The blues traces its origins right back to Africa, sharing rhythms, verse repeats and even a 5-note Pentatonic scale.  As a blues musician, I'm always looking for those little connections back to the deepest roots, whether in the study of field hollers or picking up an African kalimba (a.k.a. mbira or thumb piano).  It's the eternal search for the lost sound that keeps me going.

I decided to make my own thumb piano from the C. B. Gitty Kalimba Kit ($24.99 from CBGitty.com) as a way to get deeper into cigar box instrument design and search for a few missing sounds in my playing.

Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the project, let's hear this sucker in action!

Shown above are all the parts that went into this project.  Not only did I use the kalimba kit, but I also decided to add an electric pickup, opting for my favorite Preamp & Piezo Rod Pickup Unit ($16.49 from CBGitty.com) that I use in all my acoustic/electric cigar box guitars.

I spent about 30 minutes just going through my collection of cigar boxes to find the right body/resonator for this project.  I decided to use an 80-year-old Temporia cigar box in order to push the instrument over the edge in artistic looks.

Most kalimbas have a round hole in the center of the instrument, but I decided to really push the look by cutting classic F-hole soundholes in the box top.  I got the design using my set of Sound Hole Templates ($24.99 for 9pc template set at CBGitty.com).

Note:  After finishing the instrument, I learned that pro kalimba players prefer the simple round hole because they can pluck notes than then cover the hole with their thumb, giving a wah-wah effect.  Oh well...I can't do wah-wah, but the F-holes make it look awesome.

The kalimba kit was very simple to install.  It requires just two holes drilled into a cigar box and then the setup of tines and bridges.

I used my cigar lighter to torch the bridge plate and give the wood a darker color that matched the antique cigar box.  

The preamp unit was mounted on the opposite end of the tines, allowing the guitar jack and EQ settings to face me as I play.  I positioned the jack to the right and the preamp to the left.  There was enough room for everything on the short side of the box.

To electrify the kalimba, I used the 6 pole piezo rod that was included with the preamp and simply jammed it underneath the underside plate of the kalimba tine bridge.  

I drilled a little notch to allow the piezo rod pickup to sit closer to the middle of the setup.

Here's a look at the entire pickup setup.  It's so simple! 

Note:  I used only one piezo rod, which rests under the six middle tines of the kalimba.  After completing the guitar, I noticed that those six tines were a bit louder than the others.  I could have done a better job by splicing two piezo rods to the internal plug and running the rods under the entire keyboard.

After installing the tines and bridge system (sorry, I forgot to photograph it...it ain't that hard), I glued the box shut with Titebond and then clamped it to dry.

Here's the finished instrument.  I'm thrilled to death on how it came out.  With the exception of the preamp on the butt end, the entire thing looks like it could have been built a century ago. 

However...once I got done with it and tuned it to C Major tuning in the directions, it just didn't give me the African connection I was looking for.  I decided to retune the entire thing into a Blues-in-A tuning.

Here's a link to the entire article on how to re-tune the kalimba, including measurements.

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You glued the box?!? Uncle John will not like that; not sure I do either...

Awesome sound though. Immediate thought was to build a long narrow box and actually have several octaves, but as a synth keyboard would- laid out sequentially, rather than pyramidically. Make each end an open grid, and there's yer sound holes. Electrifying it might be an issue- I'll leave that to the experts..

You can get to the innerds through the preamp hole.  :)

Hey Shane,

Have you tried spiral blades in your scroll saw? Cuts in any direction and also great for cutting "impossible" things like vinyl LPs for pickguards, etc.. Won't melt the cut plastic back together like a straight blade will.

Wow, a totally different beast when u rolled those frequencies off. I like it Shane! BTW loved your interview in BURG

You gotta get a load of Congolese group Konono No.1 They don't mess with no wimpy little piezos! It looks like they repurpose/make magnetic electric guitar pickups to amplify their kalimbas.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cU19URUe6o

I briefly thought about doing what basically amounts to a Hohner Pianet. It's a large electric kalimba configured like an electric piano. They used to make one version that looked kind of like a small electric guitar case. Very basic. I don't think it even had a volume control. All passive electronics. It was a keyboard that sort of plucked the tines with some kind of sticky rubbery suction cup-y thing on the opposite end of the key pivot point. But it became evident quickly how big a project it would be to reinvent the instrument.

Hohner also made a rare electric kalimba-like instrument called the Guitaret. Sort of held like a guitar, with a short, stubby "neck" that had a hand operated mute lever. The body was a small, elongated box with tine tips protruding out from inside through small holes.  It was a clever, weird, short-lived instrument that's rarely seen, and seems to command a nice price when they come up for sale. Check out this old newsreel with a short clip of the instrument being played around the 1:00 mark:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuG5uEc1XuA

Love the tone from it when you added the dirt.

Noticed how it kept picking up your voice and noise handling of the box, so no F-Hole/sound hole would be a good for a electric version or maybe a isolated sound chamber/baffle around the piezo would be a good idea.

The amp was right beside the instrument in order to facilitate the video.  Add too much volume and it'll pick up damn near any sound!  

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