Mallets, Two by Two: The Lush Sound of Steve Raybine

Vibes performer and educator Steve Raybine is appropriately respectful of the craftsmanship it takes to build a vibraphone. This is an instrument requiring meticulous tuning, top-quality materials and precision to produce. It also takes a committed technician and artist like Steve to make astounding music filled with love.

Steve’s music has been played internationally on over 160 terrestrial and internet radio stations, but smooth jazz deserves much more exposure. “Let’s open the smooth jazz playing field and experience,” he says. Play on.

What is it about the vibes you love so much?

There are many things, but overall, I love the sound. It’s a very sensual and seductive sound, which makes it a perfect fit for radio stations within the smooth jazz genre.

Have to ask: did you have one of those 8-key toy xylophones we grew up with in the 60s?

No one has ever asked me that question before, but in actuality, I do vaguely remember having one of those toy bell instruments. I was quite enamored with it and perhaps this was one of the things that triggered my interest in becoming a vibist years later.

Was your family supportive of your choice of career?

Yes. My mother and father, Art and Marge Rehbein, have always contributed selflessly to my career throughout my lifetime and for that I am very grateful.

They always paid for private music lessons, which began in first grade on the piano and continued on drum lessons, which I began taking in 4th grade. My percussion lessons continued throughout high school as well as jazz improvisation lessons on piano in 9th grade.

They paid for summer music camps I attended as a percussionist; and the summer before my senior year in high school they sent me to the Berklee College of Music in Boston for an intensive seven-week program for jazz improvisation on my vibes as well as drum set lessons. They also paid for my undergraduate studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and for my Master’s studies at the University of Wisconsin. They also helped underwrite my living expenses during my Doctoral studies at the University of Iowa.

And, they contributed financially to my career in Los Angeles when my band “Auracle” was establishing itself within the music industry.  

Did you get to take the instrument home for practice when you started?

When I was in the 9th grade, my mother bought me my first vibraphone, which I still use for teaching private lessons and for practice. She purchased the vibes with her first paycheck when she returned to her nursing career. It was a totally selfless act of love, because she believed in my talent and potential.

She attended the finale of a summer music clinic I performed in one summer, and the percussion instructor told her that I was destined to become a jazz vibraphonist. She believed this to be so, and invested in me.

Talk about the different sizes of mallets and how many pairs you own?

There are marimba mallets; xylophone mallets; orchestral bell mallets; timpani mallets; vibraphone mallets; etc. Within all these categories of percussion mallets, I’ve performed with an extensive assortment and number of all of them.

I’m sponsored by Mike Balter Mallets as a jazz vibraphone artist. Currently, I favor the two models of John Piper vibe mallets he manufacturers.

How many vibes do you own?

A Musser M55 and a Musser 55G Pro Vibraphone. I’m sponsored by the Ludwig/Musser Company to play Musser Vibes.  

What does one look for when choosing a vibraphone?

  1. The quality of its sound. Superlative vibraphones possess beautiful resonance when you strike the individual tone bars with your vibe mallets. The meticulous tuning of each vibe bar is of paramount importance. The craftsmanship required to achieve this accurate tuning is an art form.
  2. The resonators (tubes/pipes), which focalize the sound waves and is the acoustic amplification system for the vibraphone, must be expertly crafted in an arched-and-mitered fashion in order to best achieve the beautiful resonance of the instrument.
  3. The vibe frame must be sturdy and expertly designed for portability as you move between gigs.
  4. The vibe motor, which creates the distinctive tremolo effect on the vibes, should be durable and well-designed to accommodate a wide spectrum of speeds (velocities).
  5. The dampening system of the tone bars should operate in an efficient, seamless and clean manner in conjunction with the pedal mechanism.

What materials is the instrument made of?

Vibraphone bars are made of aluminum. The top portion of the frame is made of wood and the legs are made of metal in order to adequately support the instrument, which weighs approximately 137 pounds.

Vibe mallets traditionally have rattan handles and the heads are made of rubber, which vary in degrees of hardness (soft; medium soft; medium; medium hard and hard). The rubber mallet heads are generally wrapped in cord.

The graduated vibe bars have holes drilled into the far-end portions of each bar in order to string the bars using durable vibe cord. They are suspended onto small posts which extend throughout the entire range of the instrument (vibes are typically three octaves or four octaves in length).

Vibraphone keyboards are configured exactly like a piano.

How is the instrument tuned?

The bars are tuned by scraping away a certain portion of the underside of each bar in order to achieve the desired pitches. Very precise tuning procedures utilizing a strobe tuner are monitored by master craftsmen in order to attain tuning accuracy and perfection.

What are some of the different effects possible on it?

The primary effect that can be created on the vibraphone is to employ the motor mechanism. When it’s engaged with an on switch, little fans running through the top of each resonator oscillate (turn) at the desired velocity. The rotating fans create a “tremolo effect,” which alters the amplitude of the sound. This creates a timbral change in the overall vibe sound.

