The kalimba and mbira look very similar and are played in exactly the same way. They are both constructed using a wooden soundboard with steel keys that are played using your thumbs to create a bell-like sound and therefore are both known as ‘thumb pianos’.
However, although they have the same foundation, there are key differences between the instruments. Firstly, the kalimba is actually much smaller than the mbira. It was inspired by Hugh Tracey in the 1960s, who fell in love with the music culture within Zimbabwe. It puts a Western touch on the traditional sounding mbira, which was a key reason for its integration within the Western market.
Another difference between the two, is that the mbira has a double row of keys, whereas the kalima has a single row of keys.
However, the biggest impact between the two instruments is in their scales. The kalimba makes use of a seven-note diatonic scale which is commonly used throughout all Western music, whereas the mbira also uses these same notes, but in a completely different order.
In some cases, some of these notes may also be missing. This difference allows the kalimba two-note combination to create a diatonic interval which works better when creating Western sounding harmonies. This allows for greater collaboration and a more suitable sound.
In addition to this, the kalimba makes use of a different percussive element. The traditional mbira uses a buzzer, whereas the kalimba makes use of two distinct holes which can be found at the bottom of the sound board.
The musician playing the instrument can use these two holes to create a “wa-wa” sound. Despite their differences, both instruments create the very distinct buzzing effect which distinguishes these thumb pianos from any other instrument in Western music.