NOTE: 13 additional photos (plus 6 photos of another idea for this instrument) and a sound sample of this bass kalimba are available. Click here for information.
This instrument described here is my version of the several 
"string-bass alternatives" I see on the internet and elsewhere. 
A very similar instrument, the Caribbean Marimbula has been around 
for over a hundred years. Also, I know of several people who are 
making, experimenting and in at least three cases selling versions 
of this instrument.

Up front, I must tell you that these bass kalimbas in general do 
not sound very good if played solo --- there are a number of 
unavoidable and undesirable overtones. Having said this however, 
as soon as even one other instrument is thrown into the mix, the 
overtones completely disappear. In a band situation, the thing 
sounds very much like a good, loud standup bass.

Construction is very straightforward. Very little, if anything, 
is critical.

Click here for construction details.
The seven metal twangers are made from lengths of discarded 3/4" 
wide packing strapping (I got mine from the local lumber-yard's 
dumpster) which is ideal for this bass. Box resonator is made from 
a half sheet of 1/4" plywood. It's finished dimensions are 23" 
wide by 16" tall by 11.5" deep. All joints are reinforced 
internally with 1/2" quarter-round molding. I used very few brads
but lots of Titebond glue.

The twangers are mounted to a simple "bridge" made of rock maple. 
Other hardwoods should work fine as well. Eight #8 x 1  1/4" sheet
metal screws, between each twanger, secure the twangers. 
This bridge is securely glued to the box. For maximum strength,
make sure that the quarter-round pieces meet solidly in the
inside corners before glueing them in. 

Sound-hole placement is not critical. Don't get the edge of the
big hole too close to the bridge assembly - mine is about 3/4".

The only costs are for a half sheet of 1/4" plywood, a few maple 
scraps and eight screws. Unlike with most of my projects, I used 
all new parts with this thing and it cost a total of $12. Total
building time was around five hours. The only power tools used 
were a saber saw and a hand drill.

Some sit in a chair and hold the box cello-like, others sit atop 
the instrument itself (despite the thin 1/4" plywood, the box is 
amply strong - - enough to take my 200 lb weight).

This bass is far easier to play than a string bass -- you don't 
have to worry about fingering. If they have any kind of ear at all 
for recognizing chord changes, a person with no bass-playing 
experience can be accompanying a band right off the bat. On the 
negative side you don't have the same freedom to make runs to and 
from chords like you would with a string bass. Also the keys you 
can play in are more limited (without retuning).

A technique that greatly lessens undesirable harmonics is to NOT 
just pluck the twanger, but instead place your finger flat on the 
metal, with fingertip about midway along twanger. Try not to bend 
the finger's first joint as you "roll" your finger off the metal 
by bending the 2nd joint smartly. Take care not to let your 
fingernail hit the twanger. Don't let your finger snap off the end 
of the metal. This all sounds a bit complicated, but it really 
isn't and does produce a much cleaner sounding bass note.

                            CHORD CHART
The twangers are arranged in a "circle of fifths" --- the fifth of any 
note is the one immediately to it's right --- knowing that, playing 
chords is usually "intuitive" but I found this chart helped me at 
first to understand things. I've also included the "relative minors" 
for each chord progression, as these are not so intuitive.

Chord:  C                F                 G                  Am  
  F C G D A E B    F C G D A E B     F C G D A E B      F C G D A E B
  | | | | | | |    | | | | | | |     | | | | | | |      | | | | | | |
    O O     *      O O     *             O O     *        O     O *

Chord:  D                G                 A                  Bm  
  F C G D A E B    F C G D A E B     F C G D A E B      F C G D A E B
  | | | | | | |    | | | | | | |     | | | | | | |      | | | | | | |
        O O            O O     *             O O              O     O

Chord:  G                C                 D                  Em  
  F C G D A E B    F C G D A E B     F C G D A E B      F C G D A E B
  | | | | | | |    | | | | | | |     | | | | | | |      | | | | | | |
      O O     *      O O     *             O O              O     O *

Chord:  A                D                 E                  F#m
  F C G D A E B    F C G D A E B     F C G D A E B      F C G D A E B
  | | | | | | |    | | | | | | |     | | | | | | |      | | | | | | |
          O O            O O                   O O              O

Chord:  E                A                 B                  C#m
  F C G D A E B    F C G D A E B     F C G D A E B      F C G D A E B
  | | | | | | |    | | | | | | |     | | | | | | |      | | | | | | |
            O O            O O                   O                O

O = Main notes of chord
* = These notes can also be a part of the chord  

If you like, you can adjust the "A" twanger shorter, so it sounds
an octave higher.

  Dennis Havlena - W8MI
  northern Michigan

PS: In 20 minutes this morning I built a "minature bass kalimba"
it measures 4" by 6" & uses bobbypins for the 7 twangers, which
are tuned  F C G D A E B just like it's big daddy (only a few octaves

I've taken a liking to the big bass kalimba & this miniature version
(while by no means meant to be used for performances) very nicely 
allows me to play "bass" along with CDs in the car and anywhere where 
the big box isn't possible. This little version is great for doodling 
(practicing) and understanding. I find myself humming tunes to myself 
and accompanying on the mini-instrument - - very productively and fun 
too. If you can play on the mini instrument, you can play on the big
Click here for basic information on building this mini "bass" kalimba.
Note that this article describes the construction of a simple kalimba 
& does not specifically detail how to build a "mini bass kalimba" but 
the very same construction techniques discussed apply. The only 
difference is in the number of twangers (7), the twanger layout and 
twanger tuning.

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