Probably not the first instrument you might think of, but the best kalimba is an instrument with a history. It is hard to identify when the first Kalimba came into existence. And it seems to have been an ever-evolving instrument. It could be they first appeared sometime around 3000 years ago in West Africa. Somewhere near where Cameroon is today. Then it was made of plant material such as Bamboo.
The first European documentation of the instrument came in 1570 when Portuguese explorers made mention of them. They spread to the Americas courtesy of that glorious period of human history, of which we should all be so proud, NOT! The slave trade.
Some call it the African thumb piano. It is an interesting instrument that might be classified as percussion. It consists of thin metal blades, the keys or tines, fixed to a sounding board. There are vibrato holes that help to shape the notes. It is sometimes also called a Mbira.
They can have 10 or 17 of these keys. It has been used in African countries for centuries to ward off evil spirits from sick people and also to pray for rain. As an instrument, it has great symbolic meaning on the African continent.
The sound, though is something else. A little bit “New Age’ it is basically a very chime-like sound. Relaxing, peaceful in its tone. It has three holes in the body, a large hole on the front, and two small ones in the back. To play, you cover the holes and then play the keys in a plucking motion. Not dissimilar to a harp in the action. And worldwide, it is widely used and made.
So, let’s take a look at the best Kalimbas on the market and find the perfect one for you…
Top 10 Best Kalimba You Should Buy In 2020 Reviews
1 GECKO Kalimba 17 Keys Thumb Piano
This is a beautiful hand-made Kalimba that oozes culture and authenticity. Just the design and look emphasize the unique instrument it is. The resonance box is made from Mahogany. The keys or times are made from ore steel. It is a compact little instrument measuring only 9.7 inches by 8.2 by 3.8 inches and weighs just under 2 pounds.
It is made in a very traditional way, and the times deliver a clear sound that is well-pitched. Kalimbas are tuned to C usually, but the tuning can be altered if you require. There are certain limitations to this procedure.
On the wooden case, there is the gecko name engraved around the soundhole. The back of the Kalimba is plain wood except for the two holes. These are placed about two inches apart. By covering them with your fingers as you play, you will create a vibrato type sound.
There are red and green tone stickers included. These are stuck on the tines by inexperienced players. A little bit like notes might be written on the keys of a piano. You can remove them when you don’t need them anymore.
It comes with a tuning hammer and a nice case to protect it if you carry it around. There is also a short booklet to help you to learn how to play this great little instrument. This Kalimba is crafted in China. The nice price point makes it an attractive gift or as a new instrument to learn — certainly a contender for best thumb piano.
- High-quality manufacture with good materials.
- An affordable price.
- It can be difficult to tune.
2 JDR Kalimba 17 Keys Thumb Piano
A beautifully-crafted Kalimba from JDR, this is a very impressive looking instrument. The soundbox is made from solid Mahogany, well-known for its tonal qualities. There is a great design aspect of using pure wood for each instrument. This is that each displays the shades and grains of the wood, making each Kalimba unique.
The sound, of course, is great, produced from a combination of the mahogany and the steel times. The 17 keys are staggered and produce a sweet and crisp sound, ideal for acoustic playing.
The keys are made from manganese steel, which is a tough but also a flexible metal. The keys, therefore, won’t be too hard on the fingers. Some Kalimbas offer stick-on notes and letters. With this instrument, they are embossed on each tine, so they are not going to wear off.
Enclosed is an early-learning music book which gives you a great start. Simple music and operation will generate the beauty of this instrument almost instantly.
It comes with a case that is waterproof. This is important as the Kalimba is a vulnerable and gentle instrument. It needs to be protected fro the weather and any accidental knocks. In the package, there is also a cleaning cloth, a tuning hammer, and the aforementioned music book.
A stunning piece of design and build that creates a very authentic sound. It is well-made and at a great price point. It must be one of the best examples of a 17 key kalimba around.
- Beautifully made with good materials.
- Gentle sound and easy to play with good extras in the package.
- Is vulnerable to breakages if not taken care of.
3 Kithouse Kalimba 17 Keys Thumb Piano
The more you come into contact and hear these instruments, then the more you begin to feel the cultural aspects of them. The sound they produce is unique, and there are a couple of great things about them. The ability to get a sound from them is not linked in any way to age. A baby can get it to sound and so it is an ideal musical present for anyone.
