The Kalimba is a beautiful instrument that creates peaceful and relaxing music. It’s easy to pick up but offers a huge amount of learning and expression as you get to grips with it. It’s also a very small instrument that can be easily stashed in a bag for those moments when you need to get inspired or feel like making music.
We think that learning a new instrument is always a worthwhile pursuit. This is excellent for brain development, but also provides a skill that can benefit you for your entire life. Choosing a “lesser-known” instrument such as the Kalimba provides an insight into a different culture, as well as a wonderful conversation point for parties and activities.
In this post, we’re going to take a detailed look at the Kalimba, whether it is right for you, and how to choose the best Kalimba to get started.
What is a Kalimba?
First, let’s take a look at the basics. The Kalimba is an instrument that looks like a small box or board with some metal prongs attached. Kalimbas attached to a resonant box rather than a flat board are inherently louder than their flatter cousins and objectively create a more attractive reverb.
This box is the resonant box, which provides an acoustic chamber for air to vibrate. This works just like a guitar in order to magnify the sound. This should also contain a soundhole, and if you cover this then you’ll have the option to alter the sound and to create what is often described as a “wah-wah” effect!
The Sansula is a particular type of Kalimba that can be mounted onto a frame drum. You will then lift and lower this onto a flat surface, this can also make an interesting noise.
Interestingly, the order of the notes can vary slightly depending on the age and the type. For example, the original traditional African Kalimba’s used a note-layout that would alternate left to right as they traveled up the scale. On the far right would be a lower drone.
This is what formed the basis of the “Hugh Tracey” kalmia, which is still widely used today. There are other layouts however with a range of different musical patterns. The number of keys can also vary in many cases, though most will now come with 17.
Tuning the Kalimba also varies slightly from one instrument to the next. Many Kalimbas have multiple possible tunings! You’ll need to tune your instrument once every few months minimum, using a tuning chart.
Which Kalimba is Right for Me?
With so many different options, you might be wondering which Kalimba is the right choice for you. The answer will depend very much on personal preference: the type of sound you prefer, whether you intend to travel with it, and what you like the sound of.
There’s also the matter of aesthetics. Different Kalimbas come with different tine colors and even wood colors. The Kalimba is a very personal instrument thanks to its compact nature and the unique sound it creates. This is a little like finding your wand in Harry Potter: the Kalimba will almost “choose you!” Find the one that you resonate with, and follow your gut.
The Best Kalimbas of 2022: Top Reviews
Now that all that is out of the way, let’s take a look at the best Kalimbas available in 2022 rated by real musicians
Gecko 17 Key Kalimba
Gecko is one of the best known and most popular brands of Kalimba. This model demonstrates precisely why it has achieved such popularity and makes for a perfect starting point.
The Gecko 17 Key Kalimba is a striking instrument in burgundy. While that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, it does give it a distinct appearance compared to a lot of the competition. This is once again a Kalimba with a resonance box and a premium mahogany material. The tines are made from ore steel and have the notes and letters marked on them. This is something that some people will find useful when learning, as it means they won’t need to memorize the layouts of the keys. However, it does mean that unlike stickers, there is no option to remove the guidance. That means that the instrument can look a little like a beginner’s option, even as you become more advanced!
Ultimately this is a minor nitpick though, and the overall design and feel of the instrument are superb. We also like that this once again comes with a very well made carry case: an EVA Kalimba boxes offer ample protection from bumps and scrapes, as well as protection from moisture and oxidation.
This product also comes with a full instructional booklet for those learning the Kalimba for the first time. The booklet includes QR codes that link directly to helpful videos. This extra attention to detail is fantastic and makes this a brilliant package for anyone new to the instrument.
Finally, what’s also excellent is the 365-day warranty and 90 days unconditional return period. Combined with a reasonable price, there is little not to like about the GECKO.
- High-quality Materials: Handmade with high-quality mahogany and ore steel bars, giving you a better...
- Wonderful Sound: Without any music basis, you just move your thumb to get the wonderful music that...
- Study Guidance: With our professionally produced kalimba learning booklet, it introduces the use and...
Donner 17 Key Kalimba
The Donner 17 Key Kalimba is a smart and simple Kalimba with a great sound. It is made using solid mahogany, which gives it a premium look and a solid heft. This Kalimba has a resonance box too, giving it a louder and more impressive sound, and creating more options for the way that it can be played. The keys are made from carbon steel, which creates a beautiful sound but should also offer good longevity.
It is compact and comes with an attractive bag for easy carrying around and using. Other included extras include a tuning tool, and a user manual (with tuning guide). This great selection of free extras ensures that you’ll have everything you could need in order to get started with the instrument! To use the hammer, you will apply gentle force to slightly lengthen or shorten the tines.
Also appealing is the money-back guarantee (30 days). This combined with the very reasonable price makes the Donner 17 Key Kalimba a reliable choice for those just getting into the instrument for the first time.
- 🎶【Handmade with Mahogany】Donner 17 key Kalimba thumb piano is handmade with solid mahogany...
- 🎶【Easy to play and learn】You just need to play with two thumbs to make a beautiful sound; It...
- 🎁【Pleasant Sound & Ideal Gift】Suitable for beginners, kids, and professionals, music lovers,...
