In this guide, we’re going to explore the different aspects of common kalimbas to help you decide which one (or more!) is the right one for you.
You might be asking, “What is the best kalimba?” The answer to that question is “the kalimba that you enjoy playing”. We have our own preferences, but taste is subjective. Your individual needs and desires may vary.
Please note: For this guide, we are using the general term “kalimba” to refer to all instruments of a similar type, such as the kalimba, the mbira, and the sansula. Although these terms are often used interchangeably on the web, such usage is technically incorrect. While we respect all cultures and their instruments, we are simplifying things for beginners.
Additional note: There are affiliate links in this guide. Many of them are used for ease in providing pictures for samples (without violating copyright laws) and are not necessarily an endorsement of that particular kalimba or seller. We will likely replace many of the photos with our own as we update this guide. Scroll down to the bottom for our recommendations and competitive pricing information.
This guide will probably forever be a work in progress.
The first questions you need to ask yourself are:
- For what purpose?
These questions are important because they will help guide every decision from here on out. The answers will also help make sure you are satisfied with your purchase.
So, why do you want a kalimba? Here are some of the reasons people have given us.
- Easy to learn
- Like the sound
- For relaxation/meditation
- To play familiar songs*
- General interest in music
- Saw it in a YouTube video
- Interest in different cultures
- To help keep the mind young
*If you want to play popular songs (e.g., common Western or Eastern songs), you will need to pay special attention to the tuning section.
One of the first things you need to decide is how you want your kalimba to be tuned. There are two parts to this concept.
First, and by far most important, is the tuning style.
If you want to be able to play familiar songs, such as those played on the radio, you’ll want one that is diatonically tuned. Don’t let the word intimidate you; it’s not as complicated as it seems.
To understand it, let’s look at a piano keyboard.
Most Western music and instruments for the past several hundred years (at least) have used the chromatic scale. Including the white and black keys, there are twelve notes in each octave (from C to B); seven are white, and five are black.
The notes will change within a given key. However, to simplify things, you can think of the diatonic scale as only having the seven white keys of a piano. (In fact, this is how most modern kalimbas are!)
So, there are seven keys in each octave, but they are not always evenly spaced. There is only half of a step between the E and F keys, as well as the B and C keys. (Diatonic tuning follows the pattern of whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. Don’t worry about this now. We’ll cover this more in our tutorials.)
Since most kalimbas are missing the equivalent of the black keys, you would not be able to play every familiar song. (Any instrument comes with its own set of limitations.) But you can play a lot!
So, how do we know which ones to buy?
In general, if you find a kalimba that you are interested in, and the listing says any of the following, it’s fairly safe to assume you are looking at a diatonically tuned kalimba:
- A tuned
- B tuned
- C tuned
- D tuned
- E tuned
- F tuned
- G tuned
You may also see verbiage like, “Tuned to the international standard of C”.
C is the most common. (It really has become the “international standard”.) B and G are probably the next most common.
One example of a kalimba that appears to be diatonic but is not is this 9-key one from Meinl. The manufacturer, along with at least one reviewer, says it’s in the key of A minor; however, the notes do not match up. It is a pretty (but expensive) kalimba that you probably cannot use to play popular songs, though it may be great for relaxation. It certainly has a sleek, modern look.
Sellers will sometimes post the all of the keys to help you confirm that it is tuned diatonically. Unfortunately, they often do this in a confusing manner – from left to right – instead of following the layout of the kalimba.
Here’s an example, taken directly from an Amazon listing:
- INTERNATIONAL STANDARD C TUNE & PORTABLE. 17 keys / notes: 1(D), 2(B), 3(G), 4(E), 5(C5), 6(A), 7(F), 8(D), 9(C4), 10(E), 11(G), 12(B), 13(D), 14(F), 15(A), 16(C6), 17(E).
The numbers in the listing represent the octave, but don’t worry about that for now.
What they are really saying is that the kalimba is tuned like this:
What they call 9(C4) is the lowest tine in the middle, C.
