The Gamers’ Instrument: Kalimba

Videogamers do a lot of things using only their thumbs: They score touchdowns, take out terrorists, solve complex puzzles and occasionally even save the world.

But what about playing music? Okay, Zelda fans do in-game, and Guitar Heroes may enjoy their little electric axes, but that’s about it. The kalimba, or African thumb piano, is a small acoustic instrument that’s played using the thumbs. It’s easy for the gamer to learn, sounds beautiful, and can open doors to a deeper understanding of music.

For many, holding a kalimba takes a little getting used to. To a gamer, it’s a controller with keys. No complicated posture is needed, and playing it lets gamers get even more from their dextrous thumbs.

Kalimbas are tuned so that there aren’t any “wrong” notes. You might miss the note you wanted, but it won’t sound like a bad mistake, while the slightest flub on a violin can ruin a performance.

Kalimbas have a tone that’s somewhere in the middle of a music box, piano and xylophone; it isn’t a black metal fanatic’s instrument, but most gamers will enjoy the tone. It can be played very quietly or pretty loudly, much like a guitar.

Taking kalimba breaks is a good way to rest your eyes during long game sessions. Many video games have great soundtracks, and figuring out the melodies or just playing along is fun.

They don’t take up a lot of room, either. Even two-octave instruments are very compact (about two or three stacked XBox game cases in size) and can be kept on the coffee table or entertainment center. They don’t need to be propped against a wall, they don’t need amplifiers, and they don’t make you come to them like a grand piano does.

The small size is great for taking your kalimba to a friend’s house; follow up a Halo deathmatch with some thumb piano while he plays guitar.

Playing full solo songs is possible with a little practice and study. Unlike Link’s ocarina, the kalimba can play both melody and harmony, so if you’re serious about it, you can make the thumb piano almost as versatile as a guitar.

And all of this fun can be had for about the price of a used game. Ebay is usually full of good instruments from $10-35. The top-of-the-line Hugh Tracey models are still only $80-100, far less than the thousands you’d have to pay to get a great guitar or piano.

It’s probably best to start with an eight-key model, because they are cheaper and give you an idea of how the kalimba sounds and plays. They’re also less of an investment, mentally and financially, if you decide it’s not for you.

Because they’re cheap, easy to learn and sound beautiful, kalimbas deserve to be the gamer community’s official instrument.

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