The vibraphone consists of two parallel rows of bars. Each bar produces a different pitch; the shorter the bar, the higher the pitch. The bars are arranged in the same way as the keys on a piano; the low notes (= long bars) are on the left, the nigh notes (= short bars) on the right of the musician.
When playing, the musician stands at the vibraphone with the bars lying lengthwise in front of him, pointing toward him.
One or more mallets can be held in each hand, the maximum being three per hand (six altogether). The mallets strike the bars and are constructed in such a way that they immediately spring back and so avoid damping the vibration of the bars. They are held with the palm facing downward.
The musician has a choice of mallets of differing hardness.
Softer mallets damp the higher partials making the timbre softer, rounder and more lacking in overtones; harder mallets favor the higher partials, making the timbre brighter, harder and shriller.
The vibrator is an electric motor that can be switched on and off. The speed of the vibrator is regulated by a knob at the left hand end of the row of bars. The speed of rotation (= vibrations) ranges from about 0–12 rotations per second.
The damper pedal on the vibraphone works the same way as on the piano. Without it the notes are automatically damped and sound very short. Damping prevents the full development of the sound. Depressing the pedal stops the notes being damped and allows them to resonate.
If the musician wishes to damp certain notes but allow others to resonate he damps them with the mallet. Only rarely is the hand used to damp notes.
A kind of secco playing is possible.