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The Hugh Tracey Chromatic kalimba represents a pinnacle of kalimba capability, and it is quite the challenge to learn. However, many dedicated players have made great progress on the Chromatic kalimba.
Introduction to the Chromatic Kalimba
One major issue with most kalimbas is that they are tuned to the diatonic scale ("do re mi fa so la to do") and so they are missing the chromatic notes or accidentals (the note between "do" and "re" for instance). The simplified diatonic scale helps make the kalimba an easier instrument to learn, but makes it difficult or impossible to play complex songs with key changes or notes beyond the diatonic scale.
The chromatic kalimba looks just like the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba on the front... but the notes that are missing from the diatonic scale on the front (Ab, Bb, Db, Eb, and F natural) are placed on the back. It is challenging to play the notes on the back side with your fingers when you cannot see them, but after a hundred hours or so of serious work with the instrument, you will have all the notes over a two octave range at your fingertips.
Chromatic Kalimba Tunings
Kalimba Magic recommends that your Chromatic kalimba be tuned to G on the front, making it just like the Alto kalimba. This means (a) if you know how to play songs on the Alto kalimba, you can play all of those songs on the Chromatic's front, and you can add the chromatic notes on the back at your own pace, (b) all of the books and educational resources for the Alto kalimba will also work for the front side of the Chromatic kalimba, and (c) the G Chromatic kalimba will work with the upcoming Chromatic Kalimba book.
It is possible to retune from G to C (or from C to G). On the front it is trivial, changing between F# and F natural. On the back, most of the tines need to be rearranged and retuned - the tines need to be taken off the kalimba and reinserted through different slots, as the gaps on the back are positioned in different places. This is difficult but not impossible, but if you don't want to do this, the Kalimba Doctor can help ($20 covers tuning and return by domestic shipping).
You can read more about the philosophy of the G Chromatic kalimba in this newsletter article.
The first Chromatic kalimbas that came from Africa around 2008 were tuned to C on the front, which put the Gb=F#, Ab=G#, Bb=A#, Db=C#, and Eb=D# on the back. Other sellers of Hugh Tracey Chromatic kalimbas around the world haven't yet made the jump to the G tuning, and only offer the C tuning. Kalimba Magic offers the C tuning for an additional $10 when you purchase, or if you have a C and want a G, you could send your Chromatic kalimba to the Kalimba Doctor for retuning to G ($20 covers tuning and return by domestic shipping).
Why would you want your Chromatic kalimba in C? If you are a classically trained musician and you read staff notation (for piano or marimba, for example) you may very well find the C Chromatic to be more natural to your mind - all the natural notes are on the front, and all the flats or sharps are on the back. If you have never played the Alto kalimba before (which is the same as the front of the G Chromatic), or if you have experience already with the C Chromatic, you may very well prefer the C Chromatic.
Chromatic Kalimba Adjustments
There are a few simple adjustments that can be made to the chromatic kalimbas to make them much more playable.
Some tines on front do not have flats on the back, but most do. I use a sharpee marker to make a little dot on the front side tines that do have flats immediately behind them on the back side. This is on my personal Chromatic kalimba, and on every Chromatic kalimba I send out. You will probably rub the dot off the tine after a few months of heavy playing, but the tuning chart also indicates which tines have the dots - or you could just listen to which tines have flats right behind. Either way, you yourself can put those dots back onto your kalimba.
Some players such as Aaron Chavez like the back side notes spread out evenly to help him with his multiple finger aproach. I myself prefer the "flats" to be right behind the unflattened front side notes. ACTUALLY, I shift the back side tines outward until they feel as if they are right behind the unflattened front side tines. The shorter your fingers, the further outward you will want your tines. But watch out - tines will buzz if you shift them that far, though buzzes can be fixed with paper or other methods.
A Chromatic Book is On The Way!
Mark Holdaway of Kalimba Magic is busy working on a book for the Chromatic Kalimba - expect this to be about 100 pages. If you are interested in getting a notification when the chromatic book is complete, please let me know and I'll put you on the list.
Music Written for the Chromatic Kalimba
As mentioned above, the very first Hugh Tracey Chromatic kalimbas were tuned to the key of C on the front (the range was still G3 to G5, so the bass note was still G). Early on, we created some educational resources for the C-tuned Chromatic kalimba.
There is a growing body of music written for the Chromatic kalimba which is available for free from the Kalimba Magic website. These are provided in chromatic tablature, which shows the front side tines in the center, and the backside tines as shaded tines on the far left and right. This is not easy to read, but try this: print out the tablature, and every instance where a back side note is required - say an Eb - you could make another mark on the E tine, which reminds you to play the Eb right behind the E.
Chromatic Models Available from Kalimba Magic
Still Have Chromatic Kalimba Questions?
If you still have questions after reading this, please send me a message to let me know what you need to find out.
Last updated Nov 2011