Skip to main content

Piper’s Work Room (first post)

Tony asked me to present my story along with a series relating to the vibraphone's various mechanical functions from both a player and a builder's perspective. The objective is to systematically address the entire instrument and share what I learned going through the process of designing, building, marketing and pitching the PIPERvibe to Musser. I’m hoping that you will ask questions, answer questions and present new ideas. Building a great vibraphone is simple - until you actually do it.

There's more to building a vibraphone than just creating a cart to hold the bars and resonators. That part is simple. When you add the most important part (the player), the equation becomes a lot more complicated. Some players like the instrument they’re use to without change while other players wish for an instrument that makes their particular style of playing easier, and in some cases possible to execute.

To begin with, before the PIPERvibe I experimented constantly with my M55. The Musser/Piper M58 Vibe was the first instrument I built from scratch. I only focused on the frame and tuning of the resonators. I know very little about designing or building the bars other than I know what I like.

Before the Musser/Piper M58 Vibraphone, there was little to no attention and money spent on the damper, the wobbly/noisy frame, uneven damping, height adjustment and extraneous noises coming from the string, damper and pedal. The traditional instrument stayed basically the same for long periods of time because there was nothing forcing the manufacturers to come up with better instruments – no competition. When changes or updates were made (rarely) engineers acted more as “middle men” trying to interpret the needs of the player and convey those requirements to the manufacturer because the engineers were not vibraphone players. As I worked with Musser, I realized that though the engineer there at the time (Ken) was a fantastic guy and a skilled, dedicated, top of the line engineer, he was not a mallet player.

I realized early that J.C. Deagan was a brilliant creator of tuned things such as wood, metal, resonators etc. Musser was a marimba player and worked for Deagan in the beginning but branched off on his own and developed the great M75 Century vibraphone and later the M55 Pro vibe that is still a brilliantly simple design. After Claire Musser, there were no players directly involved with the actual engineering of the instrument until Leigh Stevens stepped up as Musser Artist/Consultant and made improvements to Musser marimbas. Leigh and Clair Musser both being marimba virtuosos made that extra difference to the marimba. Gary Burton was highly influential in the process and was the “Ringo Starr” of the Musser instruments for the vibraphone. His tremendous playing put Musser Vibraphones into the schools (that’s how I heard it).

When Clair Musser left the manufacturing scene and sold to Ludwig, very few things evolved or improved on the instruments because there were no players actively working as frontline engineers. Gary Burton offered great ideas for the engineers to follow up on but didn’t (to my knowledge) actually design solutions - probably because he was very busy creating musical greatness. These are from stories I heard from Bill Ludwig and factory engineers at the time I was artist/consultant with Musser shortly after Leigh H. Stevens left Musser.

There was also a short time prior to my involvement when Dave Samuels and David Friedman were Musser artists but from what I heard at the factory, they didn’t agree with each other on vibraphone sound and design and left Musser to become Yamaha artists.

As players and music became more demanding following the original Deagan instruments and manufacturing options became more available, the vibraphone still stayed the same. Same problems with uneven damping and noisy mechanics. Granted, some players didn’t notice the problems but some players (like me) were plagued with it. It finally started to evolve and attempts to meet the demands of concert and recording artists of the modern era when the players re-involved themselves in actively designing and innovating their own instruments out of necessity. The engineers at Musser were top notch but they were not percussionists and could only imagine how to raise the bar without upsetting the status quo.

The Piper Vibraphone addressed these issues and was extremely innovative for the time and I was a player acting as engineer. I was a self-taught, pseudo-engineer doing my thing the best I could out of total commitment to solve problems that frustrated me and many others with regard to the vibraphone frame.

I’ve included some old pictures of the original Piper Vibe prototype and the final product by Musser back in the 1990’s. On this area of, I’ll tell stories of how it all came to fruition (if there’s interest from readers). From dinners with Mr. Ludwig, Mr. Selmer, to the Piper Vibe presentation for Tom Burzycki (president/ceo of Selmer) and others, that landed me the enormous opportunity to have a voice, this was an adventure from the ranks of ordinary to extraordinary that I hope some of you may find interesting.

