There are two categories of four-mallet grips: independent (in which the mallets don’t touch each other in the hand) and cross (in which the mallets intersect in the hand). The first independent grip was created by instrument designer and marimbist Claire Omar Musser. The Musser technique is less widely used today but can work well for some players. The Stevens technique was developed from the Musser technique and popularized by marimba virtuoso Leigh Howard Stevens. The two cross grips, both widely used today, are the Traditional grip and the Burton grip. Special thanks to Dan Moore and Brian Zator for their additional perspectives in making sure these grip descriptions are as accurate as possible to mainstream usage.
The first step in playing with four mallets is selecting a grip and learning how to properly and comfortably hold the mallets in each hand. For this step, walk away from the keyboard; you can stand or even sit comfortably and should focus only on your hands. Make sure you have at least two matching mallets for each hand (two pairs) or better yet, four matching mallets.
Start with one hand at a time. Regardless of which grip you try or eventually decide to use, once you feel you’ve successfully picked up the mallets, set them down and try the other hand by itself. Once both hands are reasonably comfortable individually, try putting mallets in both your hands. (Hint: set up your non-dominant hand first, while your dominant hand is not yet full of mallets.) Make sure to stretch out your fingers and hand frequently; to varying extents, each of these grips use a lot of small muscles that can tense and tire quickly in the initial learning phase.
Stevens Grip, top view (right). Stevens Grip, side view (left).
While there are many books, blogs, YouTube videos, etc., that can show you how to hold and use two mallets in each hand using the Stevens Technique, the definitive guide for this technique is Method of Movement for Marimba by L. H. Stevens. The Stevens Technique works best when using birch shafts.
Starting with the outside mallet, pick up the mallet and slide the shaft between the middle and ring fingers. The mallet shaft should travel along the top of the palm toward the outside edge of the hand and the end of the mallet shaft should align with the outside edge of the hand. The ring finger and pinkie should curl around the mallet for stability and support.
Next, pick up the second mallet and place the end of the shaft at the base of the thumb. The shaft should rest on the first crease of the first finger, near the knuckle, and the thumb should rest along the shaft of the mallet, with space between the thumb and the hand. The middle finger should either sit on top of or wrap around the shaft of the mallet, inside the palm.
In playing position, the hand should be perpendicular to the keyboard. The thumb should be at the top of the hand, facing the ceiling, with the outside edge of the hand facing the floor; the palms should face one another.
Here’s a quick list of things to check: The index finger should be relaxed, forming approximately a 90-degree angle, not wrapped around the mallet shaft; it can be easiest to think of this as a bird perch. The shaft of the inside mallet should rest in the crease of the knuckle closest to the fingertip. The mallet shaft should rest in the center of the thumb pad, and the tip of the thumb should rest directly above the index finger. The thumb and index finger together should resemble a capital T. Be sure the ring finger is ONLY curled around the outside mallet, and does not touch the inside mallet. The base of the inside mallet should rest near the base of the thumb, or perhaps in the center of the palm (for smaller-handed students). No more than one inch of the outside mallet should protrude from the pinkie. The outside mallet should sit right behind the knuckle of the ring finger, not back in the webbing of the hand. The outside edge of the hand must face the floor (think “karate chop” hand position).
The pinkie and ring finger are responsible for the outside mallet; the thumb, index, and middle fingers are responsible for the inside mallet; and they never share or cross over. The inside mallet should lay flat or even droop slightly, while the outside mallet should have a slight upward angle. This allows the mallet heads to lay in the same plane despite being in two different places in the hand. It is normal for beginners not to be able to do this (or not for very long), because they lack muscle strength in the palm and especially the outside of the hand. However, it is essential they keep correct hand position and not allow the hand to turn to even out the mallets. This can easily become a bad habit that will later have to be corrected.
Using the Stevens Technique, the mallets are numbered from lowest to highest: left-hand outside mallet is number 1; left-hand inside mallet is 2; right-hand inside mallet is number 3; right-hand outside mallet is 4.
Burton Grip, top view (left). Burton Grip, side view (right).
The Burton grip was developed by jazz vibist Gary Burton and is one of two cross grips where the shafts of the mallets cross inside the hands. This grip is typically used with rattan shafts but may also be used with birch shafts.
