7 Best Kalimbas (2024) – Our Top Thumb Piano Picks!

Author: Brian Campbell | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Although I have an American passport and speak English as my native tongue, I was born and raised in West Africa. While I would never claim to be a native African out of respect (due to my expat status), there is no doubt that African culture and values shape who I am today.

African musical traditions, among countless other things, were one of the major influences of my childhood that made me who I am today. And if one thing’s for sure, it’s this: African music (and Africa as a whole!), is criminally underrated!

The thumb piano, often called a “kalimba,” is one of the African continent’s most iconic instruments. Much more than a toy, it has been used in countless African traditions for centuries.

Today, we will look at seven amazingly affordable kalimbas you can buy today! After looking at their specs, I will give a brief overview of their history and how they’re played.

Best Kalimbas for the Money - Capable Thumb Pianos!

1. Meinl Sonic Energy Sound Hole Kalimba (17-tine range)

We begin our list with a very solid kalimba choice for beginners and pros alike. Meinl is a well-respected German percussion company, listed alongside industry standards like Zildjian and Sabian.

Since the kalimba is technically a percussion instrument, it makes sense that they’ll put the same care into a thumb piano as other instruments.

The Sonic Energy Sound Hole Kalimba is built with acacia, which accentuates mid- and high-range tones. By nature, kalimbas release a wide array of overtones when their tines are first struck. Meinl intentionally chose acacia to emphasize this unique feature.

It also includes a sound hole, which naturally amplifies the kalimba. As far as range is concerned, 17 tines is the professional standard; far from being hard to play, they provide ample range without sacrificing simplicity for beginners.

What do I make of all this? Despite the slightly-higher-than-average price, I think it’s well worth it. Companies often cut corners with instruments that are pigeon-holed as “toy products.” Not so with Meinl; they treat the kalimba with the respect it deserves.

As if that weren’t enough, they also provide a sturdy carrying bag and tuning hammer.

If you’re interested enough in traditional African music, you’ll know that many tunes are not in Western tuning. The hammer not only helps you retune, but also lets you expand your musical horizons into new soundscapes.

With all those factors put together, I would easily rank the Meinl Sonic Energy Hole Kalimba as one of the best thumb pianos out there.


2. GECKO Kalimba (17-tine range)

Next on our list is the signature kalimba from GECKO, a Chinese company specializing in hand-built kalimbas, cajons, ukeleles, and guitars. Besides the guitar (which I’m sure they tacked on for good measure), they focus on global instruments that have garnered a widespread international interest.

GECKO’s kalimbas are made from well-crafted mahogany, which resonates evenly across all frequencies, while still giving a thick (but not overwhelming) bass tone. Although it may not look as fancy as other models listed, I find its soundbox refreshingly robust and resonant.

However, GECKO’s kalimba shines most when it comes to its pedagogical elements.

First, they provide narrow stickers that you can use to label whatever tines you need – much like fingering tape on a violin. Although it’s a simple addition, this really does help.

It’s basically impossible to make sharpie marks on a kalimba’s shiny tines, because they’ll wear off. If you try normal tape, it kills the sound. GECKO thought ahead, then fixed both problems!

Besides the tape, the kalimba also comes with two books; a basic instruction book and study guide. The study guide includes sheet music and QR codes that link to videos of each song. While not expansive, these are excellent tools to get you up and running!

Because GECKO’s kalimba comes with no-nonsense, hands-on instructions, and is built with integrity, it has my vote as the best beginner kalimba you can buy.


3. UNOKKI Kalimba (17-tine range)

UNOKKI is a brand that specializes exclusively in kalimbas. What’s more, they only have one model in three colors. You’d think that a company with one product would do a great job with it. Thankfully, they do deliver!

UNOKKI’s kalimba comes with the features you’d expect. I find its well-crafted mahogany body genuinely resonant and classy. It accentuates every frequency with equal precision, and comes with a trusty bag and tuning hammer.

However, there is one build feature that makes it stand out in terms of sound.