Compare that to non-diatonically tuned kalimbas.
For an idea of how some African kalimbas are tuned, Kalimba Magic has some great information.
There is nothing “wrong” with these kalimbas; they were simply made with a different purpose in mind than playing Western music, so if that is your goal, you will want to buy a diatonically tuned kalimba.
The Gecko K17Note kalimba deserves a special mention. Although it is diatonically tuned, it uses a lotus-style, tiered approach.
Unfortunately, this alternate style means you cannot use most kalimba tabs without making some adjustments.
However, it offers two extra keys (F# and G#), and the elongated tines allow for greater resonance.
If you need a chromatically tuned kalimba – that is, one that has the black keys, too – there are a limited number of options, and none of them are cheap. 🙂 The Hugh Tracey one, which has flat notes on the back, costs about $160. Others, such as this one, are set up more like a piano and run about $1000. Or, if you saw April Yang’s cover of Merry Go Round of Life on YouTube, you can purchase that kalimba (the CKL12) for about $150 (the website is in Japanese, but the owner speaks English quite well).
“Tines” (like the tines on a fork) refer to the metal strips on the kalimba that you pluck to produce the sound. (These might also be called “plates”, “tongues”, or “lamellae”.)
The tines are often the least-well described of nearly any kalimba’s features, but they have the single greatest impact on sound.
The kalimba tines can be made from different types of metal, with variations of steel being the most common. (Some simply say “metal”, which doesn’t tell you much!)
Many kalimbas are made in a variety of countries (such as China), and the parts they source may be made in other countries (such as Germany). Perhaps for this reason, the nomenclature is not always clear.
For example, the term “ore” refers to raw metal; however, it is common for kalimba tines to be listed as “steel ore”, “ore metal”, or “metal ore”. Steel itself is an alloy (of iron and carbon) and thus cannot exist in a raw form.
Here are the most common types of metals listed for kalimba tines.
- Recycled Metal
- Spring Steel
- Stainless Steel
These terms often have set meanings, and you may be reasonably confident in your expectations of their sound.
- “Carbon Steel” / “Steel Ore” / “Ore Metal” / “Mineral Steel” / “Manganese Steel”
These terms are commonly used interchangeably and may vary even in the same listing. However, not all tines are created equal!
Aluminum alloy tines, while less common, are also available. Aluminum is a much softer metal than steel. We do not have any experience with aluminum tines but will update this information if we gain any.
Each of these metals has different properties that lend themselves to different sounds, volume levels, tonalities, and ease of playability.
Due to such discrepancies, as well as inherent differences in metal alloys (for example, the percentage of carbon or additional materials added, etc.), the details of which are never disclosed, it is nearly impossible to know what some of the tines will sound like based on labeling alone. (We’ve even reached out to professional metallurgists in our quest for more information, and if they can’t tell… well, don’t feel so bad that it’s such a struggle for us.)
Although likely incorrect, we will break the “steel ore”, etc., metal tines into two categories: plated and unplated. This delineation is based upon visible characteristics that we’ve noticed in an effort to determine similar manufacturing characteristics, but we make no claims of accuracy in regards to materials used. 😉
We will do our best to describe what each sounds like and come up with some consistent labeling. Such descriptions and opinions are highly subjective. If we are able to get updated information or corrections, we will update this guide. (Basically, we’re saying that we’ve done our best with the limited information we have.)
Also, please keep in mind that language barriers and translation errors may occur, and there is always the odd chance that unscrupulous sellers may be dishonest about the metal, even going so far as to edit the photos. (In our experience, such things can and do occur but are infrequent; most inconsistencies appear to be unintentional.)
It is recommended that you listen to videos of various kalimbas with these types of tines being used to determine which type of metal you prefer, as well as confirm the accuracy of the listing information.
Here are what some of the common metal tines look like. (You can also see the individual pieces that help the kalimbas produce sound.)
Please note that “loud” is a relative term; the kalimba is a quiet instrument in general.