After this initial post, I’ll offer technical advice and observations and hopefully you too will chime in with your views. One thing I learned is that the instrument doesn’t make the player but it certainly does contribute to the comfort or discomfort in the quest for your personal sound. Some players can accomplish their musical objective with a primitive pentatonic African marimba while others prefer the latest refined version. Regardless of which category you lean toward, this subject is part of the picture.

After the Piper Vibe was on the market, companies began to look at the innovations and startup companies like Nico’s took the ball and ran with it. Leigh H. Stevens really wanted me to sign with him but I had to go with the sure thing – Musser. They had money (lots of money) and at the time, Malletech was struggling.

Musser purchased very high-dollar adds in PAS, The Instrumentalist, and Down Beat magazines that put me on the map all over the world. Musser rented out a beautiful historic concert hall in Indiana for the photo shoot and hired the best damn advertising firm money could buy and created a beautiful PiperVibe Poster. In addition, they paid the total bill for the lawyers to patent the instrument on my behalf. I heard a figure of well over 100K for that patenting process. Very pro. They also paid me well. In addition to a sizable up front chunk of many, I was also on the payroll at 50.00 per hour to work out of my garage and come up with R&D solutions to problems. They flew me to Chicago once a month to check the PIPER vibe progress out at the factory. I was paid 500.00 per day plus expenses to teach about the instrument to factory workers (who I loved). This was HUGE! At the Musser factory, there was a substantial section dedicated to the PIPER Vibe. I LOVED going there and working in the factory. Ken Sieloff (lead engineer) become a very good friend of mine. We saw things the same. I got clinics and concerts as a result of my new fame that Musser bought for me. It was fun. The first couple years, Musser sent a brand new Piper Vibe to each of my performances, set up and ready to play. I remember doing one concert/clinic at Berklee and the vibe was on a pallet waiting for me when I arrived.

All this was great except that once the instrument was on the market…. It never improved or changed. I submitted upgrades that would have made the instrument lighter, more portable and better in many ways but the instrument didn’t budge. This, by the way, was all predicted exactly as it happened by Leigh H. Stevens back in 1995.

Please enjoy the photos here and let’s continue this topic. There’s so much more and don't hesitate to jump in there and set me straight if I get details slightly off.

Click here for the manual.


rogersvibes Fri, 03/30/2018 - 19:01

John, after hearing about your musical story, I'm glad you are telling your design/engineer story. I'm looking forward to future posts.

A question about the M55 design: was it really designed by Clair Musser? I thought he had long since sold the company by the time it was developed. I also vaguely recall Gary Burton saying that he had something to do with the design in his autobiography. According to his wikipedia entry, Musser sold his company in 1956 to Lyons Band Instrument Manufacturers, and then about ten years later it got sold to Ludwig. Did he stay involved on the design side? When was the M55 first designed anyway? I have an old magazine ad featuring Gary on my wall that I think is from the late 60s. It still features the M75 and has Ludwig Industries listed at the bottom.

I also had a question about the Piper Vibe that I expect you'll get to in a future post: why was it manufactured as a separate model? I guess Musser would not want to take any risks with the very successful M55 brand. But if your design ideas were basically making up for the shortcomings of the M55, why not just redesign the M55 with your input? Especially now with competition from Malletech and others, it would make a lot of sense. But instead we are stuck with the imperfections of the M55 and an improved (but still not up to date) Piper Vibe.

Piper Fri, 03/30/2018 - 23:06

In reply to by rogersvibes

As I recall, Gary presented the idea to have folding legs under a table but I don't know if he was actively involved in designing it. He did the same with the M48 and I may have those two instrument's stories mixed up. I haven't read Gary's book but if he said he was actively involved in the design then he was. He was deeper in than I was. I know that he was the reason it was such a huge seller. I guess my point was more to emphasize the importance of having players actively involved in the designing of instruments whenever possible. As for the M55 being replaced by my vibe, they are two different instruments for two different types of customers. I originally thought it would be the instrument to evolved into a complete designer's line but that's when I learned that different people have different demands. And, if you notice that the M55 is basically still going strong and the Piper Vibe is no more as of 2016, it was certainly wise to keep them separate.