I use this effect on the slower groove tunes within my repertoire to create a more mellow and seductive sound.

Another technique involves using a violin bow to create a ringing/buzzing sound by bowing the end of a vibe bar.

How many mallets are used at once?

Typically, four mallets are used (two per hand). Some vibists use only two mallets total, whereas a few vibists use six mallets (three per hand) as a gimmick, more or less occasionally.

Are you usually playing major thirds in each hand or…?

When I play melodies or provide accompaniment and improvise, I am simultaneously generating block chords in two, three and four-note voicings. Therefore, all intervallic distances are being created.

How do you pack the instrument and keep it safe while you are traveling?

I have a custom-made traveling case for my vibraphone, which is sanctioned for safety by the airlines or truck. Also, I have three fiber cases to ship the vibes, which are quite sturdy, but not as durable as my custom case.

Shipping by air or land freight is incredibly expensive. It’s better to rent a vibraphone in the city of the engagement if possible. However, if the gig is within driving distance, I’ll transport the vibe in my car, which is generally what happens. Sometimes Ludwig-Musser arranges a vibe for me at the venue.

What if a score doesn’t include vibes?

Then I’ll either improvise a part or I’ll write a part for the music.

 What other instrument are vibes often subbing in for (tonally speaking)?

Jazz vibes function as both a solo instrument and an accompaniment instrument. In order to fulfill both functions within an ensemble, the vibes typically substitute for either a guitar or a keyboard. However, they could substitute for a horn (trumpet, sax) as well depending upon the musical context of the band.

What do students struggle the most with?

Jazz vibe students have numerous issues they must reconcile in order to achieve mastery of the instrument and competence as a functional jazz vibist. Some of these issues are:

a. Four-mallet technique.
b. Mallet dampening technique.
c. Pedaling techniques.
d. Understanding of jazz theory and harmony, which requires an exhaustive study and application of chord/scale relationships and chord progressions, with a diverse knowledge of open-and-closed chord voicings.
e. Ability to play effortlessly and knowledgeably in multiple musical styles such as swing; Latin; rock; funk/R&B; country; hip-hop; reggae and other world musical styles.
f. Developing a musical repertoire.
g. Soloing and comping in a four-mallet, pianistic linear contrapuntal style

Mistakes on the vibes would be very easy to hear- how do you develop confidence to play through them?

You are correct, mistakes are very transparent. When I perform, I play a LOT of notes. If I make an error, I disguise it. I’ve trained myself to play through it.

What is the jazz scene like where you live?

The jazz scene in Omaha is okay, but it could definitely be better for smooth jazz. There are various jazz venues, but the pay is marginal, especially for a three-hour gig. There are excellent jazz players here, however.

Where would you like to perform that you have not yet?

Berks Jazz Festival; Catalina Island Jazztraxx Festival; Clearwater Jazz Festival; Capital Jazz Festival; Long Beach Jazz Festival; Music on the Vine; Las Vegas City of Lights Jazz Festival; Telluride Jazz Festival; YOSHI’S; Thornton Winery Champagne Jazz Series; Spaghettini’s; Balboa Theater; One World Theater; Red Rocks.

Why do you like smooth so much?

It really typifies the kind of composing that I do. My music is a combination of jazz; Latin R&B; funk; pop and swing elements, which really synchronizes well with the smooth jazz genre.

“What You Won’t Do For Love” is one of my very favorite songs. Talk about that track.

“What You Won’t Do For Love” by Bobby Caldwell and Alfons Kettner is a very iconic song made famous by Bobby, and I wanted to do a version of it. My friend and keyboardist, Jim Mertz, arranged the song and played various parts on the tune. Another great friend, trumpeter Doyle Tipler, arranged the horn parts for the track in addition to playing on the song.

I’m really happy with the vibe track. I think this is one of my most effective vibe solos on the CD.

Your favorite tracks on your current CD, Cool Vibes? 

Kiss Me (Single); Kickin’ Back (Single); Sno’ Fun; Del Mar Beach; Maui Blue.

Why the name Bad Kat Karma?

Bad Kat Karma was inspired by a friend’s cat, “Cleocatra,” who apparently was a very nasty cat. I said to them, “You have some Bad Kat Karma.” My wife, Beth loved that phrase and asked me to write a song about it, which I did. It’s not only become my signature composition, but the name of my record company.

Interestingly, while I was composing the piece, my cat Indy came down to me and was jumping on the piano keys, which I thought was not only hilarious, but appropriate.

What’s your dream scenario for your career?

My ideal situation would be to have more opportunities to concertize at large venues (festivals) where I could perform my music and showcase the vibraphone as a compelling frontline lead instrument in conjunction with all the saxophonists, guitarists, trumpeters and keyboardists who currently dominate the smooth jazz concert landscape.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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