If you’re getting ready to buy your first (or next!) kalimba, you may be wondering – should I get a wooden or acrylic kalimba?
The truth is, there are subtle differences between the two, and knowing the similarities and differences in advance can help you pick the perfect kalimba for you.
Therefore, in this article I’ll cover how the difference in material effects the sound and experience of playing this beautiful instrument, and provide some of my best recommendations for each.
Let’s get into it!
Difference #1: The Sound
The first and perhaps most important difference between wooden and acrylic kalimbas (otherwise known as ‘thumb pianos’) is the sound.
Although acrylic and wood kalimbas sound very similar, there are noticeable differences if you play them side by side.
Acrylic kalimbas (in my opinion) sound closer to a traditional music box, with bright, warm tones. They sound wonderful when playing soft songs or lullabies.
Wooden kalimbas have a darker, colder, but more full sound. This isn’t to say they sound worse, just different. The sound feels mellower and smoother. You can hear the difference here:
Difference #2: Dynamics
The second major difference is in dynamics.
Honestly, the difference is night and day. Acrylic kalimbas are a lot quieter, meaning that you will never be able to get quite as loud as you would with a wooden kalimba. You also have to pluck the tines much harder to get the same level of sound, which can be difficult those first few days of playing – especially if you don’t have nails.
This is largely due to the hollow design of many wooden kalimbas – with large chambers for sound to resonate. This is simply not possible with acrylic kalimbas, so the wooden ones definitely have the advantage here!
Difference #3: The Weight
Next up, we have the weight.
Because wooden kalimbas are usually hollow, they weigh a lot less than solid acrylic kalimbas.
Even non-hollow, flatboard kalimbas weigh less than the acrylic kalimbas do, which is definitely an important factor to keep in mind – especially if you intend to play longer than an hour at a time without taking a break.
Lengthy kalimba playing can put some strain on your wrist, which comes more quickly as the weight of the kalimba increases. However, if you don’t think you’ll be playing lengthy sessions, weight isn’t all that much of an issue.
Difference #4: Playability
Unfortunately for acrylic kalimbas, wooden kalimbas win in this aspect as well.
It’s largely due to what we’ve already mentioned so far.
Acrylic kalimbas are simply more difficult to play, especially for beginners. Between the weight and how hard you have to hit the tines, it can be difficult to play for any lengthy period of time without either your fingers are wrist starting to hurt.
Truth be told, my first kalimba was acrylic. I still prefer the sound of acrylic kalimbas over wooden ones. However, I could not play for more than hour after I got it before my fingers started to hurt, and they still hurt the next day as well.
The tines on acrylic kalimbas also feel a little bit more cramped, making it more challenging to pick out individual notes correctly. I would like to see an acrylic manufacturer make a slightly bigger kalimba to help combat this, but I understand this adds a lot to the weight – which is why they probably haven’t.
Difference #5: Vibrato
The final difference worth mentioning is vibrato – which isn’t possible on acrylic kalimbas (or on flatboard wooden kalimbas, actually.)
With hollow, wood kalimbas, you’ll usually find two additional holes in the back for sound to escape from. By covering and uncovering these, you can create a ‘wah’ / vibrato effect that can effect the sound, and give your kalimba a little bit more versatility.
This isn’t something that’s all that important to beginning kalimba players, but it can be nice to have the option if you want it!
What are the benefits of an acrylic kalimba?
It isn’t my intention to make acrylic kalimbas seem like a poor choice. I actually prefer my acrylic kalimba over my wooden ones, just because the sound is so beautiful to me.
Other than the sound, some people prefer the aesthetic as well. Ultimately, this comes down to a personal preference. You certainly won’t regret choosing acrylic – it’s still a fantastic instrument. If you don’t care either way however, I generally recommend wooden kalimbas – especially to beginners.
If you have the money, there’s no reason you couldn’t get both!
Is it worth getting both a wood and and an acrylic kalimba?
The advantages here come from a more diverse set of tone options. As a guitar player as well, it is believed that you can never own enough guitars – there will always be one that’s better suited for a specific song or playing style. Fortunately with kalimbas, your options are much more limited, so you can take care of your needs with only 2 kalimbas – a wooden and an acrylic.
I’ve found that I prefer the sound of an acrylic kalimba for soft, emotional, or lullaby-type music, for example.
If you are purchasing your first kalimba, I recommend only purchasing one until you’re absolutely sure you’ll be sticking with it. If you already own a kalimba, it may be worth it to buy the other type.
When choosing a wooden kalimba, should I pick a hollow kalimba or a flat kalimba?
It’s a little bit easier to play the higher notes on flatboard kalimbas, as they tend to resonate a bit better. However, I recommend hollow kalimbas to beginners.
Is there such thing as a glass kalimba? What about crystal kalimbas?
Acrylic kalimbas are commonly mistaken for glass because well, they certainly like glass if you’ve never researched them before! There doesn’t seem to be any glass kalimbas for sale that I’ve been able to find. The same can be said for crystal kalimbas.
Is there anything else I should buy along with my kalimba?
Yes! Many kalimbas come with a tuning hammer and case, so you (usually) won’t need to worry about that. However, if you don’t have long nails, I highly recommend picking up a package of Alaska picks. These slip on over your thumbs and can help you play without hurting them, while also providing maximum resonance. At the very least, you could slip them on when you fingers begin to hurt.
My Top Recommendations
Below are my top 5 kalimba recommendations for beginners!Table could not be displayed.
Overall, when comparing wooden vs acrylic kalimbas, the choice largely comes down to personal preference. Sound is probably the most important aspect to most people, so this is the factor I would consider the most when making your decision.
If you don’t care so much about this or you aren’t sure, I would encourage you to purchase a hollow wooden kalimba first, as there are noticeable benefits vs acrylic. After you get used to playing, you could always purchase another kalimba later on!