Make a Thumb Piano (Mbira)

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Thumb Piano Mbira


This is a basic guide for building a Thumb Piano, or Mbira.

They have been made for centuries all over Africa (and a few other places) and vary a lot in shape, size and sound. They belong to a group of instruments called “Lamellophones” which are percussion instruments, although the sound an Mbira makes sounds more like a string instrument or “chordophone”.

The last three steps in this instructable show you how to make some slightly different Mbiras to the one the instructable is about.

As a person living in Southern Africa, I have seen many of these over the years but never personally owned one, so I thought I would give it a try to make my own.

The type of Mbira in this instructable has a resonator box, a chamber that does the same thing a guitar’s resonator box does; it allows the sound to “bounce around” inside and there is only one hole in the front of the instrument for it to escape from. The effect this has is the pitch of the instrument will be lower and the vibrations (and sound) will last longer for more pleasing notes.

These are quite fun to make and you have quite a bit of freedom in the design, the shape of the box will be the main thing to change to make the instrument look more appealing. You may also add a coat of your choice to it to make it look better and more personalized.

I am afraid I cannot really play these yet, only make them so I cannot tell you how to do that, but you will have loads of fun just playing random notes!

Experiment with a few designs. The purpose if this guide is not for you to follow specific things like the size of the Mbira or the number of Tines (the things you pluck); but rather to look at the important rules of making one that ensure that it will function, then doing your own project with the details up to you.

The Mbira is a basic instrument, but be prepared to spend a long time making yours! To make a decent one you will need about 5 hours. To make a really good one you will need more than 12.

The real beauty of this instrument is that I did not need to leave my house to find the materials I needed for it. You can make one out of anything!

Sadly I cannot record a video of any of mine being played because I do not have the right equipment for that and I need 2 hands to hold and play it, but here is a video of a similar Hugh Tracey Mbira:

Please vote for this in the woodworking contest! I would really appreciate it! 😀

Step 1: What you need:

This instructable is on the first picture in the Introduction, it is the easiest to make and was my first Mbira ever.

The materials you will need are:

– Spring steel strip (I found mine in a scrapyard a few months before I made the instrument) I used a windscreen-wiper spring from a car and it worked perfectly. You could also use a car dipstick or just flatten a piece of stiff wire with a hammer (This is what I have done for all my other Mbiras since this one)

– Wood sheet/board (I used plywood, but non-ply would work too and have a more clear sound and feel better to hold. It does not make a big difference,though, and the ideal thickness of the wood for an Mbira of this size is about 2~5 mm.

– Thin Binding Wire, this needs to be strong and hard to break by twisting. It will be used to hold the tines under tension, so it is very important to use strong wire.

– 2 Nails/ pieces of wire of about 2~4 mm diameter.

– a strong metal tube of diameter 2~5 mm (Mine was an old radio aerial off a car)

– 1mm thick metal sheet (I used aluminium because it is easy to cut and drill)

– Wood glue.

The tools you will need are:

– Pliers

– A hammer and anvil (or something similar to an anvil, I do not have one so I used a second hammer.)

– A drill (I used a dremel with drill-bit)

– A small drill-bit of about 1~1.5 mm diameter

– Something to cut a hole into the front wooden face with. I used a drill to make a few holes, poked the middle part out, then used a rotary dremel with a sandpaper attachment to enlarge the hole once it could fit into the hole made by the drill.

– Sandpaper appropriate for the type of wood you use

– A hacksaw to cut the pieces of wood from the sheet/board

– I found a sandpaper cylinder attachment on a dremel helps a lot with neatening up the wooden edges, but you do not need one.

– A metal file (again, not entirely necessary if you have sandpaper, but it is easier to use in some places.)

Depending on the type of Mbira you make, the materials and tools needed will vary.

via Make a Thumb Piano (Mbira).

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