Ken Ellis Luthier
© Whippoorwill Acoustics LLC, 2015-2023

How to Play the Kalimba

The metal tines on a kalimba are tuned to different notes. Hold the kalimba in both hands and use your thumb to press the end of a tine down, then let your thumb slip off the end of the tine. The tine will vibrate and produce a note. Long tines are low notes and short tines are high notes. Playing melody Your Whippoorwill Acoustics Autoharp Kalimba is tuned to play in a single key. This means that you can play along with any song that is performed in the same key as the Kalimba. The tines of a Whippoorwill Acoustics Autoharp Kalimba are tuned to a major scale (think Do-Re-Me-Fa-So-La- Ti-Do, as in the song from The Sound of Music). The tonic note of the scale is marked with a red spot. The tonic note of a scale gives the name of the key. So, for example, to play in the key of C, you use notes from the C major scale. The center (longest) tine is the lowest note. The rest of the notes in the scale alternate left and right of the center. The second note of the scale is on the left side of the center, the third note is on the right side of the center, and so on. This makes it easy to play runs up and down the scale, a common form in music, by switching back and forth between your thumbs. Now the notes in a major scale are also the notes used by a minor scale. The difference is the minor scale starts on a different note, the sixth note of the major scale. For example, the relative minor of the C major scale is A minor. So you can also play along with songs in the minor key on your kalimba. Playing chords Triad chords (chords containing three notes) are built from scales using every other note in the scale. The kalimba tine arrangement places the notes of each triad in the scale right next to each other, making it easy to play chords by plucking three adjacent tines. You might need both thumbs to play a chord. Chords are indicated in Figure 1. Major chords are indicated by upper-case roman numerals and minor (and the diminished) chords by lower-case roman numerals. Chord names for common kalimba tunings are listed in Table 1. Table 1. Triad chords for different keys. Improvising solos Guitar players in bar bands everywhere use the minor pentatonic scale for improvising solos. Now you can use it too. The pentatonic scale is a five note subset of the minor scale. The notes of the pentatonic scale are indicated on your Whippoorwill Acoustics kalimba with pink spots (“P”ink is for “P”entatonic). These notes sound good with pretty much every chord in the key, which is why the pentatonic scale is so useful. The Blues Scale There are actually several blues scales, which add one or more “blue”, or flatted, notes to a major or minor scale. The Whippoorwill Acoustics Autoharp Kalimba Blues Scale option adds a single “blue” note to the 5-note minor pentatonic scale described above. This note is indicated by a, you guessed it, blue spot on the tine.
Chord Number Key of C / Am Key of D / Bm Key of G / Em Key of F / Dm I C D G F ii Dm Em Am Gm iii Em F#m Bm Am IV F G C B V G A D C vi Am Bm Em Dm viio Bo C#o F#o Eo
Figure 1. You can play chords on the kalimba by playing three adjacent tines at once.