This particular Kalimba has a sound box made from Mahogany that delivers a warm and rich sound. The keys are made from ore steel, which is both flexible and hard-wearing. It has 17 keys tuned in the key of C. There is an impressive Mandala flower etching around the soundhole.
This instrument seems to have been designed with children in mind. It has colored and transparent stickers for the keys to help new players. These can be placed on the keys and removed whenever you want. The notations are not etched on.
This is a nicely designed Kalimba that is easy to play and looks nice. The good materials ensure a nice sound. It comes with a waterproof EVA, plastic, weatherproof box with a soft lining. Also, a tuning hammer, cleaning cloth, and the key markers and labels.
A super Kalimba and a great introduction to music for a child of any age. The affordable price makes this a great gift.
- Nice design with good materials used in construction
- Warm and rich sound and easy to play.
- Very young players will need some help in understanding how it works.
4 UNOKKI Kalimba 17 Keys Thumb Piano
The Unokki Kalimba makes the maximum possible use from its design and how it is presented. The soundbox is made from real Mahogany. As it is real wood, each instrument will vary in shade and with the varying grains. Each Kalimba is, therefore, a very unique instrument. More than this, the front has an attractive decor around the soundhole and a leaf design on the body. This gives it an authentic feel.
The 17 keys are made of ore steel, and they are engraved with the notes. That is a good idea for people learning the instrument. Sometimes stickers are used for note identification, but these can easily wear away. The ends of the keys are slightly bent down to make it easier to play. This ensured there are no edges rubbing against your thumbs or fingers while playing.
Each Kalimba is set up and tested before leaving the factory and tuned to C. It comes with a tuning hammer, and a set of instructions on how to tune it should the need arise. Also enclosed with the instrument is a finger protector. Made of silicone, this helps to reduce any discomfort after playing the instrument for a while.
There are some helpful extras, like the music and instruction book in English, which is included. However, it does not come with a case which is disappointing.
The sound is sweet and pleasant and possesses that warm Mahogany richness. It is a nice Kalimba at a very affordable price.
- Nicely made with attractive designs.
- Sound good and plays easily.
- No case or bag included for protection.
5 Helesin, Kalimba 17 key Thumb Piano
This instrument from Helesin is made from Koa wood. That is a unique wood style in itself and often has interesting natural patterns in the grains. It has 17 tines made from carbon steel that is tuned to the key of C. The keys have a locking system that helps to maintain the tuning.
This is a compact Kalimba and measures just 9.4 inches by 6.7 by 2.9 inches. It weighs just 13.3 ounces, and so is, therefore, very easy to carry around with you. The keys are not engraved with the notes and numerals, but stickers are provided for you to use.
The Koa wood produces a very deep resonance and complements the sound made naturally be the steel keys. It, therefore, has a very easy sound that is not sharp to the ear. And it is a unique sound and slightly resembles wind chimes. It is designed to suit all levels of player from a beginner through to experienced.
It comes with a well-stocked package of extras, including a songbook and a manual on how to use and maintain the instrument. A tuning hammer and numbered and labeled stickers for the keys are included. Also, a cloth to keep it clean and a soft material carry bag.
The build quality is ok, with a nice attractive design using good materials. It has a classic Kalimba sound, and the package that comes with it makes this an attractive option. The good price point makes this Kalimba a good buy.
- Good materials used and a good sound.
- An attractive looking instrument at a very affordable price.
- Build quality might not be as strong as some others.
6 Apelila 17 Key Kalimba Thumb Piano
There isn’t much difference to be seen in the prices of these instruments. But if you are unsure and looking for a slightly cheaper Kalimba, then the Apelila 17 key might be interesting.
This best kalimba is made from Mahogany but then colored in a dark blue, but if blue isn’t your color, you could go for light blue, green, orange, or even pink! It does have some attractive etchings displayed around the soundhole, which adds interest to its appearance. But, apart from the visual aspects, we are not sure about the value of coloring the wood.