Piper Sat, 03/31/2018 - 02:57

In reply to by Piper

I'd like to say that "having an idea" to do something is not designing or engineering. For instance, when you look at the light weight legs that Musser is using for the M55, they may appear cheap to a lay person who hasn't gone the distance but they're NOT! Those legs are so light but yet withstand a ton of abuse. I'm going to use them on my next PIPERvibe. They're fantastic. They weigh only a couple of pounds and they last decades!

One time, Terry Gibbs took me to lunch in L.A. and said, "I've got a great idea John. I want to develop a lighter vibe that plays better than any other vibe and cost less and I want you to design it. I'll split the profit with you". HA. I couldn't believe my ears. He must have been kidding but this conversation actually happened.

Great ideas are a dime a dozen but it takes a lot of effort to finish just one.

So, those legs were "designed" to be functional, light weight, cheap and durable. A "Designer" did that. Someone with the idea may have said, "make a light-weight leg for a cart".

Piper Sat, 03/31/2018 - 02:35

I feel compelled to write these articles and share my story because part of me is not proud that the instrument didn't evolve as it should have but the other part of me is very proud of the tenacity I had as a young adult. Fortunately, Leigh H. Stevens recognized many of the advancements and has incorporated knowledge learned from my instrument and he has improved on some of them and come up with some brilliant new ones of his own. I hate to re-hash old stuff but I feel it's a work that wasn't completed so I'm bringing it up again. I took ten years off. Got out of music completely and now I'm returning with new insight of how the world is. Before I can move on with new approaches to the instrument, I feel it's necessary for me to cover the instrument that led me to where I am now.

I googled "Piper-cushion damper pad" to see if there was anything. I found this. The instruction manual I wrote for the instrument back in 1996 "Tour of the Piper Frame". It clearly defines the many features of the instrument and as I review it now, it's an entire course in vibraphonics.

Piper Sat, 03/31/2018 - 22:17

This is my current Vibe. It's very, very nice. I still have a few features I'm going to change. I want to try the M55 hollow, light-weight legs, attached via my rubber hinges that I'm using on my Antarctic Vibe and the pedal will be a single piece of very light-weight aluminum. The four-way caster leveling adjustments will be about half the size of the ones shown here. The objective is to have it solid as a rock but light as practical. The M-Braces will be hollow aluminum tubing. This instrument is easily 50 pounds lighter than the Piper Vibe but still 25 lbs heavier than the M55. As for height adjustment, I don't think it's necessary for the professional player. *IF* I do work for others, I will probably not offer height adjustment other than the wheel-leveling of a couple of inches. I'll simply make the leg sizes "Short, Medium or Tall". *IF* I get involved in offering instrument frames to others, each instrument will probably be a custom frame made for that person. FYI: This harp was on the first Harp I made at the Musser Factory when I showed Musser how to build it prior to our first PASIC showing.

Jim McCarthy Tue, 07/17/2018 - 23:11

In reply to by Piper

I'm a huge fan of your work and share your passion for improving the instrument. Just wanted to say keep up the great work - these innovations and ideas do eventually get out to the wider world even if not immediately as you have them - or make them! AND all our experiences with the instrument improve as a result. I design and build marimbas and vibes every day myself and am familiar with some of your challenges. If you ever have an idea that you can't seem to crack a solution for - feel free to give me a shout - I'm always happy to offer anything I think of in the interests of seeing a better instrument! Thank you again for your contributions.

Piper Fri, 07/20/2018 - 02:59

In reply to by Jim McCarthy

Thank you Jim. I'll do that. Two heads are better than one for sure. Right now, I've got so a many irons in the fire, I struggle keeping up. I appreciate the thoughtful comments.


What instruments does this pertain to?