hand holding a kalimba, the thumb nail is playing a tine

Do You Need Nails to Play Kalimba?

If you’re new to the kalimba, you may have noticed that many kalimba players use their nails to play the instrument.

Many of us may not want to or simply can’t grow our nails long, however, and if this sounds familiar, you may be wondering whether you need nails to play kalimba, or are there other methods out there?

Thankfully, you do not need nails to play kalimba. There are many great alternatives which can be used instead, such as:

  • Playing with the flesh of your thumb pad.
  • Using thumb protectors.
  • Using a thumb pick.

Each of these have their advantages and disadvantages, however, so let’s look at each in more detail!

Playing Kalimba With Your Thumb Pads

The first and most obvious alternative to playing kalimba with your nails is to use the pads or flesh of your thumbs instead.

This is a great option for individuals with short nails as it requires no extra tools or equipment.

Indeed, many purists do not usually like this option as it changes the sound that the kalimba produces. Playing with your nails will typically produce a crisp, bright sound whereas playing with your thumb pad will produce a softer, more subdued tone.

Neither is right or wrong and a true kalimba player should utilize both to take advantage of a wider array of sounds and tonal qualities for their playing.

If you are new to the kalimba, you will notice one disadvantage to playing with your thumb pad, though. It will hurt!

This is normal and is simply because the skin on your thumbs is not used to striking the metal tines and will need some time to build up calluses. 

Stick with it though, and after a few weeks to a couple of months, you will find your thumbs will adjust and you’ll be playing pain-free in no time!

Of course, if you’d rather avoid this, there are options available to protect the pads of your thumbs.

Rubber Thumb Protectors

Thumb plucking a kalimba tine wearing a rubber thumb protector

Rubber thumb protectors are sleeves that you can wear on your thumbs that will protect your skin from the metal tines of the kalimba.

They’re a great option if you don’t want to go through the hassle of building up calluses or growing nails!

Unfortunately, they are not a perfect solution and will dampen the sound of the kalimba quite a bit. They also make it a little more difficult to feel the kalimba, which can lead to missed notes and overall more difficulty playing.

The best way to use thumb protectors is while you are building up your calluses. You should start playing with your thumb pads and when this starts to get a little sore, pop on your thumb protectors to give your thumb pads a rest!

Playing Kalimba with a Thumb Pick

thumb plucking a kalimba wearing a thumb pick

Thumb picks are another great alternative to playing kalimba without needing to use your nails.​

Thumb picks come in many forms, but the general premise is that they sit over your thumb and the kalimba tines can then be plucked with the pick rather than using your nail or thumb pad.

Of all the alternatives, thumb picks produce the closest tone to a nail, so if you’re going for that traditional kalimba sound but don’t want to grow your nails, thumb picks could be your best bet!

Like thumb protectors, you do lose a bit of feel for the kalimba when using a thumb pick. It’s only natural as you’re creating a contact barrier between you and the instrument, so it can make judging distance from the tines a little more difficult.

There are several variations of thumb pick available to choose from.

Plastic Thumb Picks

Plastic thumb picks are perhaps the most common and popular thumb picks, not only for kalimba but also for many other instruments such as guitars.

Other than the loss of direct contact between you and the kalimba, there are very few downsides to the plastic thumb pick and overall they give a very clear sound when used to pluck the tines.

Metal Thumb Picks

Metal thumb picks are almost identical to the plastic thumb pick, with one key difference, they’re made of metal! (I’m as shocked as you are!)

The metal thumb pick arguably gives the closest sound to using nails but be warned, they may cause damage to your kalimba tines due to the metal on metal contact.

Alaska Pik

The Alaska Pik is the final thumb pick variation and is the best middle ground to playing kalimba with a thumb pick and your nails.

The Alaska Pik slides over your thumb and slots under your nail, or just in front if your nail is too short.

The end result is like having an artificial nail connected directly to your thumb and allows for the most natural feel while playing kalimba without any of the soreness or nail growth!

Final Thoughts

So, is it possible to play kalimba without nails? The answer is a clear yes!

As you will now know, there are plenty of options to choose from if playing kalimba with your nails isn’t for you.

Even if you are happy to play with your nails, it’s always worth considering the options above to mix up your sound from time to time. It certainly won’t do you any harm and will make you an all-around better kalimba player!

Why not record yourself playing kalimba with and without your nails and see which sound you like best?