The kalimba is a wonderful little instrument – small and portable enough to keep on your desk or take with you, yet powerful enough to play a large variety of songs.
Although kalimbas may not have as many keys as an instrument like the piano, there is still a surprisingly large amount you can do with the keys (or tines, as they’re more commonly called) that you have.
So how many keys does a kalimba have? It varies depending on the type of kalimba you choose to buy, but most kalimbas come in the following configurations:
- 5 keys
- 7 keys
- 8 keys
- 9 keys
- 10 keys
- 11 keys
- 15 keys
- 17 keys
- 21 keys
These aren’t hard limits, however. Although you rarely see kalimbas with more than 21 keys, it is possible to make your own kalimbas with a bit of work that go above and beyond. For example, take a look at this absolutely insane chromatic kalimba that covers every note within 2 octaves, and almost 40 tines!
Why Aren’t Larger Kalimbas More Common?
Seeing that a larger range of notes is commonly seen as a good thing, you may be wondering why we don’t often see kalimbas with more keys on them.
Put quite simply, this comes largely down to design. As more tines are added to the instrument, they have to be made smaller in order to keep the instrument about the same size, which makes it more difficult to play. For the most part, kalimbas are meant to be handheld, portable instruments that are played with the thumbs (hence the nickname, ‘thumb piano.’
If you make the instrument much larger than it already is, you won’t be able to hold it in your hands and reach all the various tines with your thumbs, hurting the playing experience.
The second reason has to do with the arrangement of the notes.
With the exception of chromatic kalimbas (which have every note), most kalimbas come pre-tuned to a specific key. Most commonly, this is the key of ‘C Major’, which has no sharps or flats.
When you play a song in the key of C Major, most of the time you will only use the 8 unique notes that are already on the kalimba. This means that there is usually no need for other tines, because they would make up notes that you wouldn’t play anyway.
Additionally, the notes are arranged in a way that makes them easy and convenient to play.
For the most part, each note has notes adjacent to them that make up part of a beautiful chord. If we take the ‘G’ note for example and look at the notes next to it, we have C-E-G (C Major) on one side, and G-B-D (G Major) on the other side. These are two popular chords that appear frequently in music.
This clever arrangement of tines makes the most out of the kalimba’s limited real estate, and allows you to get more out of the small number of overall keys on the kalimba.
How Many Keys Should You Choose For Your Kalimba?
If you’re wondering how many keys you should choose for your kalimba, we generally recommend 17.
17 keys is the perfect balance between playability and versatility. It’s enough to play just about any song you’d want to play, but not so many that the instrument becomes difficult or overwhelming.
This is also the reason that 17-key kalimbas the most common you find for sale today – it really is the perfect number, even if you’re not necessarily a beginner to the instrument (or music in general.)
As an added bonus, most kalimba sheet music or kalimba tabs you’ll find online are designed with 17-tine kalimbas in mind. As you can imagine, it will be easier (and more fun!) to learn songs on a 17-key kalimba, especially if you’re not yet able to play music by ear.
Therefore, if you’re looking to buy a kalimba, we recommend picking up one with 17 tines.
You can see our recommended kalimbas with the table below:
Musical Sanctuary’s Recommended Kalimba List:
Table could not be displayed.
Although there are no hard limitations, most kalimbas come in between 5 and 21 keys – with 17 being by far the most common.
Because of the ease of playability, versatility, and availability of kalimba tablature on the internet, we recommend purchasing a 17-key kalimba first unless you have a specific reason to do otherwise.
I hope that you’ve found this article helpful. If there are any other questions that I can answer for you, please let me know via the comment form below.
Enjoy your kalimba!
– Musical Sanctuary Team