The Mbira, popularly known as a thumb-piano, has proliferated throughout the Southern African region. This broad usage may be because of the instruments durable build and portability.

While numerous variations of the instrument can be found in Southern Africa today, Mbiras are generally made from tuned metal strips (usually steel) and mounted on wood with a metal bridge. The instrument is played by plucking the metal keys with your thumbs.  

Optional variations include:

  • Broad range of pitches for bass, tenor, alto and soprano
  • Metal bottle caps for vibration
  • A wooden board, calabash, gourd or box to enhance resonance
  • Built in electronic pick-ups for amplification and filtering

The instruments are tuneable by shifting the position of the metal keys under the bridge. If used in the correct traditional way, it is not tuned to equal temperament, but instead defers to the culture from which the song originates.

“Mbira players usually attribute their mastery of the Mbira to two sources, the spirits through dreams and their colleagues, through direct or indirect teaching. Mbira music is the music of the ancestors and it is of central importance in traditional religious rituals” (Berliner, 1993).


Berliner, P., 1993. The soul of mbira: Music and traditions of the Shona people of Zimbabwe (Vol. 26). University of Chicago Press.