UNOKKI carves it out of a single, resonant piece of wood. Cheaper builds will glue cheap sheets of wood together, which deadens the tone and vibrations. UNOKKI avoids these pitfalls, and I perceived a clear upgrade in their kalimba’s tone.

UNOKKI also provides “finger protectors,” which are basically rubber thumb tacks. I find my fingers getting rubbed a bit raw when I play for a long time. Rubber protectors prevent this. Plus, the grip between rubber and metal makes for a sharper attack!

Lastly, UNOKKI does provide a basic beginners book, and you can subscribe to an online learning platform. Admittedly, I think GECKO’s book is better overall, with more expansive lessons and sheet music.

I would rather have written sheet music than hunt it down online – but that’s just personal preference. Still though, given their devotion to the kalimba as a singular instrument, UNOKKI is probably the best beginner brand out there for thumb piano beginners.


4. Luna Kalimba (17-tine range)

Luna Guitars is a company that specializes in guitars … obviously, Captain Obvious! But they also branch out into other stringed instruments and percussion, and do a great job with both.

In my opinion, Luna’s kalimba shines as the best sounding kalimba on this list. What’s more, it has an incredibly intricate design laser-etched around the sound hole. Overall, it’s a beautiful product with a beautiful sound!

So … what’s so great about its sound?

Well, the secret lies in the koa wood it’s built with. Koa produces a pleasantly mellow tone that evenly balances all the frequencies.

It does emphasize bass, but doesn’t make it muddy. At the same time, it highlights the high range without being overly bright. In short, it takes the best of all worlds without overpowering any of them.

With a great sound, however, comes a steeper price. As far as the standard 17-tine models go, Luna’s is one of the priciest. Still, at less than $100, it’s remarkably cheap compared to traditional Western instruments.

While testing it out though, I did find something worthy of notice; the tines on the Luna model are crammed much closer than other thumb pianos. While this isn’t a dealbreaker, it can make it difficult to play for people with larger hands.

But hey, I knew a 4-foot 6-inch lady who could play Rachmaninoff’s preludes without breaking a sweat … and that guy could palm a basketball with one hand! So, do whatever you want! 😉


5. MOOZICA 36 Keys Chromatic Kalimba

Some drivers are happy with clunky minivans. Others like lightly-used Subarus. And others like the newest sports car on the market! In the budget kalimba world, MOOZICA’s 36-key kalimba is the Ferrari among us mere mortals.

As I’ll discuss later, the average kalimba is tuned diatonically, with a near 2-octave range.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but it limits the number of songs you can play with a single instrument. With 36 chromatic tines, MOOZICA’s model lets you play any key with a wider range.

The one inevitable downside, however, is its complexity. It has two rows of tines, and an idiosyncratic method of integrating them with a traditionally diatonic build.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s far from impossible. It just means you’ll have to work harder to learn the ropes.

MOOZICA’s model shines elsewhere too. Extra attention was paid to the tine designs. Every single one – even the highest ones – emit a noticeably clear, bell-like tone. Furthermore, their blunt ends make finger glissandos a breeze.

Lastly, MOOZICA makes you tune their kalimba differently than others; much like a guitar truss rod, you twist screws with a hexagon wrench instead of hammering. This allows for more precise, faster tuning.

MOOZICA might have made a lot of adjustments to westernize the kalimba. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing though, since it allows for smoother integration with various music traditions.

For players wanting a serious instrument with full professional potential, MOOZICA’s kalimba is the best thumb piano out there.


6. Newlam Kalimba Thumb Piano (17-tine range)

Newlam’s kalimba model is very close to UNOKKI’s, in many, many ways. Both have 17 tines, both are made of solid wood, and both come with those quirky little finger protectors.

However, Newlam’s model is twice as expensive. All things considered though, this is nothing – as both are available for under $35!

But prices are still prices – why the difference? Newlam’s kalimba differs in two ways. First, it’s made of koa wood instead of mahogany.

Either wood you pick is fine, as it comes down to personal preference; koa will emphasize every frequency evenly, while mahogany will subtly accent the bass. Koa is harder to source, which is one factor for Newlam’s increased price.

