How easy is it to play kalimba?

A kalimba is an easy-to-use, relaxing musical instrument that originated from Africa. It has different names in different places. You might know it as kalimba, mbira, or a kalimba thumb piano. Its resonance is achieved by vibrations in the sound box as the metal tines are plucked with the thumbs.

Although the structure of a kalimba instrument is small, it has a distinct construction. Its body is made of wood to form a hollow box, namely the resonance box. There are two strips of wood on this box - one upper and one lower. There is also a metal strip, called the bridge, between the two wooden strips to help condense the vibrations. These are the three components that fix the metal tines firmly on the wooden box.

We can classify a kalimba in two different types based on how it resonates sound: resonance box type and board type.

Resonance box type: A kalimba with a resonance box will have circular sound holes both at the front and the back.

Board type: A board type kalimba consists only of a solid wooden board without any sound holes.


The first step of learning to play the kalimba is understanding how to hold it properly. Hold the kalimba from the sides in the palm of your hands, placing your thumbs on the tines. The index finger could be placed gently on the sides for support.

After learning the correct way to hold a kalimba, the manner in which to use the thumbs to pluck the tines must be emphasized. The fingernails play a crucial role in playing the kalimba. 

For practising and performing, we first use the flesh at the fingertips to touch the tine, then slide the finger down quickly to pluck the time with the nail or pick. The kalimba can only produce accurate and beautiful tones if the correct method of plucking tines is followed.

Before you can start playing the kalimba, it is important to ensure that it is in tune, much like a guitar. You can then practice or play your own tunes using chords and notes. When you are sufficiently familiar with playing the kalimba, you can move on to more complex kalimba music by understanding and reading the tablature.


If your kalimba is brand new or has been played for months without tuning, chances are that it will be out of tune. Here are the steps you need to follow to tune your kalimba:

2.1. Purchase or download a tuner

You can download a tuning app on your phone, or buy a kalimba tuner.

Both of these work quite similarly. Once you play the note on your kalimba, the tuner will let you know if the pitch needs to be higher, or lower, or is just right.

2.2. Use a Kalimba Key Chart

Most kalimbas will come with a note key chart on the purchase. It can be in the form of a separate illustration or the notes can be engraved on the wooden body itself. If not, you can easily look online for one that matches your kalimba. Once you have the key chart, understand which note corresponds to which time to help you tune the kalimba.

2.3. Pluck the centre tine

Now we come to the actual attuning’ part of this section. Start by plucking the central tine and refer to the note on the tuner. If the note is not the same as the one mentioned in the key charts, proceed to either of the next two steps.

You will need a tuning hammer to get the kalimba in tune and ready for playing.

If the note is too flat, tap the tine upward

If the note is flatter than what is required of the time, gently tap the bottom of the tine upward to raise the tine and note. Pluck it again to check what note it now produces. Continue to make little adjustments until the tuner reads the perfect note.

If the note is sharper

If the note is sharper than what is required of the time, gently tap the top of the tine downward to lower the tine and note. Pluck it again to check what note it now produces. Continue to make little adjustments until the tuner reads the perfect note.

Tune all the other tines

Once you have the central tine perfectly in tune, proceed to tune all the other tines in a similar manner. When the tuner reads the precise notes for all tines, you’re all set to start learning and playing the kalimba.


We can only build a solid foundation if we remember all the notes of a kalimba clearly. Every note has its own pitch and a unique sound. Remember to hold the kalimba gently and not to block the sound holes if you have a resonance type kalimba. If you cover the sound hole with your fingers, you will alter the resonant characteristics of the box. Once you have learned to pluck tines properly to create a rich, resonant sound, you can move on to progressions of notes and chords.

Alternate between thumbs to pluck tines

One of the most interesting aspects of the kalimba is that it isn’t quite like a standard musical instrument, say a piano, where all the notes go up in order from left to right. Kalimba notes alternate, increasing progressively in pitch from the centre of the instrument.

To begin with, you need to understand the range of the instrument. You can do this by plucking the tines individually with alternating thumb movements from the centre outward.

Pluck two adjacent tines to play a chord

If you pluck any of the two tines that are right by each other, they will be a third apart. Plucking any two tines beside each other plays a chord. Use your thumb to pluck both tines at the same time.

Combine notes and chords to play your own melody

And you’re done with the basics! Play around and experiment with different chords and notes to create your own Kalimba songs. You can also check out the DWindshield Wiper’ method, in which you move your two thumbs left and right at the same time.