Frequently Asked Questions

The heartbeat of tradition

Instrument Sales

We believe in spending time with our customers to ensure that they get exactly what they need. We have a number of different options with all of our instrument ranges, so it is important that customers understand the differences between products. For this reason, Nwabisa and Ben are on hand to chat with customers, listen carefully to their needs, and issue quotes that include the cost of packaging and delivery/shipping. Once quotes are accepted by customers, the instruments are handmade for them. We will keep you informed about when you can expect your instrument to be sent. Sometimes we have instruments in stock and ready for sending off, but this depends on many things, mostly how many different instruments are being made at any one time. We pride ourselves on meeting musicians’ needs but making beautiful, handcrafted instruments – and this is a job that really shouldn’t be rushed.

We make no apologies for the fact that we don’t have a shopping cart on our website. We want to retain a personal connection with customers, so we’re keeping to a pre-shopping cart era and look forward to being in touch.

Discounts are offered when customers buy in bulk, and to retailers.

Instrument Services

AMI offers ongoing tuning and maintenance of their customers’ marimbas. We visit the main centres two to three times a year to visit customers, tune in and do any repairs needed. Contact us to find out when we will next be in your area. If you have an important performance coming up, we can send you notes to replace damaged ones. These can be slotted in place by cutting the cable tie holding the old note, removing the old note, slotting in the new note, and securing it with a new cable tie. Watch the video for a quick lesson.

This depends on many things – how many instruments you have, how long it has been since the last tuning, whether they have been treated roughly, and the climate conditions in your area. Maintenance is charged per hour, and if travel is needed, an extra charge is applied. Most often, we tune several customers’ sets in one trip, and the cost of travel is shared between them.

General Questions

The buzzing is usually caused by a note not lying flat on the bridge.  This can be corrected either by slipping a narrow strip of paper or thin card between the pressure bar (the pressed steel component that is screwed to the body and holds the notes in tension) and the offending note. This can be done if the note is pressed down with a screwdriver, with the kalimba supported firmly.  If you experiment by placing the small strip either one side or the other, which has the effect of tilting the note, the buzzing should disappear.

Alternatively, you could try to twist the note one way or another using a pair of long-nosed piers, testing as you go to hear if the buzzing is diminishing or has stopped.

You may have to re-tune afterwards, which you do by sliding the note towards you or away from you (ie. lengthening or shortening it) using something hard like a coin or screwdriver.

The painted notes (or tines) have no other function than to provide points of reference to the player, much in the same way as harp strings are coloured.  Without them, it is easy to lose where you are because one note looks very similar to the next.  It’s interesting that, for the most part, when you are learning you don’t ever think about this, but your brain is using the reference points – sort of “running in the background” without you being consciously aware.  Only when you play an unmarked instrument do you realise how much you rely on them.

The notes on the kalimba are held in place only by the pressure of the pressure bar (the pressed steel component that is screwed to the body and holds the notes in tension ). Tuning is done by lengthening or shortening the amount of note that overhangs the bridge. That is, the part you pluck with your thumbs.  The longer the overhang, the lower the note will be, and vice versa. 

However, if the instrument has been dropped, the bridge itself may have moved.  This is only held in place by the pressure of the notes, and can move if the instrument is dropped or knocked.  The correct distance from the bridge to the pressure bar is around 22 mm.  In order to make sure that the bridge and pressure bar are parallel, it is probably worth cutting a strip of thick card or thin wood to 22mm, and then forcing the bridge up against it using a thin plank, the thick cover of a hardback book, or some other strong, thin edge. Try to ensure that the bridge is in the centre of the instrument, that is, the space between the ends of the bridge and the edges of the instrument is even.

Now you can begin tuning.  You should have the card from the box that the instrument came in as a guide.  If you don’t, get hold of us and we can supply the tuning.  If the tuning is not too far out, you will be able to hear what it should be. 

Using an electronic guitar tuner is probably best (free apps are available).  Push the top end of the note (the furthest away from you) to lengthen the note and bring the pitch of the note down, and push on the plucked end (in the opposite direction) to sharpen the note. Watch carefully what the pitch is doing as you push the note. On higher pitched, shorter notes, less movement is required to change the pitch. I would recommend that you tune the octaves at the same time.  This will keep you from missing notes out, and should ensure that you don’t get too mixed up, and tune the notes wrongly.  Work systematically through the scale, and you should end up with a perfectly tuned kalimba. 