Second, Newlam’s thumb piano is the only one in this list to have curved cutouts on the sides for your thumbs. It’s not a dealbreaker feature, but certainly makes ergonomic playing much easier.

With such an easy feature to add, I wonder why most other companies keep with a block shape.

Overall, if you want koa wood and/or the ergonomic shape specifically, Newlam is a great fit. If you’re interested in the other features – thumb protectors, instruction book, etc. – UNOKKI’s will be just fine.


7. Sela SE252 Art Series “Free Spirit” Kalimba (17-tine range)

Our last thumb piano is from Sela, a well-established percussion company based in Germany. Sela focuses on world and spiritual-centric percussion, such as singing bowls, chimes, and kalimbas.

Like other companies listed, they keep their product line small so they can perfect every aspect of what they do.

The result is one of the best thumb pianos on the market, for both beginners and professionals. Built with mahogany and available in both 10- and 17-key models, Sela’s “Free Spirit” kalimba is yet another great sounding investment.

Sela sells multiple kalimba models, many with their own designs. Keeping in step with their spiritual focus, the “Free Spirit” model comes with fine engravings of various symbols. Several include the peace symbol, Hamsa hand, and lotus flower.

I favor functionality over appearance, but it’s hard to pass up Sela’s craftmanship. Thankfully, if you value instruments’ physical appearance, you don’t have to compromise; Sela’s “Free Spirit” is both great sounding and pretty.

My one complaint is the tines’ distance from each other. Just like the Luna model, this could make it difficult to play for people with larger hands.


How to Decide on a Kalimba

Kalimbas are a fascinating instrument. Despite their apparent simplicity, they have a rich cultural heritage and intriguing musical implications.

At the same time, you don’t have to deliberate for hours on end to pick a model. For the majority of us, budget models will be more than enough.

In a rather beautiful way, kalimbas provide the best of two worlds. They open the door to new creative vistas, but are extremely simple to learn and buy!

Here are a few questions to guide you to whatever model works best for you!

Question 1: What Do I Wanna Do with My Kalimba?

As mentioned, kalimbas can provide a wide array of new musical vistas, which is great! At the same time though, you’re perfectly within your rights to use it to relax, sitting cross-legged and playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on your couch.

Eating nachos. And maybe petting your cat with your feet.

Whatever you decide, know what you want to do with your kalimba before you buy one. All our listed models will work well for hobbyists, but those looking for more will need to be more specific.

Question 2: What Tuning Do I Want?

This is probably the most important factor that goes into deciding what kalimba to buy.

In the next section, I will look at the fascinating heritage of kalimbas and the African continent’s music. However, in the meantime, you just need to know two things.

First, lots of traditional African music does NOT use traditional Western scales.

Secondly, most kalimbas available to today are designed for Western music. More importantly, they are usually diatonic.

This means that not every kalimba will be compatible with every song you hear. If you’re interested in African music, or world music in general, plan on using that tuning hammer a lot.

If you’re playing Western music, you have two options: go with a normal diatonic model, or get a pricier chromatic model.

Diatonic models will be able to play songs in one major key and its corresponding pure minor key. Every model on this list is tuned to the major C scale, which is the most common tuning.

G major is the second-most common, followed by B major.

Most pop songs are in C and G (or their corresponding A minor and E minor scales), so you should be good with C major kalimbas. The good news is that if you want to play a song that isn’t in C or G, it’s not hard to transpose pop songs.

If you want more versatility melodically or harmonically, you will want to get a chromatic model instead. This is why we included the Moozika model on our list!

Question 3: What Range Do I Want?

“Tines” are the metal strips that your fingers pluck when playing a kalimba, just like keys on a piano. The more tines you have, the bigger and wider your melodies can be.

I like to err on the side of caution and get a wider range than I think I’ll need. But that’s personal preference, and lots of kalimba songs can be played on a smaller range.

The most common range for kalimbas is 17 tines. For normal diatonic models, this is slightly over two octaves. Besides the expansive Moozika model, every thumb piano on our list is 17 tines.

