2009 Marks the 60th Anniversary of Gary’s Introduction to Musser Mallet Instruments!
At age six Gary began studying marimba and vibraphone and his first instrument was a Musser student model. Soon after, he moved up to the then newly manufactured Century model marimba and vibraphone, and he has continued to play Musser instruments throughout his career. In 1964, Gary suggested the concept of a vibraphone which used a full-size keyboard but employed a collapsible frame, and thus was born the very popular M-55 Pro model vibraphone. Until the M-48 vibraphone was introduced in 1992, the M-55 was the most popular instrument of the Musser line. Gary designed the M-48 first for his own personal use, but demand was great enough to warrant manufacturing it for the commercial market and it has now become the best-selling vibraphone for Musser. The intent was to create an instrument with a full keyboard that could be packed in extremely small cases for convenient transportation, and at the same time have a very stable, professional instrument suitable for major concert performances. Gary’s vibraphone since the late eighties has been the M-48 model, and he alternates between two sets of keys, one tuned to A=440 and another to A=442, depending on the tuning situation he encounters as he tours and performs.
[The traveling cases for Gary’s M-48 are constructed of black fiberboard, and were designed by Gary to obtain minimum dimensions. They are fabricated for him by the S&M Case Company, Lawrence, MA.]
Gary Burton Mallets
When it comes to mallets, Gary explains that it is a very personal matter. "Most players go through a long period of experimentation looking for the right combination of weight, distribution, thickness and stiffness of shafts, type of wrapping and hardness. There are so many possibilities. I made a lot of my own for years, and adapted ones I purchased. Finally, a young man who called himself Bill Marimba showed up at a concert one day with a set of mallets based on the type I had been using at the time, and they were exceedingly well made. And, they sounded great and felt great."
Gary began using Good Vibes mallets manufactured by Bill Marimba and has continued with this same mallet design to this day. There have been transitions in the ownership of the Good Vibes name and Gary Burton mallets over the years. The Good Vibes company eventually was purchased by Musser, and in due time the materials used for Gary’s mallets were not available, so his model was discontinued. More recently, the Vic Firth company has been manufacturing Gary Burton mallets according to Gary’s specifications, though there have been occasional changes due to availability of hard-to-find materials in some instances.
Gary says he prefers a fairly stiff shaft, though not the dowel rods that some players like. "I want at least some flex in the mallets to absorb some of the shock of the attack on the bar, otherwise I begin to feel the results in my arms and elbows. But, I don’t want the shafts too whippy, either. It’s a delicate choice. If the shaft is too thick, it feels uncomfortable and clumsey, and if it’s too thin, there isn’t enough stiffness to play right. It has to be just right."
A medium hard rubber ball with 100% nylon wrapping is Gary’s preference. "Nylon never wears out, so it’s the best wrapping for the mallets. The only problem is that pure nylon yarn is rarely manufactured these days because of laws banning it’s use in making clothes due to it’s tendency to be highly flammable. But, it’s definitely the best material. My guide for the right hardness of the mallet is that I want to be able to play across the dynamic range from very soft to very loud with a minimum of change in the tone of the instrument. A mallet that is too hard sounds good at soft levels, but becomes clanky and unpleasant at louder volumes. A mallet that is too soft just doesn’t have the bite to cut through at higher volumes. Again, it has to be just right."
Being a jazz musician, Gary doesn’t carry a large assortment of different mallets with him as a studio musician might. "Since I don’t know from one moment to the next what dynamics I will want to play, I need an all-purpose mallet that I can use to my advantage in all situations."
The Burton Home Keyboard Instrument
Gary’s other instrument for home use is a Yamaha DGII Electronic Grand Piano with Disklavier. He finds it very useful for learning and developing new material, for exchanging pieces of music with friends, and just for enjoyment. "I majored in piano when I was in college, and while I don’t play piano in professional circumstances, I still enjoy playing keyboard music and find it has been very helpful to my concepts of vibraphone playing over the years."
Since 1972, Gary has used two Neumann U-87 or U-89 microphones when recording, so all record releases for the past two and a half decades have been recorded with Neumann microphones. On live concerts, he is fairly flexible regarding choice of microphone. "I usually go with whatever the sound crew prefer, almost any high quality micorphone is suitable for live performing when the effects of a large hall, natural reverberation, leakage, and many other factors make a high degree of subtlety elusive. Also, I have never been attracted to using pick-up’s on my vibraphone. Decades ago, when microphones were pretty primitive, I would have liked pick-up’s, I suppose, since the micophones didn’t help much. But, today’s microphones are quite adequate in all but the most high volume on-stage performing, and the instrument’s dynamic range isn’t compromised as is the case with pick-ups."