Since watching Throw Down Your Heart, in which Bela Fleck shows the prominent role of the thumb piano in indigenous African music, we’ve been intrigued by the rattle and hum of this powerful little instrument. You can watch Ruth play the thumb piano in the video above- such a heart-thumping, joyful song.
So we made our own thumb piano last night. Max thought the music that comes from it is bright and bouncy, so he painted accordingly.
- 1” thick piece of wood cut into 4” square
- Acrylic paint and paintbrush
- 10 push pins
- 4 large, unridged bobby pins
- 10 popsicle sticks
- 2 rubber bands
- Wire cutters
- White glue
- Take two popsicle sticks and glue them side by side across your piece of wood, about an inch down from one of the ends. To secure them as they dry, hold your thumb down in the center of the sticks and stretch your rubber bands across and underneath the wood to wrap around the ends.
- While the glue dries, it’s time to decorate. You can do this however you’d like using paint, markers, or stickers. Once you’re done decorating, set everything aside to dry for about an hour.
- For the keys, take your first bobby pin and bend it open. This will be the long key. Measure out enough of the bobby pin so that it touches the popsicle sticks and reaches to the end of the wood without extending over it. With the help of an adult, carefully cut off the excess with your wire cutters.
- Measure out and cut your remaining three keys from the rest of the bobby pins. Each one should be shorter than the one before it so that each key will have a different pitch.
- Space out the keys across the piano and tape the ends to the popsicle sticks to hold them in place.
- Apply glue across the tape and place two more popsicle stick over the first two to sandwich the keys into place. Wrap rubber bands around the ends of these sticks just like you did in step 2 to hold them down while they dry.
- To make sure everything is really tight and gives a good sound, stick two push pins through the popsicle sticks around either side of each bobby pin key. Set everything aside to dry for another hour.
- Now you’re ready to tune your piano. To do that, take each key and bend it back approximately 45 degrees (or half an inch) from the wood. To play, just run your fingers up and down the thumb piano keys. Experiment with different sounds and applying different amounts of pressure.
If you decide to make a thumb piano, link back and share. We’d love to see other thumb pianos!