XINQIDIAN Kalimba 21 Keys
Here is a slightly larger, 21 Key, Kalimba. With 21 keys, the XINQIDIAN has a greater range than the 17 key kalimba. This has a similarly plain design to the Donner, once again made from beautiful mahogany. There are a couple wood engraved patterns around the soundhole in the resonance box you can choose from. This is actually a triple sound hole Kalimba – with two at the back. Different though, are the tines. These are made from ore steel to offer a longer sustain. And the bending key shape results in a more comfortable and easy playing style with the thumbs or fingers.
The package comes with a tuning tool, cleaning cloth, and book with a tuning guide and instructions. The note are etched in to the metal keys on this kalimba, making it an easy instrument to pick up and learn with, providing you a visual reference when trying to recall key layouts. All this makes the XINQIDIAN 21 key Kalimba an excellent choice for a beginner.
- ♬【High-quality materials】Handcrafted with high-quality Mahogany and ore steel bars, giving you...
- ♬【Play more songs than 17 keys】 More keys and wider musical range gives you wider choices for...
- ♬ 【How to tune the kalimba】 Every Thumb Piano is tuned and tested well before shipped.To keep...
UNOKKI 17 Key Kalimba
The Unokki 17 Key Kalimba is a comparable budget option with other kalimbas on this list. Made from mahogany wood with 3 soundholes and ore steel keys, it checks all the boxes.
Its decorated with a unique wreath-like design around the front soundhole. Its two rear soundholes allow you to cover and mute them, giving you a range of sounds and effects you can create.
It also comes with a slew of extras once again, including a tuning hammer, polishing cloth, a carrying bag, instruction book, note stickers, and thumb covers to keep your fingers from wearing out on the metal keys. That said, the bag is very basic and won’t offer alot of protection.
In short, this is a great option if you’re looking for a starting Kalimba. At a lower price point, it is just as beautiful to see and hear as any of its competition.
- MUSIC TO THE EARS: The African kalimba, also called a mbira or thumb piano, is an idiophone...
- EASY TO LEARN AND PLAY: The UNOKKI 17 Key Kalimba Thumb Piano is perfect for both adults and kids...
- MUSIC ON THE GO - ANYTIME, ANYWHERE: With a compact size of 7.4” tall x 5.2” wide, it's easy to...
Walter.D Mahogany Tone Wood Kalimba
The Walter D. Tone Wood Kalimba is another unique looking instrument thanks to its striking, electric blue color. This sits upon a high quality koa tonewood that has an attractive and detailed grain, and that really sets it apart from similar options.
The instrument sounds particularly crisp and bright, and we really enjoyed the sound from this one. The resonance both is thin, which creates a slightly lighter and brighter pitch and quality. The tines are likewise made from high-quality materials: a carbon that is durable and that helps add to the sound.
Like some of the other options, this model also comes with a plethora of extras. You will receive a tuning hammer, a user manual, key stickers, an instruction book for learning the instrument, and a carry bag.
The instrument ultimately has a really attractive look and feel. It’s easy to learn thanks to the extras and looks and feels very premium. We were impressed!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it hard to play the Kalimba?
The biggest challenge with playing the Kalimba is the unusual note layout. This can make playing simple scales more complex, as the numbers that follow from one another are not arranged sequentially. However, you will find that in terms of picking up and making a nice tune, the Kalimba is relatively straight forward once you grasp this basic concept. Adding cords using the unusual key layout is a more complex idea still, but this is something that you won’t necessarily need to do right away.
In short, the Kalimba is an instrument that is relatively simple to pick up, but that can take a lifetime to master!
What is the difference between a Kalimba and a Mbira?
While the terms Kaliba and Mbira are often used interchangeably, there are a few key differences – no pun intended! Most notably (again… no pun intended) this includes the tuning and the way the scales are arranged. You’ll also find that the Mbira has a double row of keys, whereas the Kalimba has a single row.
How much is a Kalimba?
Kalimbas are relatively simple instruments with no moving parts necessary. While it is possible to get antique Kalimbas and electronic Kalimbas which of course cost more, most basic instruments won’t set you back more than $20-$70.
What is the best brand of Kalimba?
There are many brands of Kalimba that are very popular right now. While you should judge each product on its individual merits, GECKO is a very well regarded manufacturer that makes some of the best kalimbas on the market.
What country is the Kalimba from?
While the precise country of origin is not known, the Kalimba definitely comes from Africa. It is generally thought that it originated in southern Africa about 3,000 years ago. However, the metal version that most of us are familiar with today probably only stretches back 1,300.
The Final Word on the Best Kalimbas
So there you have it: everything you need to know about the buying the best kalimbas. Most importantly: this is a stunning instrument that creates a unique and beautiful sound. It has a rich and storied history, and when you play it, you feel transported to another time and culture.
The small size, simplicity to learn, and attractive appearance make this a perfect instrument for anyone to learn if they want to bring a little music to parties, events, and gatherings. It even looks great hanging on the wall as an ornament! It’s a great addition to any studio and makes for great ideas for rhythms. And any of the models we listed in our buyer’s guide will be a perfect place to start.