How to Play a Thumb Piano

By Isaiah David

The thumb piano, or kalimba, is a southern African percussion instrument. Kalimbas use several metal tines of different lengths, which give different notes when plucked. The reeds are attached to a wooden soundbox, which amplifies the notes and projects them out of the kalimba. By playing the tines in the right order, you can play melodies and chords.

Choose the type of thumb piano you want. An eight-note kalimba in major tuning will allow you to play most melodies, so it is probably the best choice for most aspiring thumb piano players. It doesn't make much difference what key your thumb piano is in, so just try out a few eight-note kalimbas and pick one with a sound you like.

Play a note on a thumb piano by pressing down one of the metal tines with your thumb nail and letting it flick back up. You can also play two adjacent notes at once by pressing down two tines with the same thumb.

Learn the basic scale. On an eight-note thumb piano, the longest tine in the middle of the kalimba is the first note on the scale. The second note is directly to the left of the first, and the third note is directly to the right of the first. It keeps switching between left and right until you reach the top note on the far left of the thumb piano. Play the scale from note one to eight and from eight to one again.

Learn some simple songs on your thumb piano. A good way to do this is to download the free KTabS Reader program and the eight-note Kalimba Hymnal from the KTabS website (see Resources). The hymnal will show you how to play several popular hymns using the numbering system in Step 3. For example, if you are supposed to play the first tine followed by the third, it will show you a one on the first tine followed by a three on the third. You can also get sheet music for a few basic kalimba tunes from the PBS website (see Resources).

Explore your kalimba. Teach yourself how to play some other songs by ear, or write a few of your own.

About the Author

Isaiah David is a freelance writer and musician living in Portland, Ore. He has over five years experience as a professional writer and has been published on various online outlets. He holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan.