How to tune a Kalimba ?

how to tune kalimba

The kalimba is a musical instrument of African origin. It is composed of blades or slats mounted on a support. Like any instrument, it must be tuned from time to time. For a clear and harmonious sound, it is important to tune it correctly.

What is a kalimba

The kalimba is an instrument belonging to the idiophone family. These are instruments that produce sound by themselves. It originated in sub-Saharan Africa. Several names are attributed to it according to the region or the ethnic group. Thus, it is also known as mbira, sansu, sanza, ubo or karimbao. Descriptively, the kalimba is also called a finger piano or thumb piano. But no matter how it is named, its functioning is always the same.

It consists of blades or slats fixed on a support. These blades were originally carved in bamboo. Later, they were replaced by metal. These models are the most widespread at present. Entering the category of lamellophones by its characteristics, the number of keys varies from 7 to 17. Models with 5 to more than 20 keys are more rare. The keys are mostly straight but some have a curved shape.

The resonance box on which they are fixed is made of wood. There is a great variety of shapes for this body. It can be square, rectangle or oval.

The sound of this instrument is clear and rhythmic. It is played with the thumbs, as its name indicates. Held between the hands, it can be played while leaning on the knees. The reeds are pinched alternately with the left and right thumb. The instrument can be amplified or simply left as is. Sometimes bottle caps are added to the body to accentuate the metallic vibrato effect.

how to tune a kalimba ?

The different possible tunings


To tune any instrument, you need to know its musical characteristics. The kalimba is an instrument that can be played in different keys and scales. Depending on the origin and the manufacturer, it can be tuned to a pentatonic scale. This scale is composed of 5 tones. For example, a kalimba of the key D (D) with 7 blades will be composed of the following notes, starting from the center and alternating from left to right: F#, A, B, D, E, F#, A. This sequence of notes can be modified as needed. More notes and therefore more possibilities can be obtained with more blades. The setting of the previous example becomes, for a kalimba with 11 blades: D, E, F#, A, B, D, E, F#, A, B, D. It is possible to replace the first B (sixth) by C# (seventh) then the second fifth (A) by the fourth (G). This gives a diatonic scale of 5 tones and 2 semitones.

A more advanced tuning is possible by changing for example the sixth (B) by the dominant seventh (C). This way, you get a tuning with blues accents. To go even further, you can use both the minor third and the major third. The notes are thus the following: D, F, F#, A, B, D, F, F#, A, B, D.

The best way to find the right scale is to try several possibilities. It also depends on the musical genre for which the kalimba is intended. Since it is compatible with traditional, contemporary and therapeutic music, the tuning variations are also numerous. The differences between the different tones and scales can be heard perfectly by ear, even by beginners.

The tuning of the kalimba

When buying a new kalimba, it is important to make sure that it is already tuned. This will avoid all sorts of problems later on. However, it can happen that the instrument is out of tune. In this case, you can go to a specialist who will retune your kalimba for a fee.

However, it is possible to make this adjustment yourself. You must first make sure that the instrument allows it. This obviously concerns the model of kalimba but also the tools at your disposal. Indeed, the fixed end of the blades is mounted on 2 trestles between which a bar plates the keys. This rod is generally held on the body by screws or nuts. It is sometimes necessary to undo them and then to tighten them again to have an ideal tuning.

For some models, the tuning is adjusted by lifting the tabs. This is done with the index finger of the left hand. This operation releases the blades. Then, you have to grab the blades with the other hand. To do this, it is best to place the thumb and forefinger of the right hand in tweezers. By combining the action of the two hands, the blade should be able to move back and forth. The longer the part played, the deeper the sound. Conversely, the shorter the part played, the higher the sound. Knowing this, you can move the tongue forward or backward to get a semitone more or less.
how to tune a kalimba

What to watch out for

Owning a kalimba involves some responsibilities. First of all, the sound must be right for you. You have a choice between multiple body shapes and the number of slats. It is best to approach a music store. The advice of a professional is not superfluous. It is also necessary to hear the tone of the instrument directly to find the right sound.

When tuning the kalimba, if you do not have a musical ear, it is best to use a tuning fork or an electronic tuner. The tone of the instrument is a major factor in the choice. If you have a kalimba in E, you will not be able to tune it in G for example. And even to vary the scale sounds, the length of the blade is limited. Although elastic, these metal pieces can break if they are too much stressed. The tension of the bar that holds them must be well adjusted.