A hollow kalimba and a flat board kalimba. the title reads "Hollow or Flat Kalimba?"

Hollow or Flat Kalimba: Which is Best?

Choosing your first kalimba can be a daunting task for many, how do you know you are picking the right one? Do you choose a hollow or flat kalimba? acrylic or wood? If you haven’t played the kalimba before it’s hard to tell what the differences are between each type.

Luckily, this article was written to answer this very question, “hollow or flat kalimba, which is best?”.

There are a few key differences between a hollow and a flat board kalimba that should be considered:

  • Hollow kalimbas tend to be louder due to the resonance created by their hollow chamber.
  • Flat board kalimbas are usually smaller and easier to hold.
  • Hollow kalimbas can produce a vibrato-like effect.
  • Flat board kalimbas have a more even tone and volume across all tines. 
  • Flat board kalimbas are a little more robust.

Want to know more about these differences? Read on and we’ll delve deeper into each!

Hollow vs Flat Kalimba: Key Differences

Both the hollow and the flat board kalimba are great variations of this unique instrument but it’s important to understand what the differences are between both to help you make an informed choice when deciding which to go for.

Kalimba Volume

One of the first differences many people notice when comparing the hollow and flat board kalimba is the difference in volume that both produce.

A hollow kalimba, as its name suggests, has a hollow body that creates a large chamber for the notes to resonate when the tines are plucked. You can usually tell this type of kalimba by the round hole on its front, just below the tines.

This chamber is how the hollow kalimba creates its volume. Think of trying to scream while your mouth is shut versus open, your scream is louder with your mouth open, right? This is because the sound bounces around your mouth (the chamber) and ultimately gets directed out past your lips (the soundhole).

The flat board kalimba, on the other hand, doesn’t have any chamber or soundhole so volume is reduced. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and for many people, this might well be what you’re looking for. Sometimes being able to play quietly without disturbing others is preferential, for example!

Many players also get around this by connecting their kalimba to an amplifier! You’ll need to have knowledge and skills with pickups and microphones to do this though, good job a certain someone wrote an article on recording your kalimba, which touches on what you’ll need!

Kalimba Sound

The overall sound of the hollow and flat board kalimba is quite similar, save for a few subtle distinctions.

Most hollow kalimbas tend to have a noticeable difference in sound as you reach the higher or outer tines as compared to the lower or middle tines. This is in part, due to the resonant chamber being better able to pick up the sound of the lower tines, which in turn are themselves, able to resonate better due to their longer length. The higher tines, being shorter, are often a little stiffer so don’t resonate as well, and being further away from the soundhole further causes resonance to be limited.

The flat board kalimba does not suffer from this problem and the resonant quality of each tine is a lot more consistent across all the tines.

Of course, there’s no better way to tell the sound difference than to listen for yourself! Check out the video below to hear both the hollow and the flat board kalimba in action, and even compare them to an acrylic kalimba! And why not subscribe to the Saorsa Music Youtube Channel too while you’re at it!

Kalimba Vibrato

Strictly speaking, this effect isn’t a true vibrato as the pitch of the note isn’t altered, perhaps more of a wah wah. Either way, how the sound enters our ear is altered and it creates a very nice effect that can add an extra layer to your kalimba playing!

On the back or sides of the hollow kalimba, you will normally find two holes, these holes allow you to take advantage of the vibrato effect. Simply cover and uncover each hole back to back and you should hear the vibrato in action!

Unfortunately, the flat board kalimba is not able to take advantage of this technique, however, some players can mimic it by shaking the kalimba instead!

Kalimba Looks

It should be quite easy to distinguish between the hollow and flat board kalimbas, what with the hollow kalimbas distinctive soundhole on the front!

Aside from this, the hollow kalimbas tend to be a little ‘fatter’. The flat board kalimba is typically finished in a natural wood color, however, it is a lot more common to find them in various color schemes too, whilst the hollow kalimba is almost always a wood finish.

Looks are a personal thing, so it’s perfectly normal for some players to prefer the looks of the hollow kalimba and others the flat board kalimba.

Personally, I am more of a fan of the hollow kalimba’s looks, I think it adds a little extra character and resembles a lot of more traditional musical instruments, such as the acoustic guitar.

Kalimba Playing

Whether you pick up a hollow or flat kalimba, playing them shouldn’t present too many problems.

That said, there is one key difference that those with smaller hands may want to be aware of. The hollow kalimba is fatter than the flat board kalimba. This may mean that you will have a little more trouble holding the hollow kalimba and reaching certain tines.

The flat board kalimba, on the other hand, is a little easier to grasp and can feel a little more comfortable overall.

hollow kalimba and flat board kalimba difference in thickness

Kalimba Construction

It may not be a surprise to hear that you are much more likely to break a hollow kalimba versus a flat board kalimba.

Naturally, if both were dropped, the solid body of the flat board kalimba is probably going to come away relatively unscathed, whereas the hollow kalimba with its thin walls is more at risk of being damaged.

If you’re someone who is on the clumsier side, this is something to watch out for!

Hollow Kalimba: Pros and Cons

So, how does all this information translate into pros and cons of the hollow kalimba?

Hollow Kalimba Pros

  • Can generate more volume.
  • Advanced techniques such as vibrato are possible.
  • More appealing looks (in my opinion!)

Hollow Kalimba Cons

  • Outer tines can sound thin or dead.
  • Less easy to hold for smaller hands.
  • More at risk of damage.

Flat Board Kalimba: Pros and Cons

Let’s not forget the pros and cons of the flat board kalimba!

Flat Board Kalimba Pros

  • More consistent volume and sound across all the tines.
  • Easier and more comfortable to hold for most.
  • Much stronger and more robust.

Flat Board Kalimba Cons

  • Generates less volume.
  • Not as easy to create vibrato.
  • Less appealing looks (in my opinion!)

Why Not Both?

It doesn’t always have to be one or the other! Many players own multiple kalimbas and it can be a good idea to use a different type of kalimba to better suit a particular song or situation.

For example, I like to use my hollow kalimba for general use and practicing, whereas I prefer the more consistent sound of my flat board kalimba for recording.

Of course, this isn’t recommended for beginners. It would be a bit of a waste to buy two kalimbas and then find out that the kalimba really isn’t the instrument for you! Instead, choose one and see if you want to stick with it before opting to invest in a second (or even third!) kalimba.


The hollow and flat board kalimbas each have their pros and cons and overall, are fairly evenly balanced. Truthfully, you can’t go wrong with either one and whichever you decide to go for will ultimately come down to personal preference.

Be sure to weigh up all the differences listed in this article and decide which features are more important to you and the decision should be pretty clear!