Tines that are obviously plated often have slight defects in the plating itself, and ridges inherent to the manufacturing process may be slightly visible. Plating is often done for aesthetics or to alter the strength of the material. These tines are popular with manufacturers.
Tines that are not obviously plated (though they may still be – who knows?) are often very smooth to the touch with a “soft” feel and, although shiny, have more of a satiny look. So far, we have only found these on Gecko kalimbas, but there must be more. We’re still looking!
As a side note, if you or the recipient of your kalimba purchase has a touch sensitivity, you may want to avoid recycled metal or spring steel that isn’t plated, as both can have a courser texture.
In addition to the type of metal, you also want to consider the spacing of the tines.
Tines that are tightly spaced will be more difficult for those with wide thumbs or poor coordination and may be better suited for children or those with slender fingers.
However, if the tines are spaced too far apart, it may be difficult to play chords (strumming multiple tines at once).
The tines are hugely important to a kalimba’s sound. And yet, it’s nearly impossible to find an accurate description of them. Also, some sellers (and/or manufacturers) will photoshop their designs onto images of other kalimbas, giving an inaccurate representation of… well, just about everything.
It is highly recommended that you review customer pictures, rather than just ones supplied by the seller – the more recent, the better.
Number of Tines
Most kalimbas being sold today have 17 tines. Some, like the original Hugh Tracey kalimba, have 15. Others have 12 or 10. Some have nine or eight or seven. (You can probably have any number of tines, really.)
Between the 15- and 17-key kalimbas, there isn’t much difference. The extra two keys you get from 17 keys are rarely used (but are certainly nice to have when you need them).
Some people purchase 10-key kalimbas as a way to solve the tine spacing issue or because they feel they will be easier for beginners with fewer keys. While the former may be helpful, the latter is a bit of a misconception. Like a piano (or electronic keyboard), having more keys gives you more options; the concepts and skills required for playing remain basically the same.
Seven- and eight-key kalimbas are not generally used for playing familiar songs but are often great for relaxation, like mentioned with the Meinl earlier.
You may notice the tines are missing a couple of notes… (That’s because this is a major pentatonic kalimba.) B and F have been removed. Although not intended for song playing, it is great for relaxation because all of the notes sound pleasant together. (Eliminating the half steps reduces the amount of dissonance.)
Few would argue the kalimba’s “cool factor”. Intriguing and inviting, a lot of people are instantly drawn to it. However, there are definitely some considerations in regards to style that can affect how your kalimba feels and sounds.
Resonator Box vs Solid Body
One of the first things you are likely to notice when looking at kalimbas is that some have a hole and some don’t.
Resonator boxes tend to have more volume, especially in the lower keys. (The kalimba is still a relatively quiet instrument.) Solid-body kalimbas are typically quieter than resonator boxes, but the volume is more even across notes, high and low. (On some resonator box kalimbas, high notes can sound almost “dead”.)
With less wood, solid-body kalimbas are usually lighter in weight and have a smaller profile. However, most cases are designed for standard, resonator box kalimbas.
Resonator boxes also allow you to do the “wah-wah” sound that is sometimes heard, and the sound can be further amplified by covering up the holes in the back.
In general, kalimbas with resonator boxes are more likely to have decorations (though this is changing). The box kalimbas are also often varnished and smoother than their solid counterparts, which might be something of note for those with touch sensitivity.
Resonator Box Shapes
Most kalimbas with resonator boxes are a subtle trapezoid shape. Some have indentations for a more comfortable grip. (We have not tested these.) And some come in fun shapes.
Solid-body kalimbas come in all several different shapes, also presumably designed for ergonomics. The benefits of each are debatable and probably subjective.
Here are some of the more common styles we’ve seen:
“Hourglass” shapes are becoming more popular.
(This particular kalimba has the added bonus of a built-in stand!)
Hemisphere / Parabolic Shapes
Although still technically resonator boxes, these kalimbas deserve a separate mention for their unique structure.
