Most kalimbas struggle to play their high notes clearly. Learn various ways of adjusting tines to improve their sound.
We all want all of our kalimba’s notes to sound strong and hearty and resonant. But on most kalimbas, the highest notes can have a serious lack of resonance.
There are physical limitations to the range of notes a kalimba can play. If you try to lengthen your lowest, longest tine, it will play a lower note – but as you go lower, the note will not sound as good, because you are trying to play a note below the lowest resonant frequency of the kalimba’s body.
Similarly, if you look at your shortest, highest tine and push it in to make the vibrating length shorter, the note will go higher, and it will stop resonating all together.
The problem is, the highest note on your kalimba is already well on the way to losing its resonance, just the way it is tuned. What can be done to get a better sound from it?
Yes, essentially every kalimba I have played is stretching its range in that the top several notes are becoming “dainty.” The low end and midrange notes on most kalimbas have good sustain, typically lasting a few seconds. The top notes on a kalimba do not sustain that way – it is more like a few tenths of a second.
Why do the upper kalimba notes fall so short, so to speak? Basically, in order to sustain higher frequency vibrations, the kalimba body and the tine support mechanism has to be very stiff. Think about this: if you have a box kalimba, the stiffest part of the body will be on the far left and far right sides – the face wood is further supported by the side wood of the box, making a stiffer support for the vibrating tines. However, if you try to tune one of the tines in the center of the kalimba to a high note, eventually you will find that the face wood alone, without the support of the side wood, does not support such a high frequency vibration. Eventually, the note will just go THUD, and will not ring with a recognizable tone.
That is really our goal – to get a recognizable tone out of each of the high notes on the kalimba. The graph above shows what we are up against: the volume profile over time of a single plucked note – the bottom is E4, the middle note is high C6, and the top note is high E6. That is just the natural pattern of most kalimbas, to have less sustain on the highest notes.
Adjust your playing technique to improve high notes
You probably need to adjust your kalimba playing to meet the basic nature of the instrument. Check out these three practical playing tips for getting the higher notes to sound better:
1) While playing long notes works pretty well in the middle and low range of the kalimba, holding a high note doesn’t work, because the high notes won’t hold. On the other hand, if you play fast runs with the high notes, it actually works very well, because the high notes die out quickly and don’t stick around for a long time, making sonic room for the next notes. Sometimes fast runs of notes in the lower range and midrange result in a very dense texture – but fast runs in the upper notes come out light and fluffy.
2) Another way you can adjust your playing is by plucking the higher notes systematically harder than the midrange or low notes. Basically, as the high notes are not going to resonate or stick around for very long, you need to make every one of them speak by giving it a good pluck. If you pluck too hard, you will get an unpleasant slap-back situation, and it sounds bad. So you will have to learn the limits of the instrument, and then dial it back a bit so you stay within good operating parameters.
3) A third way you can adjust your playing to help the higher notes be heard: you can intentionally play the lower notes with less force, so that when you do get to the high notes, you have some extra head room to work within.
All of these techniques reflect a subtle and deep understanding of your instrument. If you do not have that sort of relationship with your kalimba, it might be time to dig deeper into understanding exactly how it wants to be played.
Adjust Your Kalimba Tines
If your highest notes are not musical even after pampering them with your playing style, here are a few more things you can try.
It seems that a tine can get stuck. I will skip the details, but a kalimba tine will, in addition to its primary motion of vibrating up and down, actually need to “saw” in and out over the bridge. The vibrating length of the tine is actually getting longer and shorter as it saws on the bridge. If something is preventing the tine from performing that motion (for example, paint that has hardened between the underside of the tine and the bridge, or just some gunk buildup from cooking oil or a sugary drink), the tine will not vibrate very well, and will not ring clearly. You can break the gunk bond by wiggling the tine to the left and right, letting it grind on the bridge metal. You may find that just the back and forth motion will improve the tine’s sound.
You may find that scooting the tine a bit to the right, or maybe a bit to the left, and reseating the tine in a slightly different position, will improve the tine’s sound – look for the optimal tine orientation, and set it up there if you find an optimal tine orientation. Of course, you may have to move a few of the neighboring tines a bit as well to keep a more ore less even spacing between tines.
Just playing the kalimba will also loosen up any unringing tines. I find that a brand new kalimba will often have a few nasal notes, and after playing moderately hard for several days, those notes will sound better.
Is the tine sounding buzzy? There are a number of buzz fixing techniques. The paper one never works well on the highest notes. The sandpaper technique is worth a try for the highest notes. Scooting left and right to find a different position reseats the tine and often improves the sound. Torquing the tine clockwise or counterclockwise is now my favorite technique for reducing or eliminating the buzz on the highest notes. Grab the tip of the tine with needle nose pliers and try rotating the tine clockwise. If it sounds worse, try going counterclockwise.
Sometimes a bad-sounding tine just needs to be retensioned. It has become a bit bent in the same direction that the “z-bracket” is pushing down in the center of the tine. I don’t usually recommend this, because taking tines off and putting them back on is not easy. You basically take the kalimba apart, rebend the tines so they bulge up slightly in the middle, and then reassemble the kalimba. How? Oh – that is complicated. Don’t hurt yourself.
Thumb Nail Orientation
Imagine you have a long thumb nail. If you touch the tine with the nail almost parallel to the tine, you are actually plucking not just the tine, but your thumb nail too! And your thumb nail isn’t so stiff in that orientation, and could make a dull flop of a sound. If we are going to be playing the shortest, stiffest tines, we are going to have to pluck more stiffly. And how can you do that with your thumb nail? Instead of plucking with the thumb nail flat and parallel with the tine, point your nails down so they are nearly perpendicular to the tines. In this orientation, your nails are plenty stiff, and you will surely hear more pluck of the tine and less pluck of your nail.
I have noticed that I can get a better sound from plucking with Alaska piks than from my natural nails. That said, I do prefer to play with my natural nails – I just need to make sure they don’t get too long. (Or too short.)
And if none of these seem to work, there are three more options:
- You could just live with one or two top notes sounding non-optimal to you – the rest of the notes will be good.
- You could send your kalimba to the Kalimba Doctor
- Some people have actually tuned their kalimbas down by a whole step or two so that the highest notes have better sound quality. If you do this, try moving the top note down by a whole step – does it sound good? Now try moving the lowest note down a whole step. If both the top and bottom notes sound good tuned down by a whole step, it should now work for you to tune every other note down a whole step. If you retune every note on your kalimba by the same amount (ie, down a whole step) you will still be able to play every song you could play in the original tuning, just lower.
Before Kalimba Magic ships our kalimbas, we make sure they are in tune, we fix any buzzes, and we get the high notes playing as well as we can get them to play. You will note that most kalimba sellers will not do anything like this – a kalimba simply taken off the shelf and packed in a box will likely not play its best.
This video shows you the issue with the high notes, and how I compensate with my playing style of fast high melodies and sustained low chords.