Introducing the Kalimba, a Piano for the Thumbs

December 22, 2020

These days, do you use your thumbs mostly for texting or gaming? Why not put your thumbs to better use? Take a break from the world—real or virtual—and trade your mobile phone, console, or controller for a kalimba to make melodious music that soothes the soul.

What is a Kalimba?

“What is a kalimba?” you might ask. Don’t worry if you don’t recognize this word. Meaning “little music,” kalimba refers to a petite, portable instrument that produces gentle, mesmerizing, muted-chime-like notes.

Also known as a thumb piano, the kalimba is a percussive instrument with African origins. It’s sometimes confused with its predecessor, the mriba of Zimbabwe. During the mid-twentieth century, British ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey adapted the mriba to design the kalimba, which is smaller with a single keyboard tuned to the Western seven-note diatonic scale.

Metal Keys That Unlock Musical Notes 

The kalimba keyboard consists of long, narrow metal keys called tines. The keyboard can have as few as five and as many as 17 tines; the most popular amounts of tines are 6, 8, 12, and 17. Think of playing the kalimba as you would play a piano; instead of pressing down white and black keys, you pluck the tines with your thumbs.

The layout of a kalimba keyboard, however, is different from a piano keyboard. Instead of being arranged in consecutive order (from low to high notes), kalimba tines are placed in alternating positions. In other words, playing a scale on the kalimba is not simply plucking the tines in order from left to right (ascending) or right to left (descending). Instead, you alternate plucking left and right keys as you work from the center out (ascending) or from the sides towards the middle (descending). Here is a demonstration

Resonance Box vs. Flat Board Structure

The tines are attached to a wooden base that comes in one of two styles: a resonance (or resonator) box or a flat board. The resonance box is a hollow chamber with large sound hole in front and two smaller sound holes on the back. In general, the kalimba is a quiet instrument; nonetheless, the resonance box model tends to produce a greater volume than the flat board model.

Personally, I think notes from a kalimba with a resonance box have a subtle ringing, almost haunting quality.  For a more muted (and, to some listeners, sweet) sound, try a kalimba with a solid flat board. To hear a contrast between these two kalimba types, watch this video of the same scale being played twice, first on a resonance-box kalimba and then on a flat-board kalimba.

Cool Sound Effects 

The holes in a resonance box allow you to add cool effects to your music and alter its sound.

  • To create a “wah-wah” effect, use your thumb to cover and uncover the front hole while playing a chord, as demonstrated in this video.
  • To generate a vibrato, cover and uncover the back holes with your fingers as pictured here.

Speaking of vibrato, you actually can create and alter this quivering sound effect in different ways on a flat-board kalimba. By moving and shaking the flat board in a varied directions and patterns, you can change your music’s mood and tone of as shown in this video.

The bodies of flat-board kalimbas are usually made from wood or clear acrylic. The bodies of kalimbas with resonance boxes are constructed of wood. Popular woods used for kalimba bodies include mahogany, koa, okoume (an African hardwood), bamboo, and more. Hardwoods produce greater resonance because the sound waves bounce off the wood instead of being absorbed by it. 

Superb Sampling of Songs Played on the Kalimba 

I am amazed by the rich and seemingly elaborate songs from various genres that can be played on the simple kalimba. Here are some of my favorites: 

  1. “Pachelbel’s Canon in D”: The kalimba’s gentle notes fit this iconic classical music piece.
  2. “My Heart Will Go On”: Even this little instrument captures the passion of this power ballad from the blockbuster movie, Titanic.
  3. “City of Stars”: Another romantic tune, this one from the movie La La Land, sounds magical on the kalimba and entrances a cute kitten.
  4. “Can’t Help Falling In Love”: This sweet song plucks at the heart (and captivates a pooch) while being plucked on the kalimba.
  5. “Here Comes the Sun”: Here comes a smile on your face (and this same adorable dog) as this tune is played on the kalimba.
  6. “You Are My Sunshine”: This happy song lifts my heart and even lulls a feline friend to sleep. It’s a fun song to play on the ukulele too!
  7. “Bohemian Rhapsody”: When plucked on the kalimba, this stirring operatic pop song gains a sweet tone without losing its rocking soul.
  8. Game of Thrones Theme”: Would have thought that this dark, ominous, and imperious music could sound melodious yet still powerful?
  9. Maurice White’s Live Improvisation: Legendary musician Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire captivates a huge audience’s attention with his little kalimba during the funk band’s 1990 Live in Japan concert. Watch and listen to White masterfully riff on this instrument.

Put Your Thumbs to Good Use

Now that you’ve seen and heard what the small-but-mighty kalimba can do, why not give it a try? This simple and highly portable instrument is economical and fun. Enjoy making music from all different genres and playing the kalimba anywhere.

So put down your phone or controller and pick up a kalimba; by learning to play the kalimba, you’ll also keep your thumbs in shape for texting and gaming!