Mahogany is a rich, warm tonewood, but it relies on the reflection of sound from its surface. Covering that surface is not going to allow the wood to deliver its full potential in sound. So it is with this particular Kalimba.
There are carbon steel keys that are engraved with the letters and numbers to identify their intonation. That is going to help beginners, and it is to that standard that this instrument is best suited.
It comes as part of a package, though the inclusions are not as extensive as some. There are a user manual and the standard tuning hammer — also a bag and two picks. You don’t get a waterproof case. This is really something you need with one of these instruments.
It is a budget level Kalimba in many ways, although it has good materials in its construction. The sound, though, is a little disappointing. It is rather thin and does not have the depth and the warmth of some Kalimbas. We think this might be due to the coloring on the surface of the soundbox. It looks very attractive, but it seems to have affected the sound possibilities of the mahogany wood.
It is set at an affordable price-point and, as such, might be suitable for a complete beginner.
- Nice attractive design.
- Affordable price point.
- The sound is a little thin.
7 Newlam Kalimba Thumb Piano 17 Keys
This 17 key kalimba is a step up in level in both design and sound. It is hand-made from a high-quality hardwood that delivers a delicious sound. The wood is dried in a traditional way to retain its natural look and grain. It is, therefore, a very attractive instrument. The keys are ore steel.
Each of the keys has a gentle curve on the end to make playing easier and more comfortable. Designed this way, they form a more natural angle to rest the hand while playing. They have the notation information printed on them and don’t rely on extra stickers.
Like all Kalimbas, it is very easy to quickly get a tune from them. Even if you have never played the instrument before it is not too difficult. This makes it an ideal instrument for a child to learn and enjoy. They do, of course, have another dimension. The original cultural heritage is evident as the player begins to improve.
This instrument comes as part of a package that also includes a lightweight bag. Other extras include a tuning hammer, cleaning cloth, and a book of instructions.
It represents a good example of this unique instrument. The quality of the build and the sound is high, but it is still set at a very affordable price point. Great value for a great little instrument and could be considered the best thumb piano around. It is made in China.
- Beautifully made with quality materials.
- Nice sound and very easy to play with some good extras included.
- None really, it is well-made with an authentic sound.
8 AKLOT Kalimba 17 Keys Thumb Piano
There are times with you find a company that has really worked hard on the design of an instrument. This is one of those times. The Kalimba can already be a beautiful instrument. And when it shows off the natural grains and colors of the wood, it becomes even better. So when you see this design, it is quite stunning.
Made of solid wood and assembled by Luthiers, this best kalimba is a quality instrument. The woods are dried, which helps to provide a clear natural sound and a stunning look. The keys are made from ore steel and are flexible yet also very durable. They are also rounded at the edges to give you a comfortable feel to play.
This instrument is tuned to C before leaving the factory, but it can be tuned to other keys if required.
The design is quite spectacular with its rounded ‘face-like’ shape. The design actually makes it a little smaller than some other Kalimbas. This makes the keys closer together. It measures 8.5 inches by 6.5 by 2.9 inches and weighs 1.35 pounds.
A stunning design and a great sound make this instrument a superb choice. It is a little more expensive than the average but worth every penny — definitely a contender for the best 17 key kalimba.
- Great design and styling with good materials.
- Nice sound with good resonation.
- Some may not want to pay a little extra.
9 Donner 17 Key Kalimba Thumb Piano
Donner has produced another quality Kalimba. This 17 key instrument is made from solid Mahogany, which produces a naturally warm and rich sound. Naturally dried, the wood shows through its natural grain and colors to create an impressive look. There is an attractive design around the soundhole.
The keys are made of high-quality carbon steel that are flexible and easy on the fingers. But they are also very durable. The notations are not embossed on the keys, and stickers are included to identify notes.
It is a nice comfortable size at 9.1 inches by 7.4 by 3.1 inches. And weighs just over one pound, so it is easy to carry around. It comes with a small bag to offer a little protection when you are on the move. There is also a user manual written in English. The instrument is made in China.
It produces a nice resonant sound with very little effort — the high-quality of the steel working with the Mahogany body to give you a clear sound.
We think this is a quality instrument at a very affordable price. It is just a shame that the notations are not printed on the keys. You have to apply the stickers yourself, which isn’t easy. Nevertheless, it’s a great little Kalimba.
