Best Kalimbas for Camp Fire Jamming & Quiet Melodic Scenarios

The kalimba, also known as the mbira or simply thumb piano, is a very cool instrument. While it looks like an instrument for children, it’s more than capable of playing complex compositions. 

But, the more advanced the melody is, the more you’ll need one of the best kalimbas at your disposal if you want to sound good and not foolish.

6 Best Kalimbas You Can’t Go Wrong with

Like many other idiophone instruments, the kalimba comes in many shapes and sizes. To help you understand the instrument better and pick out something you won’t regret buying, I’ve reviewed a few of my favorites, followed by some tips to guide you.

If you’re not new to the thumb piano market then you must know that there’s probably nothing more popular than a Gecko kalimba. This 17-key model is made of premium materials such as mahogany and steel bars.

It’s quite easy to play and doesn’t have an annoying ring if you’re not swiping the bars cleanly enough. Because it has just 17 keys, picking up a few of your favorite songs within days shouldn’t be too difficult.

I can also recommend this particular package to beginners since it comes with a learning booklet that details what the kalimba is all about, how it’s played, how the notes are read, and how to take care of it.

The one-year warranty is a nice touch, although it might not be necessary considering the quality and durability of the body and bars.

  • Beginner-friendly
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    Mahogany build
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    Steel ore bars
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    EVA protective case
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    Visible notations
  • Slightly pricey

The TRSCIND 17-key thumb piano is an affordable instrument. It’s made of mahogany yet it’s quite light. It’s also handcrafted, which gives it some very nice visual qualities along with the great choice of finish.

This music box comes already tuned in C. It thus has a soft timbre that should work best when used for light folky acoustic background noise. Of course, given its good sound projection, it can also be used in various recordings to add another layer of complexity to a melody.

Also included in the price is a portable bag. You can use that to carry the instrument, to store it, or even to gift it to someone you know will appreciate it.

  • Good build quality
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    Tuning hammer and manual included
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    Affordable
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    Standard C tuning
  • Average notation visibility

Donner makes both 10 and 17-key kalimbas. However, I recommend the DKL-17, the 17-key model, as it is capable of producing more complex melodies. It comes tuned in international standard C tuning and it is accompanied by a light and durable tuning hammer.

With everything ready to go out of the box, you should also know that the keys are slightly different than in other models. The DKL-17 uses carbon steel keys to accompany the mahogany box. They’re a bit slippery but have very visible notations on them.

What’s nice about the tone is that it resembles that of a real piano, more than you would expect. All the while, it maintains that eclectic kalimba timbre.

  • Many useful accessories included
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    Available in two sizes
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    Visible notations
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    Authentic aesthetics
  • May need retuning more often

The UNOKKI 17-key thumb piano is made from a single piece of mahogany. This ensures a superior resonance to many similarly priced models of generic plywood. It also helps maintain a bright natural finish.

Due to the size and number of accessories included, it would be hard to say that this particular package isn’t suited for everyone. Beginners can benefit from the instructions and sticky notes, professionals can benefit from the tuning hammer and finger protectors, while those with poor eyesight may enjoy the red and green stickers.

Even though this kalimba may not have the most authentic and clean tone, it does seem to have the most complete package, which is indicative of great value for the money.

  • Mahogany and steel instrument
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    All essential and non-essential accessories included
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    Lifetime warranty
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    Curved notes
  • Doesn’t come perfectly tuned

JDR certainly went the extra mile to ensure that the metal hardware components are high-end. In its 17-key kalimba, JDR uses manganese steel keys and ore metal tines. These keys are more flexible and help to produce a crisper sound.

They may also improve the feel, and thus the accuracy of beginner players. The musical notation is acceptably visible from multiple angles. A lifetime warranty is also available, which may just sweeten the pot, even though this is not the cheapest kalimba on the market.

A cloth bag and an EVA case are both included. As are the classic red and green stickers and tuning hammer.

  • Handcrafted mahogany box
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    Manganese steel keys
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    All accessories included
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    Carry bag and case included
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    Good notation readability
  • Not a lot of visual detail

Here’s a kalimba that may interest you a lot if you’re more about the graphic details than sound projection or quality. A rather quiet thumb piano, the Apelia 17-key kalimba is still great as it comes in seven different styles and colors.

It still has a mahogany body like most professional-grade kalimbas and steel bars. It’s tuned in standard C and the notes are carved and there forever. However, this means that the readability may degrade in time.

A carry bag is also included, as are finger protectors and a tuning hammer. If you don’t mind playing on something smaller than the average 17-key kalimba and you want your eyes to light up when you look at the design details, this might be the option for you.

  • Available in 7 models
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    Compact build
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    Quality materials
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    Tuning hammer, protectors, and bag included
  • Has a flat timbre

How Many Keys are Enough?

Most kalimbas have either 10 or 17 keys. This might not always implicate a difference in size but it will have an impact on the weight. Thus, 10-key kalimbas are generally regarded as kid’s instruments.

Another reason to pick a 17-key model over a 10-key model is purely for the melodic properties. More keys means access to wider scales. This in turn will allow you to play more complex tunes. Besides, if you really want to simplify some piano songs, 10 keys will rarely cut it.

Weighing in on Different Brands

Let’s face it. Kalimbas don’t require the intricate mechanisms of pianos. Different brands and models of kalimbas may sound slightly different, but the bigger difference would be in build quality. In light of this, if a kalimba catches your eye and you’re impressed by the build, you may not have to hesitate even if you’ve never heard of the brand.

Look for Quality Materials

These small musical boxes can be made from a wide range of materials. The most common combination is some type of wood and steel. While you may not need your thumb piano to resist a direct nuclear hit, you might still want to pick one that’s made from high-end materials.

High quality wood and a good protective coating will protect the kalimba from weather and natural degradation. This will help to preserve its tone for a long time.

Note that the cheaper the instrument, the higher the likelihood it will be made of generic plywood. This will affect both the acoustic properties and the durability of the resonator box.

Not to mention the fact that the exterior won’t have a bright shiny finish for too long.

Sound Isn’t Everything

Here’s something you may have heard me say before: sound isn’t everything. In the case of thumb pianos, I believe that looks are often just as important as the quality of the melody.

That’s mainly because there are so many expertly carved African-style kalimbas on the market that sound just as good as generic-looking kalimbas, or the other way around. This type of instrument is already a great conversation piece among musicians and curious people alike.

Matching a good design with good sound properties just makes good sense, if you can afford to do so.

Can You and Should You Boost the Volume?

Most kalimbas can be used to add melody to your recordings, provided you use a powerful mic that’s able to capture the soft tone. However, for some kalimbas you can increase the volume in another way.

It is called a flat board. Such box-mounted kalimbas will sound significantly louder. But, this also means that you might have to sacrifice something in regard to articulation or identity. A flat board-mounted kalimba box may sound blander.

Get the Most Out of Even the Tiniest of Instruments

Whether you’re playing the kalimba professionally, as a gag, or as a hobby, you should always get the best kalimba. These aren’t expensive instruments, yet they offer a unique sound and play style.

Hopefully, by now you also have a better understanding of how to pick one for yourself or as a gift. While each thumb piano in this article is capable of great things, do use the provided tips to guide you moving forward.

Gavin Whitner
    Gavin Whitner
     

    A guitar player, songwriter, composer, and also the lead editor of MusicOomph, Gavin is one of the four musician friends behind this site. Outside of music, he's an avid sports fan and hardly misses anything from football (soccer) to F1.

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