hand holding a kalimba, with a thoughtful emoji. What is a Kalimba is written

What is a Kalimba?

If you’re a music lover, you’ll always be interested to learn about and play a wide variety of instruments, especially the more unique ones out there! The kalimba is one such instrument, but what is a kalimba anyway?

The kalimba, or thumb piano as it is also known, is a musical instrument that you won’t want to miss out on! It’s arguably one of the easiest instruments for beginners and pros alike and is ever growing in popularity!

The kalimba is a handheld musical instrument with metal tines that are plucked to produce sound. Its body is often made from wood but other variants are also popular, such as acrylic. 

When plucked, the kalimba tines produce a clear, bright, almost percussive tone. Often tuned to the C Major key, this combination gives the kalimba a very pleasant sound quality.

Let’s look at the kalimba in more detail.

Kalimba Anatomy

A kalimba is typically made from two main parts; the body and the tines. However, these can be broken down further as shown in the image below.

Front and back of a kalimba. Arrows point to the tines, soundholes and bridge


The body is the main part of the kalimba. Often made from wood but also acrylic and sometimes other materials, it is the part of the kalimba that you would hold.


The tines are the metal tongues or rods that run vertically down the kalimba. Plucking the tines is how the kalimba makes its sound. Standard kalimbas will have 17 tines but many kalimbas can have much less or even much more!


The bridge runs horizontally across the kalimba and separates the body from the tines. The length of the tines relative to the bridge will determine what note or pitch each tine will produce when plucked.

Front Soundhole

The front soundhole helps to amplify the sound of the kalimba.

Not all kalimbas will have a soundhole as it is exclusive to the hollow kalimba.

Back Soundholes

Similar to the front soundhole, the back soundholes usually only feature on a hollow kalimba.

The back soundholes are used to alter the sound of a note after it is plucked. This effect sounds very similar to vibrato or wah wah and can be used to add extra texture to a song.

What is a Kalimba Made From?​

The body, or soundboard, is typically made from an African hardwood but kalimbas made from acrylic are becoming increasingly popular too, there are even kalimbas with a metal body!

The tines, or tongues, of a modern kalimba are almost always made from metal, specifically a spring steel.

The two materials are joined together by a component known as a bridge. The bridge is usually a set of three metal or wooden bars that run horizontally along the body of the kalimba.

The tines are held in place by the bridge and the exact note of each individual tine is determined by the length of the tine protruding from the bridge. The shorter the tine, the higher the note produced, and the longer the tine, the lower the note produced. Effectively, this is how we alter the resonant pitch of the material and is the basis for tuning a kalimba.

What Does a Kalimba Sound Like?​

The sound, or timbre of a kalimba is a light and clear tone, quite similar to a windchime or bells.

The sound is usually produced by plucking the metal tines with your thumbs or sometimes other fingers and, depending how you strike the tines, this can alter whether the sound is softer or more percussive.

You can hear exactly how a typical kalimba sounds in the youtube video below.

History of the Kalimba

The kalimba has an interesting past that can be traced back to Africa and the family of instruments known as the Mbira.

The modern kalimba design can be credited to an ethnomusicologist, by the name of Hugh Tracey. In the early 1900s, Tracey traveled to Africa, specifically Zimbabwe, and was instantly hooked by the traditional music and instruments there, such as the many varieties of thumb piano.

Upon his return to England in the 1950s, inspired by the traditional Mbira, Tracey created and manufactured the first ‘Western’ thumb pianos, which he decided to call the kalimba, and began distributing them worldwide.

From then on, the kalimba has grown in popularity and has become a well known instrument around the world.

Final Thoughts​

The kalimba is a great handheld musical instrument that produces chime-like tones and is a great first instrument for beginners due to its ease of use and low cost.

Hopefully this article has provided you some great information on the kalimba and has introduced you to a fantastic new instrument to add to your collection. Why not take a look around the kalimba section of the site to learn more about this great instrument?