How To Tune a Kalimba: What You Need to Do?

by Anne B. Robinson

The kalimba, also known as the mbira, is a unique musical instrument that originates from the African continent, particularly Zimbabwe. The simple instrument is composed of a wooden board with several metal rods that produce tunes by plucking.

Like all musical instruments with moving parts, knowing how to tune a kalimba is essential to enjoy its unique melodies, and that’s why I’ve written this guide!

In today’s article, I’ll provide you with everything you need to know regarding kalimba tuning, including the tools needed, scales, and after tuning checks. Let’s jump right in!

What Are the Tools Required to Tune a Kalimba?

Before going ahead and tuning your kalimba, there are some essential tools that you need to have on you. Let’s have a quick look at these tools and their significance:

1. Tuner

To tune a musical instrument is to calibrate its tunes so that they come out exactly how you expect them to sound. For that reason, you need a specific device that is capable of testing out the tune produced by an instrument and showing you how far off it is from the necessary sound.

A tuner is any device that can help you with that, and in kalimba’s case, it’s a device specifically responsible for testing the adjustment of the kalimba’s metal rods, also known as “tines”.

When it comes to kalimba tuners, there’s a wide range of options out there, including standard electronic tuners and even free mobile apps that can get the job done. Technically, the choice here is down to your personal preferences, but here’s my take on each of them:

Digital Tuners


Image source: Amazon

Digital tuners are specific electronic devices with audio sensors that pick up the sound of the musical instrument and show you its note, which allows you to tune it accordingly whether by making it higher or lower.

There are plenty of excellent digital tuners out there, but I recommend the Korg TM60C Tuner because it’s incredibly accurate and reliable without being too expensive.

Ideally, buying a digital tuner is an excellent investment for anyone who is serious about playing the kalimba.

Tuning Apps

If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a tuner or you’re a beginner who’s just planning on learning the kalimba casually, you can save the extra cost of a digital kalimba and opt for a simple smartphone tuner app.

These apps are decently accurate and most of them are free. There are plenty of great options out there, but my top recommendations are insTuner (iOS) and BOSS Tuner (Android).

2. Tuning Hammer

tuning hammer

Next up, you’ll need a kalimba tuning hammer, which is the tool used to actually correct these tines that are out of the note.

These tuning hammers, also called kalimba thumb pianos,  are delicate wooden hammers with a metal head that is used for tapping the tines.

They simply work by adjusting the kalimba’s tines by letting you manipulate the distance between the tine’s bridge and front. This change helps in changing the sound of each tine accordingly.

Back in the day, you could only find these hammers in music instrument stores, but luckily, you can now find plenty of them online. Just about any kalimba tuning hammer would do the trick, so you can for an affordable option like this one.

3. The Note Chart

note chart

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Lastly, you’ll also need a kalimba note chart in order to tune your instrument. This key chart is a simple guide that gives you a brief outline of the tines on the kalimba and the notes that correspond to them.

In other words, this key chart is the reference that you use to tune the metal rods on a kalimba to sound exactly as they should.

Ideally, this chart will come with your kalimba, whether as a note or engraved on the tines of the kalimba themselves, which is done to make it easier to learn how to play some popular songs on that scale.

If you don’t have one, it’s still easy to get yours by finding the suitable one online. For that, you’ll only need to look for tuning notes of kalimbas with the same number of tines as yours.

For instance, a 17 tine kalimba will come with 17 notes, while a 7 tine kalimba will come with 7 tunes.

What Scales Are in a Kalimba?

As previously mentioned, kalimbas come in a different number of tines, and depending on that number, the scale of the kalimba will also vary.

While this number varies from 7 to 17 tines, the most common number of tines in a regular kalimba is 15 or 17, which are usually tuned to C Major or G Major.

You can also play G, D minor, and even A minor scales on such kalimbas by referring to a proper chart for doing so.

In that case, you only need to use your kalimba tuning hammer and the tuning device you’re using (digital or mobile app) to adjust the tines of the kalimba to the keys of the new scale.

In fact, when you’re able to tune a kalimba to an alternative scale, you’ll truly unlock the full potential of a kalimba.

How to Tune a Kalimba Properly

Now that you have all the required tools for the tuning process as well as the scale you’re going to adjust the kalimba to, here’s everything you need to do in order to tune your kalimba.

While the C Major is the most common scale for kalimba, you can use this guide to tune the kalimba to just about any scale:

Step 1: Pluck the Tine and Check the Tuners

First, you’ll need to adjust your tuner according to the scale you want to play the kalimba. Ideally, a C Major will have the following note: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Next, you’ll put the tuner next to the kalimba.

You can start the tuning process at any tine you prefer. However, the two best ways to work your way are by starting from one side to the other or from the center tine.

After plucking the tine with your fingernail, compare the expected tune with the current result on the reader and determine how far off the kalimba tunes are.

Step 2: Adjust the Tine According to the Result

adjust the tine

Depending on the results of the tuning process, you’ll need to adjust the metal rods on the kalimba tine:

If the Note is Sharp

If your note was too sharp, the tuner would read “#” or a higher note, and you’ll need to lower the tune.

To do that, tap the sharply noted tine so that it moves downward. Make sure that the tap is light and gentle so that it doesn’t go too low that it becomes flat.

After the initial tap, test out the tine again by plucking it and see what note it produces on the tuner until it reaches the right sound.

If the Note is Flat

If the note reads a lower note or the correct note with ”♭” next to it. It means that the tine is adjusted a bit low and needs to be raised.

To do that, use the kalimba tuning hammer and lightly tap the tine upward, then give it another pluck and check the tuner. Keep tapping and plucking until the tine produces the right note.

Step 3: Repeat the Previous Step for the Rest of the Kalimba Tines

Now that you’ve adjusted your first tine of the kalimba, adjusting the rest of the instrument’s tines should go the same way.

Start by plucking the following tine, check the result on the tuner, and tap the tine accordingly, whether upwards or downwards, to reach the right tone.

How Often Should I Check the Kalimba for Tuning?

Ideally, the tuning process may take anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes on your first trial, depending on the type of kalimba you’re using.

However, the process becomes second nature with time, and you’ll be able to get the job done in a couple of minutes.

Checking the kalimba is always easy using the tuner. However, even if you use a smartphone app, the results should still be accurate enough for casual players.

Final Thoughts

This concludes everything you need to know about kalimba tuning and what you need to know to get the job done.

With this guide, not only will you be able to tune your musical instrument, but it also enables you to check your tuning before you go.

Of course, nailing the tuning process the first time might be tricky, as it comes with practice, but once you master the skill, you’ll be able to expand your scope and try out alternative tuning styles to make your kalimba sound different, unlocking a broader range of music!

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