Hemisphere and parabolic shapes produce strong volume. For example, you can actually feel the entire coconut vibrate from the air pressure.
We haven’t tested these yet, but the gourd kalimbas made by Thumb Fun are diatonic and appear to be of high quality.
Type of Sound Holes
The resonator holes can be round (as you’ve mostly seen), or they can be fun shapes. (We have not tested whether or not this shape change affects the sound quality.)
It’s a little hard to see with the dark wood, but look at the extra sound holes at the top.
Although we haven’t tested this particular kalimba (yet!), the extra sound holes are intriguing, as they may limit or even eliminate the issue with the upper tines on resonator boxes being much, much quieter (or, in some cases, “dead”) when compared to the lower tines.
Woods (And Other Materials)
Types of Wood
Kalimbas are usually made of wood. There are several different types. Although they can affect the tonality of the sound to a degree, their strongest effect is on the resonance (how long the keys vibrate and, thus, produce sound for).
In general, the harder the wood, the more resonance the kalimba will have as the sound waves will bounce off of the wood, rather than be absorbed by it.
Here are some of the more common woods used, listed by estimated hardness (when in doubt, we’ve listed the lowest number found):
- Rosewood (1780)
- Sandalwood (1680)
- Curly Maple (1450)
- Bamboo (1380)
- Koa / Acacia Koa (1170)
- Walnut (1010)
- Camphor (950)*
- Birch (910)
- Mahogany (800)
- Spruce (700)
*Camphor does have a very strong scent, especially when first opened. It is difficult to describe. We enjoy it, but if you’re the kind of person who dislikes eucalyptus, cedar, or tea tree oil, you may find it unpleasant. The scent great dissipates if left out of the packaging for an extended period of time.
The four most common woods we’ve seen, listed in order of approximate frequency, are:
Times listed as longest tine / shortest tine (not all of the kalimbas we have are in the same key), in approximate seconds. We’ll try to do a more scientific approach later.
- Curly Maple (7s / 1.5s)
- Koa (7s / .5s)
- Bamboo (6.5s / 1s)
- Mahogany (5s / 1s)
Is more resonance better? Maybe! It’s a matter of personal taste. Mahogany is usually perfectly adequate, but a little more resonance is nice, especially for beginners.
Here are the weights of our Gecko kalimbas in these common woods:
- Koa (352g)
- Mahogany (309g)
- Bamboo (296g)
- Curly Maple (296g)
Some new materials have come on the market. Whether they improve the experience is debatable, but some of them look amazing. The two we’ve seen are acrylic and ABS plastic.
You may also see kalimbas and mbiras, etc., made from recycled materials, such as cans.
Most kalimbas will fall in the range of $20 – $45, making it one of the more accessible musical instruments. (Kalimbas with internal mics / EQs are around $60.)
Generally, the type of wood is the biggest factor in price.
Using the Gecko brand as our test subject and Amazon for pricing (the Gecko bamboo kalimba is not currently sold on Amazon), we can deduce the most common woods, from least to most expensive, as:
- Bamboo (estimated)
- Curly Maple
Keep in mind that being the most expensive does not automatically make a kalimba the “best” (more on that in a minute).
There are some surprisingly good quality kalimbas to be had for very reasonable prices.
Many people start with less expensive ones and then “upgrade” when they find that they really do fall in love with the instrument. 🙂
A word of caution:
Some sellers will mark up the products by an exorbitant amount (especially on Amazon), bringing us back to the adage that “most expensive does not mean the best”.
Check out this example:
Yes, there are some sellers charging five times the rate you can find it for sale elsewhere (in this case, AliExpress) – or even more.
Is this a great kallimba? It sure is! The wood has amazing resonance.
Is it $230 great? Absolutely not. And especially not when you’re being overcharged by nearly $200.
Please don’t get scammed by such people. That would make us incredibly sad.
If anyone would like some recommendations, we are happy to offer some. We’ll save anything comprehensive for another day. 🙂
There are a lot of good options out there, especially at different price points. If it’s within your budget, the Gecko is always a safe bet.
