Kalimba Techniques

Iʼd like to start off this blog series with the lighter side of my percussion arsenal, so this post will focus on one of my favorite little instruments, the Kalimba. Iʼve been playing kalimba for about five years now and I own four of them, each different in some way. The kalimba is classified as a “lamellophone” (a type of idiophone) – raised metal notes (tines) are attached to a piece of wood or a gourd, and vary in pitch by the length of the tines. Itʼs played by plucking downwards on the tines with your thumbs and in some cases other fingers.

A Few Different Kalimba Techniques

I’ve also been using three other main techniques in my playing – they just come naturally when I pick it up, and then I developed them further from there.

 1. The 3-Finger Style

In addition to the downward plucking by your thumbs, try plucking upwards with your right index/pointer finger. While that finger is limited to the right half of the instrument, it unlocks SO many more possibilities:

– Covers greater distances across the range of the instrument without having to strain your thumbs to work twice as fast.
-Allows for wider intervals like 5ths and 7ths to be played with one hand, leaving your other hand free to fill in the rest of a chord or polyrhythm.
-Opens up new possibilities with the instrument as far as arpeggios and faster playing, although Joe Zawinul’s track “Zanza II” with Paco Sery on kalimba hurts my thumbs just to listen to, haha: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKL3tPuxM_w(he’s only thumbing it tho!).

2. What I’ll Call “Sliding”

-This is a thumbs-only technique, where you play one note by sliding off of that note to then pluck the next highest note adjacent to it (on a standard diatonically-tuned kalimba, the interval will be a third).

-I often use this technique to play neighboring notes together or in a rapid succession.
I find this takes less thumb movement than plucking one tine and then lifting it back up to pluck the tine right next to it (one sideways motion rather than two up & down’s).

3. The Percussive Qualities of the Kalimba

-The way you naturally hold and play the kalimba leaves your middle, ring, and pinky fingers available to help your palms hold the instrument while your thumbs play it. But since it’s already resting comfortably in your palms, try using your middle, ring, and pinky fingers to hit the bottom of the kalimba.

-This could be used for time keeping, setting up a groove to base the rest of the piece on, or even part of the overall groove/melody.

-Because its an idiophone, you’ll hear the tines vibrating as well as get a nice percussive slap from the bottom of the instrument.

…So by utilizing the percussive qualities of a melodic instrument you’re basically unstoppable now, especially with a live-loop pedal or layering within your recording software.

Applications in My Music

Combining these three different techniques, I have been able to play passages like these (with a bit of practice!) in pieces for both albums from The Gathering Mist, shown in this video:

Also, here are two tracks displaying how I use kalimba. I have other ones if you’re interested:

I’d also like to hear your stories/techniques with the Kalimba also!  Don’t be shy 🙂

My history with the kalimba

I stumbled upon this instrument at an interesting time in my life, as I was starting to write my first solo CD (The Gathering Mist – Rhythmic Epiphany), and it became a big part of the CD and how I would continue to compose music in general. I was on a family vacation to South Dakota and Wyoming, and I found a beautiful Catania 12-Note Flatboard Kalimba in the musical instrument section of a Cheyenne/Lakota cultural store. Being that the kalimba is traditionally an African instrument, I figured that if I bought it from them that I’d be helping myself out musically as well as making them more of an authentic store 

That first night with it, I wrote part of what later turned into “MyriaD Minor,” track 11 on Rhythmic Epiphany. I think I still have the hotel notepad with the melody scribbled on it, and I know I still have that hotel’s pen…


10 comments on “Kalimba Techniques

  1. Jeff, that was informative and the kind of musical information I rarely see. Keep this up and you’re going to have a lot of followers if you don’t already. Thank you very much.

  2. Thanks! I appreciate your comments/support 🙂

  3. pixelnotation says:

    Reblogged this on A Pixel Notation and commented:

    Really awesome post by one of my favorite percussionists!!!!

  4. blindflytheater says:

    Pretty cool sounding little instrument… also went to YouTube and saw some of your other videos… you’re a great drum player. First time I saw the Hapi Drum too… strange and simple, but sounds amazing. Dave

  5. Thanks for checking out this post & my other videos! Means a lot 🙂 More on the way soon.

  6. m88 says:

    Everything is very open with a very clear clarification of the issues.
    It was definitely informative. Your website is very useful.
    Thanks for sharing!

  7. j says:

    What kind of mic and micing placement/techniques did you use to record those soundcloud clips at the end of the post? it sounds great! Also, how would you compare the gourd vs solid board Catania Kalimbas? How would you say they differ in sound? Any comments on the other two kalimbas pictured?

  8. Hey thanks John! Those two soundcloud clips were recorded with one Samson C03U mic – it’s a large diaphragm condenser USB mic. I’ve since been working with AKG C214’s, which I think give an even more clear and full representation of the instrument. The mic was about eight inches to a foot over top of the tines. I prefer to record with the solid board rather than the gourd kalimbas because of the consistency with the tone. The other two kalimbas pictured are a Meinl 9-note, and a 17-note that I got from Mid-East.com. Both have a very thin tone, so I’ll be sticking with the Catania kalimbas for awhile. Thanks!

  9. Aliya Hand says:

    Hey it seems that you know a lot about the Kalimba I bought a 10 key one and I can’t for the life of me find a website containing the information I need. For example what key is what? I just need to know so I can find some online sheet music to play or whatever. I like throwing in my own jam sometimes but that kinda gets boring. So anyway thanks for your help.

  10. Thanks Aliya! Check out http://www.kalimbamagic.com – it’s a great resource for this! I’ll have some more kalimba videos coming soon from my new album in 2017. Stay tuned!

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