Start by laying the mallets in front of you on a flat surface. At this point, the shafts should be perpendicular to your body and parallel with each other. Cross the mallet shaft of the outside mallet on top of that of the inside mallet about 2/3 of the way towards the back end of the mallet (about where you would typically grab a snare drum stick). Insert your index finger into the top quadrant of the “X” that is formed by the mallet shafts. Wrap the thumb and remaining fingers around the mallets and pick them up. The thumb and index finger will meet on opposite sides of the inside mallet, in a fulcrum position similar to holding a single mallet in each hand. The middle finger should rest on the shaft of the outside mallet as it passes through the hand. The ring and pinky finger will curl around the back end of the inside mallet.
To widen the interval between the mallets, pull the index finger toward the palm and pull the shaft of the outside mallet up toward the base of the fingers with the pinky and ring finger. To widen further, move the thumb in between both mallets (along with the index finger). To narrow the interval between mallets, point the index finger straight ahead, and push the mallet heads towards each other with the thumb while also using the back fingers to squeeze the mallet shafts together inside the hand.
When using Burton grip, mallets are typically numbered from highest to lowest: right-hand outside mallet is number 1; right-hand inside mallet is 2; left-hand inside mallet is number 3; left-hand outside mallet is 4.
Traditional Grip, top view (left). Traditional Grip, side view (right).
The Traditional 4-mallet grip is a popular cross grip in Europe and Asia and is used by such outstanding marimbists and teachers as Keiko Abe and Nancy Zeltsman. This grip can be used equally well with either birch or rattan shafts.
Start by laying the mallets in front of you on a flat surface. At this point, the shafts should be perpendicular to your body and parallel with each other. Cross the mallet shaft of the inside mallet on top of that of the outside mallet approximately two to three inches from the back end of the mallet shaft. Insert your index finger and thumb into the top quadrant of the “X” that is formed by the mallet shafts and wrap your remaining fingers around the mallets. The shape of the index finger and thumb should make a “C” in the left hand and a backwards “C” in the right hand. The index finger will make contact with the outside mallet slightly above or below the first joint of the finger, whichever feels more comfortable to change intervals. The thumb will make contact with the inside mallet between the first joint and tip of the thumb. The back of the hands should face upwards to the ceiling or at a 45-degree angle away from your body. This will make it easier to keep the “C” position with the index finger and thumb.
At an intermediate interval, the tip of the middle finger will rest on the shaft of the inside mallet and the ring and pinky fingers will be wrapped comfortably around both mallet shafts and the point where they cross. To widen the interval between the mallets, spread the index finger and thumb further apart, allow the middle finger to wrap around the outside mallet only, and have the tip of the ring finger remain touching and supporting the bottom of the inside mallet. At this point, only the pinky and ring fingers will be securing the mallet shafts at the point at which they cross. To narrow the interval between mallets, squeeze the mallet shafts together using the middle finger along with the pinky and ring fingers, while pulling the index finger and thumb closer together.
When using the Traditional 4-mallet grip, mallets are usually numbered from lowest to highest: left-hand outside mallet is number 1; left-hand inside mallet is 2; right-hand inside mallet is number 3; right-hand outside mallet is 4.
Emily Tannert Patterson is a percussionist and online educator in Cambridge, U.K. Previously she was a percussion educator, arranger, clinician, and consultant in the Austin, Texas area, serving as the percussion director at Rouse High School and Wiley Middle School, in Leander, Texas from 2015 till 2018 and at East View High School, Georgetown, Texas from 2011 until 2015. Her ensembles garnered numerous accolades, including winning the 2016 PAS IPEC. Patterson holds a Master's degree in Percussion Performance from the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied with Thomas Burritt and Tony Edwards. Patterson earned her Bachelor’s degree in Instrumental Music Studies, along with an undergraduate Performance Certificate in Percussion and her Texas teaching certificate, from UT in 2008, and received her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science from Northwestern University in 2004. Patterson marched with the Glassmen Drum and Bugle Corps in 2003 and was a member of the 2004 Winter Guard International world champion indoor drumline Music City Mystique. Prior to her move to the U.K., she was active in judging around the country. Patterson holds professional memberships in the Texas Music Educators Association and the Percussive Arts Society and serves on the PAS Education Committee.
Josh Gottry is a respected educator, accomplished percussionist, and internationally recognized composer, who has been working with, and creating music for, the next generation of percussionists for over twenty years. He has served as part of the music faculty on college and university campuses around the Phoenix metropolitan area, works regularly with ensembles and students at all grade levels as a clinician and within his private lesson studio, and his performance record includes professional orchestras, musical theater, worship teams, jazz combos, community and chamber ensembles, as well as solo performances and recitals. Gottry is an ASCAP award-winning composer whose works have been performed at universities, junior high and high schools, and multiple national conferences, and he serves as editor for Rhythm! Scene.