But, again, we want to reiterate:
The best kalimba is the one you enjoy playing.
Where to Buy, When, And Why
Now in alphabetical order with location listings in parentheses. We’ll keep updating as we find more!
*Update 23 September* They are currently offering $19 in coupons to new customers. Not sure what those entail or when this expires, but their coupons are often decent. (Has it expired when you’re reading this? Let us know!) https://s.click.aliexpress.com/e/qrAdglFS
AliExpress is like a marketplace where a lot of wholesalers sell discounted goods. Most of the time, these products will ship from China, so the wait can be quite long. But if you have time to spare, the extra time can save you a lot of money. (Coupons are also sometimes available, as well as seasonal sales.)
A really nice feature they have is the ability to see how the listing looked when you placed your order. That way, if the seller changes the description or price (or a sale ends), you have an automatic screenshot saved to help with disputes.
One benefit is that you can often find models that are not for sale on Amazon and other places.
One downside we’ve found is that sometimes products are not packaged well enough for overseas shipping (which is often free or ridiculously cheap), so perhaps you might think of it as getting a discount for a dented box. (However, that may not be desirable if you are purchasing it as a gift.)
Aside from wait times, we haven’t had any negative experiences with AliExpress sellers (so far).
Amazon (US, UK, Canada, Germany, Japan, Italy, China, India, Spain, France, Brazil, Mexico, and Australia)
Of course, Amazon is a trusted website with customer service that is often second to none, and you can receive some products extremely quickly. (Because there is a variety of sellers on Amazon, you’ll need to pay attention to the price and shipping times.)
Many overseas sellers will obscure manufacturer names and product numbers, requiring a bit of sleuthing to find out if you are getting the best deal.
Similar to AliExpress, BangGood offers discounted items. We’ve found the prices aren’t quite as great, but shipping times are often faster.
Bolf Kalimbas (Slovakia)
Shipping locations are as yet unconfirmed, but they do travel around Europe. Their instruments appear to be high quality and handmade. They’ve reported that some unscrupulous company has stolen their logo, so make sure you’re buying the real thing!
Oddly, our experience with eBay has been very hit or miss. It’s a great place to look for “out of print” kalimbas that are no longer being made, like Catania or Afroharp. And sometimes, you can find some really good deals on items with fast shipping.
Other times, overseas sellers will use local warehouses whose employees seem to have zero care as to whether you get the right product. Unfortunately, multiple sellers seem to use the same warehouse (as evidenced by us getting three of the exact same wrong kalimba from two different sellers).
Make sure you check the return policy and find out how to file a dispute. Honest mistakes can also happen, and the sellers have always been pretty accommodating. (One offered us a steep discount to keep the wrong kalimba, which we were okay with, and the other refunded us completely.) Know your rights and screenshot the listing if you have any concerns.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Kalimba Magic. They’ve been the foremost authority on kalimbas for many, many years and still sell the original Hugh Tracey kalimba, along with several alternate tunings, buzzers, and more.
Mercari is a marketplace for people to sell items, often (but not always) used. It’s similar to an online swap meet or garage sale. If you’re looking for classic kalimbas, you might have some success here.
Reverb is a place to sell primarily used music gear. Sometimes, you can find some classic kalimbas or local deals.
If you are looking for kalimbas, mbiras, and the like made in Africa, Swahili Modern is a great resource. These will not be diatonically tuned, but there are some with traditional African tunings and some really cool ones that are made from recycled materials, like Nescafe cans.
The site is famous worldwide, but the language is primarily in Chinese. They are insanely cheap. We’re testing a couple of orders from there to the US and will update upon successful completion or not.
Wiki Wiki, Inc. (South Korea only, sadly)
Wiki Wiki is the maker of the popular Nekoz kalimba. Unfortunately, they only ship to South Korea at this time, though we’ll be sure to update this post if that changes. We’ve had our eyes on the Nekoz for a while!