Learning the kalimba is mostly a matter of fiddling with it until your thumbs remember where the notes are.  Traditional keyboardists struggle the most because of the way the scale is built up by alternating right and left.  Being diatonic, you have G Major and all the modes that can be built on each step of the scale. Chords can be played by ‘strumming’ across a number of notes (thirds are next to each other). 4ths and 6ths can be added easily because they are always on the opposite side of the melody note. A very common mistake that new players make is to pluck the notes in a downward direction, with the thumb ending up traveling towards the soundboard. This tends to hurt you and produces a harsh tone. A better technique is to stroke the keys, with your thumbs ending up traveling towards you. Like many plucked instruments, having your thumbs resting on the notes in advance and then sliding them off results in a far sweeter tone and much more accurate playing. Vibrato is possible with box resonated instruments – simply move your third finger up and down above the two small holes on the back of the instrument, or move your thumb up and down above the large hole on the front for a nice warm vibrato.

Resonator fitted the wrong way around: One of the more common reasons for a marimba to stop sounding good is that the resonator box is fitted the wrong way around.  We have been on tuning trips where a school that has been playing marimbas for years complains that their bass instrument was completely out of tune and dead.  The problem was simple – the resonator was on backwards. Please ensure that the long resonator tubes are to the left, under the low notes. 

Are the buzzer holes covered? If your instrument has buzzer holes along the front of the resonator box, but the plastic membranes have been removed, the sound will be compromised. Buzzing resonators are a distinctly African sound, but not to everyone’s taste.  If you have removed them, then the buzzer nipple holes should be blocked up, to restore the tuning of the resonators.  We find that the easiest way to do this is to cut or break up expanded polystyrene packing material into chunks that are a bit bigger than the buzzer tubes, and force them in.  They must form an airtight seal for the resonators to work properly.

Is the room messing with the sound? The placement of an instrument in a room, particularly one which relies on tuned resonators for amplification, can radically affect the sound that each note makes.  You know that if you sing in a bathroom or shower, sometimes you hit a certain note that really reverberates with the room and your position in it.  This is something that affects marimbas and another bar percussion as well.  Some notes in a particular space will sound very loud and sustained, while others may be affected by that destructive interference that we learned about in school science. Try relocating your marimba and see if this helps.

Notes too tightly held by the supporting string? Please check that the affected keys are not bound too tight.  Keys must be held in position but still be able to vibrate freely.  If the binding string or even the cable tie is pulled too tight, this can affect the sound and sustain.

Marimbas, like wine, get better with age. It is a fact that marimba keys get better with time.  Old marimbas really sound a whole lot sweeter than new ones.  I am not sure of the scientific reasons for this, but it may be that the structure of the wood changes after it has been played a lot, and also something to do with the wood stabilising to local ambient temperatures and humidity. I just know that when you start playing a new instrument, it sounds ‘tight’ and does not sustain as well as older instruments.

The AMI standard marimba sets, as you will see on the AMI website, come in 2 different tunings – C major and Eb Xhosa tuning.  

C MAJOR: The former, being the well-tempered concert pitch that we all know and love, is best suited to applications where the marimbas will be played alongside other instruments – many schools prefer this tuning, which allows arrangements involving a conventional orchestra, for example. 

E FLAT MAJOR: The Eb tuning has been developed to cater for the natural scales used by traditional music and especially to accompany singers.  The tuning is not quite well tempered, but definitely gives richer chords and is the tuning of choice for traditional choirs and cultural groups.

Marimbas tuned to E Flat cannot play with Marimbas tuned to C Major. So the tuning used by other groups in your area may affect your choice, because you may want to get together with other local bands for workshops or competitions.

Yes! All that needs to be done is to attach the notes to the new steel frame and to fit brackets to the resonator boxes so they can be attached to the frames. Steel frames are part of AMI’s winning design, and They replace the heavy and fragile wooden legs and keyboard frame with a far more robust and lighter steel frame. The sturdy and very responsive plywood resonator boxes have been retained, so the sound has not been affected at all. This has made the instruments far easier to disassemble and transport, essential for any band that moves around or performs frequently.  Steel castors can also be fitted to make moving the instruments even easier.