15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Vibraphone Players

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

For many music lovers, the vibraphone is an instrument that is not well known. It’s a shame because it makes an interesting and beautiful sound both solo and in ensemble settings.

There are so many fantastic vibraphonists out there with their own unique styles and techniques who deserve to be recognized! So, if you’re interested, here are 15 famous vibraphone players you should know about.

1. Roy Ayers

Born in 1940, one of the greatest vibraphonists of all time, RoyAyers, grew up in Los Angeles, California, in a house filled with music.

His mother taught piano, and his father played trombone, and by age 5,Ayers was already showing musical prowess, playing the piano and picking up other instruments.

When his parents took him to see the legendary Lionel Hampton, he was awe-struck, so much so that Hampton noticed him and gave him his vibes mallets.

At seventeen, after mastering several instruments,Ayers got his first set of Vibraphones, and off he went forming his first group then, and by the early ’60s, had become an award-winning vibraphonist.

Known as the Godfather of Neo-Soul, Roy Ayers has been wowing crowds for six decades.

His most famous songs include “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” and “Lifeline.”

2. Lionel Hampton

Lionel Hampton

Arguably the most influential vibraphone player in history, Lionel Hampton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 20, 1908.

In 1930, working as a drummer at a recording session with Louis Armstrong, Armstrong asked him if he could play the vibraphones.

He said yes, and so began his journey with the vibes.

In 1936 famous clarinetist Benny Goodman saw him perform at the Paradise Club in Los Angeles and invited him to join his quartet, and from there his career really took off. 

Hampton played with some formidable sidemen included such luminaries as Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, and countless others.

Among his most famous songs are “Flying Home” and “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie.”

He Died in New York City on August 31, 2002, at the age of 94.

3. Cal Tjader

Next on our list, we have Cal Tjader, who was born in St Louis, Missouri in1925.

He attended music school in the Bay Area and began playing with jazz pianist Dave Brubeck in 1949 as his drummer.

But, in 1953 he branched off and began exploring vibraphone and the world of Latin Jazz, zeroing in on the mambo trend of the 1950s. 

He scored a jazz hit with the song “Soul Sauce” in 1965.

Tjader is known for being one of the only non-Latin people to lead a Latin band, and throughout his career, he was constantly tying together the worlds of Latin beat and traditional jazz.

He died May 5, 1982, in Manilla, Philippines at the age of 56.

4. Gary Burton

One of the most important jazz musicians that played vibes, Gary Burton, was born in Anderson, Indiana, in1943.

He was a prodigious musician and, at age 17, debuted in the studio with Chet Atkins before going on to study at the Berklee College of Music.

He never finished his studies, instead leaving in 1964 to join Stan Getz’s jazz combo, and his career took off during that time.

By 1967 he had his band that pioneered the jazz-fusion movement, which blended jazz and rock music elements. 

He was known for teaching himself to play the vibraphone in a unique style that he pioneered, known as the 4-mallet style or the “Burton grip.” 

In 1972, he was the youngest musician ever to be awarded Downbeat’s “Musician of the Year “ award and won his first Grammy. Among his most popular songs is “Prelude for Vibes.”

5. Bobby Hutcherson

Bobby Hutcherson was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1941 and started his musical journey by learning the piano as a child

At age 12, he was introduced to the vibraphones and quickly garnered a reputation for his talents and his then-unorthodox four mallet-style of playing.

His first recording was at Birdland in 1961, and over the next several years became an in-demand sideman for blue note and other jazz labels.

During this time, he began to make his mark as a bandleader and preeminent composer of hard bop jazz, recording one of his most famous songs, “Little B’s Poem.”

Over the next six decades, Hutcherson continued to record and play live concerts until shortly before his death in 2016.

6. Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu Aststke was born in Jimma, Ethiopia moving to the U.K. in the late 1950s, and soon moved again to the U.S. to study at the Berklee College of Music.

At Berklee, he began to study Latin jazz and, in 1966, recorded his first albums of Afro-Latin jazz.

Astatke is known as the godfather of Ethio-jazz, a form of afro-centric jazz music, a genre that he helped pioneer and a fine example of this is his 1972 song “Yekermo Sew.”

Although he found success internationally, it was not until the 1990s that he became widely popular in the U.S. 

At nearly 100 years old at the time of writing, Mulatu Astatke continues to record and tour.

7. Milt Jackson

Milt Jackson

Milt Jackson was born in Detroit, Michigan and began his professional career at age 16, and in 1945 joined famous jazz trumpeter player Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

Known for his improvisational skills, Jackson was a significant figure in the modern jazz movement, which blossomed in the 1950s.

His most notable work was as the co-founder of the influential group the Modern Jazz Quartet, known for many hits, including “Django.”

Along with his work with MJQ, he worked with a plethora of jazz luminaries, including Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, on some of the most memorable jazz recordings ever made.

Milt Jackson died in 1999 of liver cancer at the age of 76.