- The rich, warm sound produced by good materials.
- Very affordable price for a quality instrument.
- It would have been nicer if the notations were printed on the keys.
10 Luvay Kalimba 17 key Thumb Piano
Most of the Kalimbas we have looked at have been a similar price. This is because the designs and functions are almost identical between the varying instruments. They are not electrified, so there can be no difference in extra features for sound shaping. Neither can there be special effects. Any differences that exist are seen in the design and styling of the shape of the Kalimba or more critically in the materials used.
This Kalimba is what we might term as a budget model in that it is slightly cheaper than most. Having said that, it still carries with it many of the good things we see in other instruments. It is made from solid mahogany and so benefits from that recognized tonewood for quality of sound. The company logo is placed around the soundhole in an attractive design. It also has carbon steel keys that are flexible and durable.
The keys on this best kalimba have a downward slant at the end to make the playing feel more comfortable and less hard on the fingers. The keys are embossed with the notation information. That means no difficult stickers to try and fix, which may wear off with use. It is tuned to C in advance of leaving the factory.
It comes with an instruction book, tuning hammer, and finger picks.
There aren’t many reasons. One might be that it is a similar size to other Kalimbas. But at 9.5 inches by 9.4 by 3.2 inches, the keys are still a little close together. This makes playing it a little bit more tricky. It is also a little heavier than most at 1.67 pounds.
Despite this, it is a nice sound and is well-made with an attractive look. It still is a good value for money at the price point.
- Nice design using good materials.
- Affordable price.
- The keys are a little close together.
Best Kalimba Buyer’s Guide
Buying Your Kalimba
To most people, this will be a new instrument. Therefore, most will not necessarily know what to look for when buying this instrument, so there are some simple things worth considering…
This can have an effect. Mahogany is a tonewood most will be familiar with. Used widely on guitars, it has a special resonance and warmth. Some of this is transferred to the Kalimba, but some of it isn’t. But the Mahogany used guitars relies to an extent on the body to help generate its resonance. On a Kalimba, there is no body. Just a solid piece of wood.
Nevertheless, it does generate a nice sound. Koa is an alternative, and in some people’s eyes, a better option. You may see some Kalimba’s made from Bamboo or even plywood. These are not so good sound-wise nor as durable and hard-wearing. Best to stick to Mahogany or Koa, in our opinion.
The Tines (Keys)
Often ignored as not so important, they are the single most element responsible for the sound. Most Tines are made from metal, but there is some confusion as to the type. Ore means a raw metal, not combined with another metal to form an alloy.
Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, so in itself cannot be a raw metal. Steel Ore is then a confusing description. Each will sound different. Even steels will sound different depending on the makeup of the alloy. The best metal to choose is one that is flexible but still hard-wearing.
Most kalimbas are tuned to C though this can be changed. Just because it is tuned to C doesn’t mean it can play a scale of C. Something that is important if you want to play western music on it. If you want to play popular music, you will need one that has diatonic tuning.
Most music uses the chromatic scale, which uses the white and black keys. In C, that is just white keys on a piano. The notes played will alter with a key change and then use black keys. The Kalimba doesn’t have the equivalent of black keys on a piano.
You, therefore, can not play every song on one, but you can play a lot of them. A tuning hammer is usually included, and the individual tines are tuned by pulling them out or pushing them back in. There are even apps on Apple where you can download a tuner for the Kalimba.
These are the basics, but there is no way around the best way to choose. Listen and pick a sound you like. It might be just that simple.
More Cultural Instruments
If you’re interested in how instruments have affected and been affected by different cultures, check out our reviews of the Best Kids Ukeleles, the Best Lap Steel Guitar review, the Best Hang Drums, the Best Ocarinas, and the Best Harmonicas currently available.
So, What Is The Best Kalimba?
To us, this a little more than just an instrument. It represents thousands of years of history and culture from what is known as ‘the cradle of civilization.’ Therefore you want something that sounds good and looks the part.
There are some great instruments we have looked at. Most of them are very similar, but one did stand out. That is our choice. We have therefore chosen as the…
…as the best Kalimba. A great sound, comfortable play, with a stunning visual presence.