Ask Mark
Mark Holdaway Answers Your Kalimba Questions

Ask Mark

I get one or two dozen emails each day asking me all sorts of questions, and I answer almost every one. Some of those questions keep coming around. But NEXT time someone asks about where to get kalimba tines, I'll be able to reply with a link to this page.

By the way, starting now I am going to give a free CD to the three people whose questions end up in the "Ask Mark" column each month! So send me your questions!

Where Can I Get Kalimba Tines?

Several people have been asking me where they can purchase extra kalimba tines. In a way, that is a trade secret. A lot of work goes into researching the kind of spring steel that will work well for a kalimba—shaping the ends, plating, bending, etc.

It is a rare instance when a kalimba tine breaks—I have never broken a tine and have sent out only about four replacement tines to customers in the entire history of Kalimba Magic. When I need a replacement, I contact the kalimba maker, who is happy to provide me with a replacement tine. Kalimba Magic, however, does not stock sets of tines for specific kalimbas.

But there are multiple options for you if you are building a kalimba and need tines. In the past, I have used large bobby pins, a street sweeper's metal bristles (you can pick them up off the street!), spring steel from Music Maker's Kits, or you can purchase bulk spring steel of many varieties from an industrial supply place called McMaster Carr. Just last month, we learned that bike spokes make excellent kalimba tines. If you do a Google on kalimba tines, you'll discover how creative people can get!


Which Book is Right for the Hugh Tracey Bb Treble Kalimba?

Several people have ordered the Bb Treble kalimba from me along with the Treble Fundamentals book. However, the Bb Treble kalimba was designed to work with the Alto kalimba's tablature, so any of the Alto books will work with this kalimba—with one problem—the accompanying CD is in the key of G instead of the key of Bb. As an example, the CD with the Alto book, or the Alto KTabS file will sound like this, while the Bb Treble will sound like this. The notes and patterns are same, but everything is shifted up in pitch, like when you put a capo on a guitar. It will probably be instructive for you to listen to the Alto CD, but you probably won't find it useful to try to play along with the Alto CD on your Bb Treble kalimba.

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Why would anyone want to play the Bb Treble?

Because it plays just like the Alto kalimba, with the root note in the bass (the lowest note), and the tines are painted the same as the Alto's tines. If you know a song on the Alto kalimba, you will be able to pick up the Bb Treble and play the exact same song—but in Bb.

Look at the numbers on the tines in the figure to the right that shows the tine layout for the Alto kalimba at top and the tine layout for the Bb Treble kalimba underneath. All the painted tines line up between the Alto and Bb Treble. While notes differ, the numbers (which represent note sequence in the given scale) match.

I have always preferred the Alto to the Treble layout. Certain songs I play require the root note (the "1" in the figure to the right) to be the bass note. I do love the way the Treble sounds, it is a bit higher and clearer than the Alto. So by tuning it to Bb and painting the tines as the ALTO has them, I can just pick this kalimba up and play away.

Other reasons you might want the Bb Treble: You might find that the key of Bb is a better key in which to sing a particular song or this key might be a better fit musically with certain other instruments playing in other keys (the G minor Alto or G minor Karimba, for example).

The Bb Treble can also be retuned to nearby keys: A, B, and C.


Is There a Natural Way to Amplify the Kalimba?

Keith Tobbins of Canada writes:

I'm wondering if you may know of an 'acoustic' or 'natural' way to amplify my Alto Kalimba. I do have the Alto with pick-up (which is great at home), but just wondering how to get similar results at those beach campfires, etc., when electrical power is not an option...

I noticed that on one of your clips you appear to be playing a Kalimba inside a large bowl/bucket-like thing...Anyway, just hoping for suggestions should you have any.

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I play the kalimba inside a gourd, which increases the volume by a factor of about four. At kalimba performances, I usually introduce the gourd as "an example of thousand year old African technology that acts as analog amplifier and distortion device." The same amount of energy goes out, but it begins more loudly while the sound dissipates more quickly, i.e. there is less sustain on each note.

Also, the sound is slightly distorted, as there is some mechanical buzzing associated with the way the gourd and the kalimba touch. You can also attach bottle caps or other metal objects to the gourd to increase the buzzing. In Africa, people put mbiras inside of very large gourds called Deze. Smaller kalimbas are often placed on top of smaller gourds with cloth tightly wrapped around the edge.

I get a gourd large enough for the kalimba to fit in, soak it in water for an hour and scrub the outside (so it looks nicer), cut it open, scrape the inside, wedge the kalimba in (try wearing little grooves on the inside of the gourd for your kalimba's corners). Then drill two holes near the gourd's rim and attach a guitar strap by tying string or shoelaces through the holes and to the guitar strap. With this set up, I can dance and move around while I sing and play kalimba or karimba.

You might want to check out the Wednesday tips series: Building a Gourd Resonator.

My gourds are set up for Treble-sized kalimbas. So they will take a Treble, a Karimba, a Pentatonic Celeste, or the HT Hotshot-11, which is February's kalimba of the month.

I hope these answers are helpful to the greater kalimba community. I certainly don't know everything about the kalimba, but I know a lot, I am learning more each day, and I am happy to share this information. That is one of the things Kalimba Magic is about - sharing! So send me your questions, because if we use your question in this column, I'll send you a free CD of your choice.