8. Terry Gibbs

Child prodigy Terry Gibbs was born in Brooklyn, New York and was so good he began touring at age 12.

In 1948 he joined Woody Herman’s Herd, and from 1950-1956 he was voted best vibes player by Downbeat Magazine.

In 1957 he moved to Los Angeles, where he put together the Dream Band, making up of some of the most famous big band leaders, including Artie Shaw and Bill Holman.

It was this band that solidified Gibbs as a force in the jazz world.

While much of the Jazz world moved toward smaller combos and to bebop, avant-garde, and fusion jazz, Gibbs remained, and remains, passionate about the big band sound.

9. Joel Ross

American Vibraphonist Joel Ross was Born in Chicago, Illinois and he and his twin brother, Josh, both began playing drums at an early age.

Joel switched to Vibraphone when his twin brother got the drum chair in the school band.

He began getting noticed as a teenager while playing with the All-City Jazz Band which led him to the Chicago High School for the Arts, where he caught the attention of jazz heavyweight Herbie Hancock.

At Hancock’s urging, he earned a spot with the Brubeck Jazz Quintet Institute at the University of the Pacific. 

Two years later, in 2018 his debut album, Kingmaker, broke into the top 10 Billboard charts.

10. Gary McFarland

Gary McFarland was born in Los Angeles, California and is known for his work in incorporating jazz vibraphone compositions into orchestral pieces.

He worked with many jazz luminaries like Stan Getz, Bill Evans, and Jerry Mulligan and was very much a fixture of the West Coast cool jazz movement.

Although he did play straight jazz, he is most well known for his film and theater scoring.

Sadly, his life was cut short by a methadone overdose in 1971, the day he completed his work for the Broadway Musical To Live Another Summer, To Pass Another Winter.

11. Red Norvo

Red Norvo

Red Norvo was born in Beardstown, Illinois and is known as being one of the progenitors of the vibraphone in jazz music.

Known as “Mr. Swing,” his early career featured playing with the likes of Benny Goodman and Woody Herman.

He established himself early with works such as “Knockin’ on Wood” and “Please Be Kind.”

Over a career that spanned more than 60 years, Red Norvo played with numerous musical legends, including Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

He was known as a virtuoso musician on both vibraphone and marimba.

After a long career, Red Norvo died on April 6, 1999 at the age of 91.

12. Stefon Harris

Stefon Harris was Born in Albany, New York.

A classically trained musician, Harris was on track to join the New York Philharmonic after hearing jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker’s music, it made him fall in love with jazz, and he began his jazz career in 1995 with Tim Warfield.

Harris is known for his crisp style and an ear toward a classical composition style in his original works.

Since 2001 he has been a member of the Classical Jazz Quartet, which reimagines classical pieces with jazz arrangements.

His work with modern jazz giants like Diana Krall and Steve Turre puts him in the company of the most influential jazz musicians today.

13. Mike Mainieri

Born In New York City, Mike Mainieri was a child prodigy and began touring with a jazz trio at age 14.

At 17, he joined Buddy Rich’s band, taking over much of the arranging duties.

During this time, he also played with luminaries Billie Holiday, Wes Montgomery, and Dizzy Gillespie.

During the mid-1960s, Mainieri’s star rose as he pioneered the fusion of rock and jazz music, playing with Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, before forming the avant-garde rock-jazz orchestra White Elephant in 1968. 

He was also a pioneer in the use of the electric vibraphone or synth-vibe.

Mainieri has continuously crossed between jazz, rock, and classical disciplines throughout his 7-decade career.

14. Sasha Berliner

Born in San Francisco in 1998, female vibes player Sasha Berliner is now based in New York City and is taking the jazz world by storm, winning Letter One’s “Rising Stars” jazz award.

Her debut 2019 album “Azalea” arrived amongst critical acclaim and put her on the map for jazz musicians to watch.

She has collaborated with the likes of Quincy Davis, Nicholas Payton, and Tyshawn Sorey.

Her efforts have garnered her Downbeats “rising star” vote as both the youngest and the first female to earn the designation.

She deserves accolades and awards, playing the Montreal Jazz Festival, The Blue Note, and other historic jazz venues.

15. Dave Pike

Born in Detroit, Dave Pike taught himself to play the vibraphone at an early age after listening to the albums of vibes legends like Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson.

He began playing professionally at age 15 after his family moved to Los Angeles in 1953.

His sideman work included gigs with Harold Land and Dexter Gordon before adding marimba to his musical repertoire, moving to New York City in 1961.

It was there that he joined Herbie Mann’s group and also experimented with amplifying the vibraphone.

His career was marked by musical and tonal experimentation over various styles, from bebop to calypso to psychedelia.

Dave Pike died in 2015 at age 77.

Summing up our List of Famous Vibes Players

That’s it for now and we hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the vibraphone and 15 of its most famous players.

We hope you learned about some new players that will inspire your playing and listening.

We’ll be updating this post with more vibraphonists soon so let us know who you think we missed off!

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.