DIY: How to make your own Thumb Piano (Mbira)?


The mbira is an African musical instrument, traditional to the Shona people of Zimbabwe. It consists of a wooden board (often fitted with a resonator) with attached staggered metal tines, played by holding the instrument in the hands and plucking the tines with the thumbs (at minimum), the right forefinger (most mbira), and sometimes the left forefinger. Musicologists classify it as a lamellaphone, part of the plucked idiophone family of musical instruments. In Eastern and Southern Africa, there are many kinds of mbira, often accompanied by the hosho, a percussion instrument. It is often an important instrument played at religious ceremonies, weddings, and other social gatherings.

Make Quarantine period fun for you and your kids. Today, let’s learn how to make your own Mbira at home.

The type of Thumb Piano (Mbira) in this article has a box (a resonator box), a chamber that does the same thing a guitar’s 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 muse) will last longer for more pleasing notes.

The materials you will need:

  1. Spring steel strip (you can use a windscreen-wiper spring from a car)
  2. Wood sheet/board
  3. Binding Wire
  4. 2 Nails/ pieces of wire
  5. a strong metal tube
  6. Metal Sheet
  7. Wood Glue

The box in this Mbira is rectangular and easy to get right. It has 6 sides: 2 faces and 4 walls. The shapes are pretty straightforward and easy to achieve, Use a hacksaw and some sandpaper to get them to the desired shape. Cut the 6 rectangles from your sheet/board, then smooth off the edges and make sure that they are straight and that the walls are all the same height.

Only 1 of the 2 faces must had a hole in it. This hole should be placed just below halfway down on the face. To make this hole, drill 8 holes in a circular pattern into the wood, then broke out the wood in the middle. Then use a dremel tool with sandpaper to enlarge the hole and make it look neat.

Once you have trimmed the pieces to all fit together, place them together and make sure that everything looks tidy. Glue the walls onto the BOTTOM face and leave the glue to dry. Cut 4 small triangles (optional, for extra strength) and glue them into the corners of the box to hold the walls at 90 degrees to one another. This should make it more difficult to break if the Mbira is dropped.

Mbiras use tines to generate sound vibrations, in the same way a guitar uses strings. Each tine produces a different pitched note and they are arranged in this Mbira from lowest in the middle to highest at the sides. This makes the instrument easier to play.

This particular one uses 8 tines, however you may choose how many you would like to have. The idea is to put a piece of wire or a spring-steel strip onto an anvil or another solid metal object, and strike it with a hammer so that it flattens between the hammer and the metal. Use a strip of spring steel so there is no need to flatten it.

Once it is “flared” out at one end (the end that will be plucked by your thumbs), sand or file it so that it is smooth and looks uniform. This will make it easier to play for longer without hurting your fingers.

Lengths of 8 tins from left to right

  • 45 mm    1
  • 55 mm    2
  • 62 mm    3
  • 58 mm    4
  • 60 mm    5
  • 56 mm    6
  • 52 mm    7
  • 46 mm    8

This Mbira requires a thin metal sheet on either side of the wood where the wire will be threaded through, to make it stronger so that the wire does not break the wood when tightened.

The faceplate assembly consists of:

  1. 2 thin 1mm rectangular metal sheets (faceplate and backplate)
  2. A piece of 2mm dia. wire/ a nail
  3. Another piece of 2mm dia. wire/ nail
  4. a small metal tube.
  5. Lots of thin binding wire.

To begin, cut two rectangular pieces of sheet metal to the correct size so that they fit onto your mbira.

One of them needs to look nice, that is the faceplate. The other can look rough since it will never be visible, it is called the backplate.

Place your frontplate in the desired position on the Mbira. Then mark with a pen or pencil, holes in the places shown. Use a very small drillbit to drill the holes through. Drill through the faceplate and the wooden front face at the same time, so that the holes match up well. Then hold the backplate under the frontplate and do the same thing. This is much easier than measuring every time.

If you use a nail for the top tine holder then clip the head of the nail off with a hammer and some pliers. It can stick out of the sides to prevent it from falling out of the wires that will hold it. You may also bend the ends if you use a thinner nail, to achieve the same.

Cut 4 pieces of thin binding wire. Around 4,5 cm long each. Bend them into a “U” shape and drop them into the holes as shown in picture 2, with the second nail/piece of wire in place. Place the backplate on the back side of the face.

Twist the two ends of each piece of wire together, to make an “X” shape behind the face, then twist them more to tighten them. The larger wire/ nails must not be able to move.

Next you will need to drill another set of holes, this time to hold the tensioning tube over the tines. Drill 10 holes to fit wire between the tines and another hole at each end of the tube. Next we will fit the tines, then the tube goes on top of them to create tension in them.

Once they are loose on top of the faceplate, thread a long piece of wire through the tube. Bend the two ends of this wire down and push it through the two outer-most holes in the faceplate. At the back of the face, twist the two ends of the wire together like you did before, and make sure that the tube is against the tines as tight as possible.

Then, start with the other holes you made. Make more “U” shaped pieces of wire, in this Mbira you will use 5, each of them about 5 cm long. Put them through the holes as shown in the completed front face above. Twist them behind the back of the face, and make sure once again that the tube is pressed tight against the tines. This tension is what allows the instrument to function. If a key is loose, twist the wire closest to is a bit more at the back, this will pull the tube closer to it.

Once the tines are all in place and firmly held there, you may glue the front face onto the rest of the resonator box.

Your Mbira is ready. Congratulations.

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