere…

Guiro (Cuba) Scraper.

Gun- often a starting pistol. for the latest news about publications, information from the Drum Kit and Percussion Jotter.

© P.R.Birkby 2015

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D from A to Z of percussion



Dabachi (Japan) See singing bowl.

Dagga (India) Metal drum with straps and pegs for tuning.

Damaru (Tibet) Wooden hour-glass shaped drum with clappers. Played by rotation of one hand to make the clappers strike the skins (originally made from a human skull). Played with Drilbu in other hand.

Darabuka (Arabia) Vase shaped hand drum (pictured).

Dhap Dafri (India) Frame drum.

Dhol (India) Dome shaped rope tension drum.

Dholak (India) drum like conga.

Dholki (India) drum like bata.

Didgeridoo or Didjeridu (Aboriginal/ Australia)- Long hollow tube blown using a mixture of embouchure/ singing and circular breathing.

Djembe (Africa) Hourglass shaped drum.

Doira (Eastern Europe) Large tambourine.

Drilbu (Tibet) a hand-bell, played with Damaru.

Duck Call (See bird calls).

Duggi Tarang (India) Brass pot drums.

Dumbak (Arabia) Frame drum. for the latest news about publications, information from the Drum Kit and Percussion Jotter.

© P.R.Birkby 2015

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