If you are looking for something simpler though, you can get 7- or 10- tined models. Clocking in at just under or just over an octave, these guys won’t be useful for most performances. However, they make a great introduction for young kids!

Lastly, if you’re looking for more versatility for professional gigs, you’ll want 24- and 32-tined models. If diatonic, these will be over 3 octaves.

If chromatic, like the Moozika model, the range will be smaller, but you’ll have more note options. As usual, your personal goals will greatly influence what range you want.

Question 4: What Tone Do I Want?

The hollow bodies and sound holes of kalimbas help make them loud and resonant. However, different woods will affect the tone of your instrument.

While tone is very important, I think it should come secondary to the aforementioned factors of tuning and range. Why? It’s simple – the tone won’t matter if you can’t play the right notes!

Here’s a quick rehash of how each tonewood sounds:

Acacia: Emphasizes mid- and hi- frequencies, which helps highlight the attack of kalimba notes.

Mahogany: Plays each frequency clearly, but emphasizes the bass end.

Koa: Balances every frequency evenly with a mellow sound.

A Brief History of the Kalimba

I have no intention of getting on a soap box here, but growing up in Africa taught me this truth; African history and cultures are criminally misunderstood and underappreciated by a Western audience.

I’m not saying this to get political or rant. But I believe it’s important to understand, because kalimbas have a deep, rich history – much like other African instruments, like koras and djembes.

The first kalimbas were built in Zimbabwe 3000 years ago, by an ethnic group called the Shona people. Eventually, it spread across the continent. Every ethnic group adapted it to their traditions and gave it their own names.

“Kalimba” is actually a European name given by Hugh Tracey, a prominent ethnomusicologist from the mid-twentieth century. Local Africans will give it their own name, like “mbira” (Shona name), “lukeme,” “senza”, and “karimba.”

Although African cultures differ drastically, they all use music for common reasons; to unite communities and share knowledge. As a result, the kalimba was used in religious ceremonies, public gatherings, and educational systems.

In other words, it wasn’t just entertainment; it was used as a mode for education, passing on knowledge from generation to generation, and uniting a culture. African music is simply a way of life.

Most traditional African music doesn’t follow Western scales and theory. Instead, it uses its own scales and focuses on complex polyrhythms. In the kalimba’s case, it functions as both a melodic and rhythmic instrument.

The left hand plays repetitive rhythms, and the right hand plays equally rhythmic melodies on top of it. Despite the repetition, it’s not easy at all!

While I could go on and on, kalimba history isn’t the purpose of this article. However, I hope this brief summary gives you insight into its origins and uses – you should check it out!

If you remember nothing else, remember this: African music is diverse, complex, and innately connected to people and their history.

Conclusion

The best musicians are always looking for ways to expand their skills and musical sounds. Western music focuses intensely on a fixed set of harmonies and forms. But beyond that, there lies a literal world of differing traditions!

The kalimba can be a fun instrument to relax with. However, just like Debussy with Indonesian music and Dave Brubeck with Turkish music, it can inspire you to explore brand new musical horizons.

After all, everyone from Earth, Wind and Fire to Nine Inch Nails has used them! Maybe you can find some inspiration too!

Until the next time, enjoy looking for a new kalimba, and always, ALWAYS have fun!

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About Brian Campbell

Brian has been playing piano since elementary school and started learning guitar in 7th grade. He teaches K-8 students in Columbus, Ohio, and writes lessons covering a broad spectrum of genres. As a child, he moved back and forth between Colorado and West Africa. He credits those experiences with opening his eyes to the cultural and artistic diversity he appreciates today. Several of his favorite musicians include J.S. Bach, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Radiohead. When not doing music and teaching, you can find Brian reading, hiking, traveling, or making just one more shot of espresso.

1 thought on “7 Best Kalimbas (2024) – Our Top Thumb Piano Picks!”

  1. Very informative and easy to understand. Would like to have your opinion on chromatic linear piano keyboard layout that are on the market now and obviously attractive to piano and keyboard players is my personal desire to purchase. Thank you

    Reply

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