3 Core Skills to Play Kalimba into Next Level

Posted: 2019-12-09     Last Update: 2020-03-09

how to play the kalimba

Kalimba may be one of the easiest instruments in the world that can be played once someone holds it in the hands by looking at a tablature. With the cumulated experience, the player can soon be fed up with the single melody. This, on the contrary, guides you how to play the kalimba into next level.

In this post, we will start with basic principles of holding a kalimba properly and getting rid of the noise which enable the player to stretch further in the best possible way. Then we deep dive into three core skills of how to play the kalimba in order to make magic happen, double-stop, Glissando and Wah-wha sound, which paves the way for the next level player. The songs within the note range can be played at their most.

How to hold a kalimba

Why do you need to learn how to hold a kalimba?

If you don’t hold it in an appropriate way, it may lead to a struggle of playing all the tines, less comforts when playing long, imperfect sound produced by covering the holes and even more. To play a kalimba is an adventure into a magic instrument, an exploration of music. Thus, an appropriate gesture to hold the thumb piano matters.

There is no right or wrong in terms of the gesture but it is whether the gesture fits you or not. Anyway, some principles still apply.

Firstly, place the thumb piano in the palms of your hands with the keys facing you.

Secondly, put your thumbs on the top of the kalimba which is comfortable to reach every single tine on both sides and the hole on the front.

Thirdly, either wrap all the rest of fingers behind the thumb piano to keep it firm or leave your two forefingers on both sides and place the rest behind it to keep it flexible.

Of course, it is up to you to choose holding it or placing on a flat surface.

Note not to cover the holes on the back of the kalimba if it is in resonant box pattern.

To sum up, figuring out how to hold it comfortably is the first step to bring the best of kalimba.  

Get rid of noise

It is suffering if noise comes up when you enjoy playing the kalimba, especially a sort of sound which is “Si-Si” and very sharp to listen. It is not an untuned note but noise which we need to get rid of.

The majority of the issues comes from the moved position of the tine which results from long term playing or inappropriate tuning. The temperature and humidity, may be the other reason, which has an impact on the vibration of the instrument.

To remove the noise, you can try out the below approaches.

Tips 01: Reposition the tine to where it sounds good

Slightly push the tine on the leftward (or rightward) and pluck the tine to see if it sounds better. If so, keep going till the return of the beautiful note. Note the distance between the adjusted tine and other tines. What if it gets too close to the next one, move that a little bit alike to ensure the reachability.

Tips 02: Place a piece of paper

Place a paper slip, 3cm*3mm, under the adjusting tine. Move it upwards to where the slip can be clamped by the tine and bar. Cut the part overstretched. Due to the less sustain of high notes, this approach works better for middle and low notes.

3 Core skills taking you to next level

It is a good to start from single note for the kalimba adventure. You can pick up a song or music in a very quick way and master it in an hour. While this seems insufficient for a step further into the trip as most of the songs and music have chords which can be hardly played by single note only. Thus, it is time to learn three core techniques which take your kalimba journey into an entire new world. They are double-stop, glissando and Wah-wah sound.

Skill #01: Double-Stop

What is double-stop

Double-stop means plucking two or more tines at the same time. This is regarded as the basic technique of all.

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Why is double-stop important

By playing this, you can make chords possible which will drive the single note music into a fancier level.

How to tell single-note and double-stop apart in a tab

For the single-note, there is only one note in a row as for KTabs and one row as for numbered musical notation. Double-stop, takes the adverse side which is more than one notes in a row for KTabs and two rows for numbered musical notation.

How to play double-stop

Scenario 01: Tines to be plucked are on both sides.

Place the thumbs on the tines of both sides and pluck the tines at the same time.

Scenario 02: Tines to be plucked are on one side.

In this scenario, the tine to be played is usually next to the other one. Thus, put the thumb on the middle of both tines and flick the tines simultaneously.

No matter which scenario is there, note to play the keys with same dynamics, otherwise it would sound inharmonic.

Frequently asked questions

Q 01: Have no idea which thumb to play the desired key?

If the numbered music notation is chosen as music sheet, the short cut goes with marks, e.g. mark the numbers in blue which stands for left hand while red for right. At the end of the day, the most advised approach is, aiming at long term, getting familiar with the key chat as early as possible. Once you keep it in your heart rather than mind, it is muscle memory instead of brain memory that takes you to make a wonderful song or music.

Q 02: The music or the song I play sounds different from what it really is?

