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If You Build It, They Will Play 

Written by Storyteller: Tamar Burris   Comments: 0


It was the early 1980s and Ron Samuels’ good friend had just returned from the Oregon Country Fair with news about an incredible instrument that had turned the whole crowd on—the marimba. Those days, marimba bands were frequent but nobody really knew much about the instrument itself. Ron was a classically trained pianist and ran with a whole crew of musically inclined friends. But this guy in particular was one of the highest caliber musicians Ron had ever known. So when he sang the praises of the marimba, Ron knew he had to find one. He didn’t yet know it, but the marimba would soon take over Ron’s entire life.


A college student at Humboldt State University at the time, Ron searched for—and amazingly found—a marimba in the music department on campus. The instrument had a warm, dark sound that you could feel in the depths of your body and soul. Ron instantly fell in love with it.


“The marimba has a certain archetypal sound, like any fine instrument would. It may sound strange, but I think I actually always had that sound in my head to begin with, even though I had never studied it. It was a sound I recognized.”


Playing the marimba at school when he could, Ron became more passionate about the instrument, more intrigued by the possibilities of what it might do. The same friend who had introduced him to the marimba began urging him to make one himself, to really explore those possibilities of sound that he was reaching for. As a child Ron had loved building blocks and erecter sets, but he’d not been extraordinarily passionate about building things. He’d never been into making model airplanes or anything along those lines. In fact, the only class he’d failed in college was his woodworking class! But this friend’s opinion was important. And the marimba was so intriguing. Ron decided to go for it. What the hell, why not?


“I’d never made any instrument before, never really even worked with wood, metal, or other serious building materials. But, enthusiasm can overcome a lot of challenges!”



“I’d never made any instrument before, never really even worked with wood, metal, or other serious building materials. But, enthusiasm can overcome a lot of challenges!”



Ron’s first marimba took over a year to build. It addressed all the big questions acoustically and musically. Building it became a full-time obsession. “Before I went down this road, I didn’t have a plan. I was in college and I dropped out to pursue marimba-making full-time. I dropped out before I even knew this was going to be a business … it was just much more interesting than going to college!”


Ron’s friends and family all supported him, even though they must have thought that spending your life building a great marimba was a crazy idea. “Most of my friends became engineers, biologists, that sort of thing, all in the sciences. For as much as they are a part of the counterculture, they all had more of a classic approach to education and a career. My parents had been fairly involved in the ‘60s Civil Rights movement and had never really subscribed wholeheartedly to the ‘establishment’ approach. They thought it was pretty outside the box but they could tell I was really enthusiastic and they wanted me to follow my heart, they really did. They actually loaned me some money to buy my first tools. They were really pleased to see me stick with it.”


With no marimba-making schools out there, Ron had to figure out the process by himself. His interest in building a better marimba propelled him to get a job in a woodworking shop. Lucky for him, the particular shop that hired him was an excellent place to learn woodworking skills.


“There’s a style of woodworking where you make and use a lot of jigs, these sort of accessories that are like templates to guide your tools when you are making a custom wood piece. I became the shop’s jig maker. I was able to apply everything I learned there to marimba making.”


Young and single, Ron spent nearly every evening and weekend working on his marimba, determined to get it right. “What musicians were looking for in the sound of a marimba I had already sort of come to the conclusion that this is what a marimba should sound like and I was bent on achieving it, for myself. The idea really was just to have a nice instrument for myself.”


About three years into his marimba-making quest, Ron had started honing his skills and began thinking that it might actually be possible to turn his passion into a real business. His marimbas were sounding better and better all the time.


“I started going to this one trade show, the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. I went as an observer for a few years, just to meet marimba players and get their ideas on what they want to hear. One year I drove from Arcata to Austin, Texas, with a few of my marimbas and came home with several, back-to-back pages full of all the things I’d have to change in my instruments. I made the changes and went back the following year, this time to come home with only three-quarters of a page of changes. I went again and made all those changes. Then, people started buying them!”


In 1989, about five years after he’d taken the job at the woodworking shop, Ron quit to run his marimba business full-time. And he’s been at it ever since. His company, Marimba One, is now known for its high-end, world-class professional instruments and is a leader in the five-octave marimba world. “We specialize in the five-octave marimba. It’s become the standard size for marimbas, but it was just lucky timing for us! When marimba literature started writing about five octaves, we were already there. Within a few years other companies started moving in, but we were at the head of the pack.”


Years after stumbling upon his first marimba and dropping out of college to make a better one, Ron is still hard at work trying to create the perfect instrument. “It’s a lifelong, evolving process. You know Plato’s ‘idea in the cloud’ idea? I think the same exists for sound and musical instruments. When I first heard one of my instruments onstage I was like, ‘Wow! I’m onstage!’ But, then to keep it onstage took a lot of tweaking. I can’t just let it be. I always have to fix it and make it better. I think that most of the people I work with feel the same way. They all appreciate that we’re trying to totally go for it and make the best possible marimbas we can.”


Although Ron has been to places like Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl to hear his instruments being played, his favorite time to listen to the instrument that stole his heart is at a rehearsal, when you can walk around and really hear what a musician is trying to bring out in the music. It is then when he connects most with that deep, warm magical sound that drew him into the world of the marimba so many years ago. One day, he will make a marimba that will fully reveal the secret of that sound to the rest of us. Until then, he and Marimba One will keep on keeping on.




Koen Plaetinck and a Marimba One instrument

Thank you Ron, for sharing your Story with us.


Our Stories and pictures are the sole copyright of their Authors and may not be reprinted or used without their permission.
© 2010 by Tamar Burris and Story of My Life

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