We’re living in an age where you have almost limitless options for just about anything you’re looking to buy. 10 years ago when you wanted to buy an item, you’d do a search, spend a little while reviewing all of the options, and make a decision. Maybe you’d also run to the store and see the options there.
Life was simple.
But today if you tried to do the same thing, you’d get substantially more results and spend considerably longer sorting through all of them.
When it comes to instruments you’ll run into the same issues. A ton of options, every one of them boasting a claim of being the best option, a wild range of prices, and a general sense of “I still don’t know what I should buy”.
The problem is that there are a ton of knock-off companies making the same things from the same factories, so those search results you see are all essentially the same thing. Search for “Fall Jacket” on Amazon and you’ll see the same looking and costing jackets from about 50 different “brands”.
So when you’re looking to buy a Kalimba online, which is about the only option right now, it pays (literally) to develop some kind of discernment.
I remember hearing a story a long time ago that when the police trained their agents that specialised in counterfeit money schemes to identify fake money, they don’t show them a bunch of counterfeits. They train them to identify the real thing. When you know what’s good, you’ll automatically be able to know what’s not.
And that’s what we’re going to do today. Equip you with the knowledge of what makes a good Kalimba so you can skip all of the bad ones and make a decision that you can stand by, while getting a quality instrument you can enjoy for many years to come.
What makes a Kalimba good?
Kalimbas are pretty straightforward instruments. There aren’t many parts. That means that the parts they do have are all the more important.
Let’s start with the body or box. This should be constructed of a quality tonewood. “Tonewood” is a term that really just means instrument quality wood. Woods like Koa, Rosewood, Mahagony, and Bamboo are all common and are great options.
One thing I prefer in a Kalimba is bevelled (or rounded) edges on the body. This doesn’t really contribute to tone, though one could argue that literally, everything contributes to tone in a resonating instrument. Such as the size of the player’s hands, how hard they’re gripping the instrument, etc.
What it does on a practical level is to make the instrument more comfortable to hold. That goes a really long way in preventing soreness and fatigue.
Next, you have the soundhole. Not all Kalimbas (and Mbiras) have sound holes. Sound holes help the instrument resonate and project. Just like you see on ukuleles and guitars. Some Kalimbas will additionally have sound holes on the back of the instrument.
Straightforward so far. Jumping up to the top of the instrument is where things get more complicated.
Let’s look at the Z-Bracket. This is how the tines are fixed to the instrument. You want quality components and construction here. This is where the cheaper Kalimbas start to have integral issues. On a quality Kalimba, the materials used are better (stronger and more resistant to corrosion) and the construction is way more solid.
Just above the Z-Bracket is a woodblock called the Backstop. This should be made of a quality tonewood since it’s going to impact the resonance of the instrument. The Z-Bracket creates some counter tension to hold the tines in place so the opposite end of the tines can resonate (i.e. play the note).
The next piece is the bridge. This is a rounded piece of solid metal sitting on top of another woodblock that should be made of a tonewood (for resonance). The tines sit on the bridge just like strings do on ukuleles and guitars.
And lastly, we have the tines. These are the notes, or keys that you play with your thumbs. These should be made up of durable metal. Since these are the only constantly moving part on the entire Kalimba they need to be able to withstand years and years of use.
The coating should be highly polished. The polishing of these metal tines is what will determine if they’re smooth or jagged. Now obviously jagged tines are just asking for your thumbs to snag on the rough parts. So the extra price you might pay for a better quality instrument really comes through here.
Smooth tines make the Kalimba easier to play. And the easier it is to play the more you’ll enjoy playing. And the more you enjoy playing, the more value you’ll get out of the Kalimba.
How A Kalimba Works
With this construction we just looked at, everything above the bridge is meant to keep the tines in a fixed position. The part of the tines that are below the bridge is the *only parts that physically move and are played.
The length of the tines in relation to the bridge is where the notes (or pitch) comes from. The longer the tine is after the bridge (towards the soundhole), the lower in pitch it will be. The shorter the tine is the higher in pitch it will be. This is how all stringed instruments work (including pianos).
*While the parts on the tines above the bridge don’t mechanically move, they do resonate. This is why you want quality materials and construction through and through. The better these are, the better the Kalimba will resonate and subsequently, the better it will sound and project.
I don’t like the term “beginner Kalimba” or “beginner” anything when talking about instruments. Most of the time what that really means is cheap. Cheap to buy, and cheap in quality. What happens when you buy a cheap instrument is you end up needing a new one after just a few months.
This happens with Kalimbas, ukuleles, guitars, etc.
I always encourage people to spend just a little more to get something they won’t grow out of. At least not for a long time. The reason those instruments are so cheap is because they’re, well, cheap. Cheap laminate or plastic body, cheap tines, and cheaply constructed.
And perhaps worst of all, they sound bad. Which is the opposite of what you want in an instrument!
So, when we’re talking about Kalimbas for beginners, I make the distinction between cheap and good value. And good values always save you money in the long run.
Let me step down from my soapbox and we’ll dive into some options you have in Kalimbas.
10 Keys or 17 Keys?
Kalimbas targeted towards beginners might only have 10 keys. It’s a way to make the instrument more approachable. However, once you learn the basics and get familiar with it, you already have to buy another Kalimba.
Instead, I like 17 key Kalimbas in combination with note stickers. Bondi Kalimbas all include stickers (in addition to $80 worth of other goodies) that mark the notes. They section off the 10 inner keys, which are the same as a 10 key Kalimba.
At a certain point, you’ll be able to expand and use the rest of the keys. This is the best of both worlds. You’re learning incrementally, and still, have access to the full register of notes.
How Much Should A Quality Kalimba Cost?
The great thing about good quality Kalimbas is that they’re pretty inexpensive. Especially compared to other instruments. Almost all of the Bondi Kalimbas are under $100 and come with $80 worth of accessories for free. Including the ever-important protective case.
If you’re looking for your first Kalimba, either for yourself or for a child, I highly recommend staying away from the $30 jobs on Amazon. These are essentially toys. Remember what I said earlier, cheap Kalimbas don’t tend to last very long.
Since there are some critical components to make sure the Kalimba physically plays (like the Z-Bracket, Backstop, and bridge), these aren’t areas you want to skimp on the quality. Unfortunately, this is exactly where quality is missed on the cheap Kalimbas.
The materials used, the glue used to affix the Backstop and Bridge, down to how they’re constructed have a major impact on the overall sound and longevity of the Kalimba.
So I suppose the short answer to this is the $70-90 range for a stunning Kalimba that will last for many years to come.
Now that you’re equipped with the knowledge you need to make a decision, the only thing left to do is to go out and buy one!
Learning any instrument is great for the mind, body, and soul. In kids, studies have shown that learning an instrument can help prevent and reduce anxiety and depression, boost self-esteem and confidence, and even helps them develop socially.
In adults, learning an instrument can help your mind stay sharp and challenged, and is a beautiful way to reduce stress in a stressful world.
If you’re ready to take a look at some Kalimbas perfect for beginners, check out our favourites here.