On one hand, you may owe this to the inaccuracy of duration. Yes, you are playing the right note yet the duration is incorrect. Listen more of the music or the song you target and get familiar with the duration of the note. With sufficient practice, it is likely to acquire a cover on your own soon. On the other hand, try to use or download a metronome which helps to develop the sense of music.

Skill #02: Glissando

What is glissando

Glissando is a glide from one pitch to another. It is an Italianized musical term derived from the French glisser, “to glide“. When being utilized in kalimba, this means the two or more notes are produced continuously in certain beat(s).

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What differs glissando from double-stop

The core difference lies in the order of notes that are produced. For glissando, due to the movement of glide, every note come one after another, either quick or slow. Yet the double-stop enables the notes jumping out at the same time.

Furthermore, glissando can be achieved on one side, either left or right, every time while this limitation does not apply to double-stop.

Why we need this skill

In some cases, it is due to the inconvenience caused by notes to be played laying on the same side where thumb cannot play simultaneously. In other cases, the player expects the song or the music to be played in a greater sense where a single note is insufficient to show. Glissando happens to meet the demand for both types of cases.

How to play glissando

It always starts from the lowest note to be played. Gently place the thumb on the tine and glide upwards to the final note. How quickly it is ought to be played is determined by the beat(s) in the music sheet. Once the last note has been produced, slight raise the thumb to keep the sustain of the note.

Frequently asked questions

Q 01: Why I cannot glide?

The first point in mind is to use the thumbnail rather any other part of thumb to pluck the tines. This is a point cannot be emphasized more as it works throughout the entire period of playing kalimba. The second one comes the right movement directions towards other notes to be played. Instead of moving upwards, leftwards (or rightwards) with a certain degree of curved joint of thumb helps.

Q 02: The glide does not go smoothly?

Firstly, less strength is used when plucking. This can easily result in getting stuck from one tine to next one. So, more strength is highly advised for tries till it goes as smoothly as you are comfortable with. Secondly, it may be a matter of how fast it is played for different tines. If it turns out to be fast for one key yet slow for another, smoothness can be hardly expected. More practices make it perfect.

Skill #03: Wah-Wah Sound

What is wah-wah sound

Wah-wah sound is produced when a thumb is covering and uncovering the hole which squeeze the air in the resonant box and the sound property changes accordingly. This is why we listen a different sound rather than normal notes. Note: Per shared, this only works for resonant box kalimba. Flat board does not apply due to a lack of the resonant box.

how to play the kalimba 03

How to tell Wah-wah sound apart from double-stop and glissando

You could not find any records in any tabs demonstrating the wah-wah sound yet both double-stop and glissando are very common in the tabs. So, no composer requests you to make wah-wah sound but yourself who decide whenever it is good to do so.

Why to practice this sound

It is commonly found a note will last for long which sounds a bit boring sometimes. Accompanied with the wah-wah sound, a different sound is introduced for a more diversified sense for the audience. On the other hand, this is also the most outstanding feature belonging to kalimba. Due to the physical nature among all instruments, only kalimba has a hole on the front and two smaller holes on the back which can achieve the desired acoustic and generate the sound that other instrument cannot. 

How to play wah-wah sound

To make this magic happen, you shall pluck the desired tine first, then cover and uncover regularly above the hole through right fingers. If the hole is the big one on the front, a thumb is advised to make the movement. While the two smaller holes on the back, two middle fingers or two ring fingers are advised for the requested actions.

Frequently asked questions

Q 01: When to play this effect?

Never play this as often as possible. Two situations when wah-wah effect is advised, either coming across a note that lasts long enough or somewhere a better effect is found by the player.

Q 02: It can be hardly listened?

It may result from two possibly factors. Firstly, it is the pose how finger is placed and moved. Take big hole on the front as example. The thumb shall be placed above the hole and covers/uncovers the hole quickly in small range with as much flexibilities as possible. Secondly, the wah-wah effect does not perform equivalently perfect on every single key. It works best on middle range notes, e.g. A4, B4, C5, D5 as for standard C note in 17 Key kalimba. The solution of making wah-wah sound for non-middle notes is combining glissando and wah-wah. Aim to cover those best performed middle notes in glissando and then make the wah-wah sound simultaneously.


Have you looked back into the way how you hold the kalimba?

Have you started to try the 3 core skills and practice as much as you like?

You are surely on the way to make a wonderful song.