Playing the Alto and Treble Together
Tuned in Octaves This Pair Sounds Awesome!

Alto Y Treble

Hugh Tracey did us a great favor when he started making his kalimbas in the mid 1950s - he oddly painted every third tine on the kalimba. Why? We've got three of Hugh Tracey's reasons (and one of our own) in the Newsletter Archives.

The reason that is most revelant to today's article is that the painted tines on the Alto match the painted tines on the Treble. The highest painted tine on the Alto is high G. The Treble in its usual form (not the Bb or D Trebles) will also have the high G painted. But above that high G are four more notes on the Treble, going up to D. They are unpainted, and you can "see" right away that the Treble goes higher than the Alto.

But now there is another way to have the Alto and Treble play together: Retune to either E or F, with the treble painted as the D treble, and play in octaves! OK, if you need to wrap your head around that one, keep reading - otherwise, just click and enjoy the pretty, pretty music:

To understand exactly what is going on in that video, let's go through the three ways to use the Alto and Treble kalimbas. The first way is to use them OUT OF THE BOX just the way they are. Both the Alto and the Treble are in the key of G. True, 13 of the notes overlap and, true, you cannot always play the same songs on the two, but it is a pretty good solution that works most of the time. This is the basis of our Sweetheart Deal - a Treble and an Alto kalimba with a book of your choice, reduced by about 25%.

Alto and Treble Pitches
The Alto and Treble mainly overlap in their pitches, but the Treble goes four notes above the Alto, and the Alto goes two notes lower than the Treble. The painted tines on each instrument match each other in terms of both note names and note numbers.


Here is another way to use the Alto and the Treble: the Bb Treble and D Treble kalimbas both mimic the Alto kalimba, but are in different keys. Let's explain.

There are two different aspects of the notes that we need to concentrate on: the note names, and the note numbers. The names of the notes on the Alto kalimba from bottom to midway up are G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. If you are going to play with other musicians (besides drummers), you need to have them line up to your notes by name - or if they can't you will either have to retune your kalimba to their key or remember which notes to avoid (for example, when I play with the marimba band which has C marimbas, I sometimes have to avoid the F# or retune the F# to F natural).

Alto and Bb Treble Alto and D Treble
The Bb and D Trebles in relation to the Alto. Any song that can be played on the Alto can be played almost immediately on the Bb or D Treble.

The Bb and D Trebles are painted and tuned differently than the standard treble. The notes do not match the Alto notes (don't try to play them together with the Alto as you can with the standard tuned Treble), but the painted tines on the Treble match the painted tines on the Alto in terms of the note numbers - root, 5th, 3rd, etc. As such, any song you know how to play on the Alto can be immediately transposed to the D Treble kalimba. This is made even more powerful by the fact that the D Treble can easily be tuned to C, C#, D, D#, E, or as in the video above, up to F - in other words, by pulling the tines out or pushing them in by as much as a step. As that requires retuning every tine, don't try that in real time at a gig or anything, you'll run out of jokes. And by the way, the Bb Treble could be tuned to A, Bb, B, C, or C#. The Alto can also be retuned up or down by as much as a whole step, and among these three types of kalimba, you can get to any key, all with the same painted tine framework, making it very simple to change from one to another without having to change your brain hardly at all.

I admit the Bb and D Treble thing is a bit of a detour for this story, but one you need to take to understand about the new way I use the Alto and Treble together. You can actually tune the Alto from G down to F, or even to E. And you can tune the D Treble up to E, or even to F. In other words, you can set up an Alto and a D Treble so that the Treble is an entire octave above the Alto, giving a three octave range for the two instruments combined. Also, the upper 15 tines of these instruments are painted and played identically (except that the Treble is an octave above the Alto). Just like John Coltrane switching off between tenor and soprano saxophone.

F Alto and D Treble in F E Alto and D Treble in E
Left: Alto in F in relation to D Treble in F. Right: Alto in E in relation to D Treble in E. When paired in this way, the matched Alto and Treble have a three octave range between them.

The one caveat: the Alto's notes have been matched to the size of the Alto's body. If you tune the Alto's notes lower, the body is not quite large enough to sufficiently resonate at that lower note, and you will hear somewhat more of the overtones and somewhat less of the fundamental pitch of the vibration. You can improve this situation by playing the lower-tuned alto held against a larger object, such as a gourd, a box, or a table.

Note that E and F are the best keys for this new way of using the Alto and Treble kalimbas together. The Alto can't really go below E. F# and G are actually possible, as the Treble's high D could go up to F# or G, but it would not work consistently, i.e., some particular Trebles would sing on those high notes and others would choke on them.

You can order the E or the F Alto and Treble pair at a significant discount through the Sweetheart Deal - be sure to ask for the specific key in the special instructions field.