Have you recently taken an interest in the kalimba?
This is a beautiful instrument that has surged in popularity in recent years, largely due to the increase in content creators showing off the potential that this wonderful instrument can provide.
I wanted to use this post to answer some of the most common questions about kalimba, and share more information about kalimbas in general.
What Is A Kalimba?
A kalimba (often called a thumb piano) belongs to the lamellophone / plucked idiophone instruments family of instruments. It’s made up of a soundbox – usually made out of wood, and has metal tines attached to the top of it. When these tines are pressed down and released (plucked) with the thumb, they begin to vibrate, and produce a beautiful sound resembling a bell or music box.
The history of the kalimba dates back to the 1900s in Africa, as it was modeled after a similar instrument called the mbira. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the modern kalimba came to be, after it became commercialized by an English ethnomusicologist named Hugh Tracey.
However, other types of lamellophone / plucked idiophone instruments have been in use in Africa for thousands of years.
What Is The Difference Between A Kalimba And A Mbira?
Both of these two names are often used interchangeably to refer to the modern day kalimba. Even Wikipedia redirects you to the mbira page when searching for the kalimba!
However, there are some differences between the two.
If you were to look at the two, you would notice that they both appear pretty similar. Both have a similar structure and similar materials. However, the mbira has two rows of keys while the kalimba typically only has one. Additionally, the placement of the notes is not the same. Unless you change the tuning of your kalimba, two notes played next to each other will always form a nice chord, due to the way the scale of the kalimba is set up.
How Many Keys Does A Kalimba Have?
Kalimbas can come with a number of different keys, depending on which model you buy. Most commonly, they arrive with 8, 11, or 17 keys.
We recommend purchasing a 17-key kalimba if you’re a beginner, as this will give you the most options to play with. Additionally, most tabs you’ll find online are written with the 17-key kalimba in mind, so this will make it easier to begin playing some of your favorite music quickly.
What Is A Kalimba Made Out Of?
Most kalimbas are made out of wood – most commonly, mahogany, birch, African hardwood, or African kiaat wood. The tines of the kalimba are made out of steel.
You have noticed some acrylics that appear to be made out of a crystal or glass-like material. This is actually acrylic, and there are a number of differences between wood and acrylic kalimbas you’ll want to keep in mind!
Can Kalimbas Play Chords? If So, How?
Absolutely! Technically, a chord is just 3 or notes played together at once. Many players play chords on kalimba by sliding their finger across the tines a bit while pressing down. Because of the way the notes of a kalimba are set up, major chords are positioned right next to each other, making it easy to play nice-sounding chords.
Is Kalimba Hard To Play?
While it is not an easy instrument to master, kalimba is a very simple instrument to start playing. It will take some time before you gain a natural sense of where the various notes are, but it is quick to begin playing some nice little melodies on it.
Because there are only 17 tines you need to worry about, it prevents the music from becoming too complex. As time goes on, you’ll get better at playing by ear and getting a natural sense of where each note is.
Are Kalimbas Good For Children?
Because they are such an easy instrument to pick up and play, they make a good option for musically-inclined parents looking to provide an instrument for their child to play.
Additionally, it’s difficult for children to make truly awful sounds with this instrument. If your child has ever tried to learn an instrument like the violin or recorder, we know first-hand how much pain it can be to listen to (as much as we are proud of them for their progress.) With kalimba, this isn’t really an issue.
The only thing you’ll need to watch out for is potential safety issues with very young children. The kalimbas can break if they are not handled properly, leaving potentially sharp edges that can cut young children.
Are Kalimbas Percussion Instruments?
Yes, kalimbas are technically considered percussion instruments. However, they make great standalone instruments on their own, and they’re perfectly capable of creating their own beautiful songs.
Are Music Boxes Tiny Kalimbas?
An interesting question! Part of the beauty of the kalimba is the sense of nostalgia it can bring, as it does indeed almost sound like a tiny music box. Although they’re not the same, music boxes kind of create their sound the same way also.
In my opinion, acrylic kalimbas tend to sound a bit more like music boxes than the wooden ones do.
Why Are Some Of The Kalimba Tines Colored?
Put simply, your kalimba may have some of the tines colored (or come with stickers that allow you to color the tines themselves) to help with navigation. Because it can be difficult – especially for beginners, to know which notes to hit while working their way around the kalimba, stickers can be placed on every third tine to help with this.
Because of their positioning, a note is always either on a colored tine, or next to one. This can provide some cues as to where a note should be played when learning a song.
Can You Make Sharps Or Flats On A Kalimba?
It depends. Most kalimbas come in the key of C, a key which has no sharps or flats in it.
However, the kalimba can be tuned to other keys using a tuning hammer that comes with most kalimbas. This would allow you to make some of the notes sharp or flat. Chromatic kalimbas also exist, which have extra tines containing the sharp and flat notes.
For more information about kalimbas and keys, see this article:
What Key Of Kalimba Should You Buy?
Do Your Thumbs Get Sore?
Some people experience thumb pain when beginning kalimba, and unfortunately there isn’t an easy way to avoid this unless you have long nails.
Alaska Piks (which slip over your finger) can help, but many kalimba players prefer to simply grow out their nails or wait to develop calluses.
Note that wooden kalimbas are often easier on your thumbs than acrylic kalimbas are, as acrylic kalimbas are much quieter and therefore require more force.
Is There Such Thing As An Electric Kalimba?
Yes! They can be pretty great for performances or for recording music into your computer. We’ve also seen some pretty interesting effects when musicians have tried to modify the sound using guitar pedals or other similar devices.
We recommend this kalimba if you want the ability to plug it into an amplifier.
The kalimba is a wonderful instrument, and I’m so happy to see it rising in popularity.
If you have any questions at all about playing kalimba, please feel free to ask them using the comment box below. We’ll be happy to get back to you as soon as possible.
Thank you, and I hope you enjoy playing the kalimba!