Gary Burton: The Four Mallet Man

gary burton

Bend In The Road

At this point, Burton becomes even more detailed, answering a familiar question that dates back to the late ’60s. “As for the bending of the notes,” Burton recalls almost immediately, “this was shown to me by Emil Richards, the studio percus- sionist in Los Angeles. Emil showed it to me using a cigarette lighter. The bar vibrates, except for two spots where the hole is drilled and the string goes through the bar to hold it on the keyboard. Those are called the nodal points. And the bar doesn’t vibrate there. It vibrates in the middle and the two ends of the bar. So, if you press down on the dead spot, the nodal point, with something and then slide into the part that vibrates, you’ll add weight to it, and begin to vibrate with the bar and slow down those vibrations dropping the pitch.

“So he showed this to me,” he goes on to say, “to get the bar ringing and then put the cigarette lighter on there and then slide away from the dead spot and into the vibrating part of the bar, and then there goes the pitch down. I loved that idea of being able to do that occasionally, working with guitar players who can slide all over the place with notes and that it would be wonderful if I could use that effect some time. But I couldn’t see myself pulling out a cigarette lighter on the bandstand in front of an audience, so I discovered I could do it with a xylophone mallet, anything that’s hard. If it’s a soft mallet, instead of vibrating with the bar, it just dampens it and stops it from ringing. So, I would give up one of my four mallets, and hold a xylophone mallet down at the bottom of my four, and just use it for the bending of the notes. Ballads and blues were the types of tunes where I would use it.”

During a certain European tour, Burton ended up breaking the one xylophone mallet he had, and it got him thinking about the effect. His intention when Burton first started using it was that it would be an addition to vibraphone playing, to get another possibility. But in fact over the five years he did it, it still came across as kind of “a gimmick.” And so, at the end of that tour, he never replaced that xylophone mallet. And that was 40 years ago, more or less. Funny, to this day, people still ask, as in this interview, how he does it, and he doesn’t seem surprised to answer.

As for the mallets themselves, Burton is just a one-mallet guy. Or, as he puts it, as an improvising musician needing to be flexible and ready to play in all situations and at a moment’s notice, he goes with a “middle of the road, all-purpose mallet.”

“I want a mallet that sounds good at all volume levels, that sounds the same at all volume levels, whether I’m hitting lightly or hard. When I’m playing soft or loud, the same timbre, a medium mallet works best.”

Getting A Grip, Four To Go

“There are two challenges to playing with four,” Burton returns. “One is physical, manipulating them in your hands. And the other is mental, knowing what notes to hit with the different mallets. And that’s the one that actually stops most vibes players from switching, because they’re used to thinking in terms of the two mallets, and starting over with four is like starting over, mentally. The example I give to students when I talk about this is, imagine studying the piano and for the first year you’re just using your two index fingers, and then for the second year you add two more fingers, and so on; finally after ten years you’ve got all ten fingers going.”

Clearly, for Burton, it’s about an orientation and how to coordinate the ten fingers. The educator, in full-swing mode, adds, “I always recommend to students, don’t put it off for a long time, if you want to end up playing with four. Soon as you can, start holding the four mallets in your hands and start using them, playing the music that way, so that your mental processes evolve along with your physical dexterity.”

That grip and how Burton’s been able to bend notes provides more insight into his musical mind and the way he plays. “The grips came about because in high school, as I got more into jazz, there’s two parts to the jazz performance. One is playing the melody part, the head of the tune, and then, the improvised solo. And what a lot of vibists do, even to this day, is they use four mallets when they’re playing the riff part; that’s because they know what’s coming, they know what notes are going to be played next, and they can rehearse it and practice it and plan for it. But when they get to the improvised section, the four mallets feel like they’re weighing them down, cumbersome, and you can’t really play as freely as you can with two. And so I did the same thing: I would play the head with four mallets, and then lay two mallets down and solo with two.

“But what happened was, when I was playing with two, I would get ideas for a chord here and there, I’d want a voicing, do something that required four mallets. So, I began to realize that I wanted to be able to hold the mallets all the time and not have to lay two of them down just because I wanted to feel free to solo. And that made me realize the traditional way of holding the sticks was fairly clumsy. And so, I started experimenting, holding the mallets the opposite way, crossing them this way, move that finger, try this.”

Burton eventually settled on his current grip – which, it turns out, allowed him more dexterity with opening and closing the mallets, changing their positions, and a much more solid grip on the mallets, where his hands felt more comfortable and he felt, ironically, he had more control. “The ideal,” he goes on to say, “is that when you play a passage with just two mallets, like a central melody line, it should feel, as much as possible, like you have just two mallets in your hands, and the extra mallets don’t distract you. And my grip, I discovered, was really good at that. The mallets that weren’t being played didn’t bounce up and down and add weight and form a distraction. I switched at about age 15, and have played the same way ever since. And it turns out to be the dominant grip now [with the first two mallets held like a drummer holds sticks and the second pair held between the index finger and the middle finger]. Not everyone uses it, but it’s the most popular. The classical marimbists in Japan ... it’s been know as the ’Burton Grip,’ and I was well-known as the ’four-mallet guy.’”

That “four-mallet guy” has settled into a less hectic life, without full-time educational work and regular touring and recording. But the eventual CDs and periodic shows (an American tour with pianist Makoto Ozone starting at New York’s Blue Note in April and continuing in Europe in November, with June performances with Chick Corea in Australia, Asia, and Japan), along with his new autobiography, ought to keep Gary Burton top of mind.

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