The standard tuning for the Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba is G major (the far left kalimba above). This is G below Middle C. For reference sake: the new crop of 17-Note kalimbas in C (not shown above) have a low note of Middle C. My old Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba (I bought it around 1988) came in standard G. Around 2010 I tuned it down to F, and in 2019 I further tuned it down to E. I accomplished this retuning by pulling the tines further out and making the vibrating length of the tines longer. I refine the tine adjustments with the aid of an electronic tuner. There are many free tuning apps you can get for your phone. I like Pano Tuner myself.
Changing the Kalimba Pitch for Vocal Range
As we age, our vocal ranges tend to go down. I remember hearing Robert Plant fronting a reconstituted Led Zepplin band circa 1986, and he could not hit the high notes at the end of Stairway to Heaven. Instead, he sang them an octave lower. It just didn’t sound right. This is supposed to be the big climax, and he is singing lower than he has sung for most of the song.
If only Robert Plant had played kalimba, nobody would have realized his vocal range was slipping. You see, he could have tuned down, just like me when I tuned my Alto kalimba down, from G to F, and then to E as my vocal range dipped lower.
Getting Lower Notes in Your Mix
Of course, there are other reasons why you might want to go lower. The 17-Note Kalimba in C, with a low note of Middle C, is light and fluffy, without the heft of Alto or Baritone notes. Adding a lower pitched kalimba to the 17-Note Kalimba in C can transform the sound.
But… can we tune the Alto kalimba down by an entire 5th, from G all the way down to the baritone-range C, an octave below Middle C? The answer: through various tricks, yes, we can tune the Alto kalimba all the way down to low C. (OK, it isn’t a bass singer’s “Low C” – it is a “baritone range low C” – let call it the “low C of the kalimba”. It is an entire octave below the standard kalimba’s lowest note.)
This Alto is tuned to a low note of “Low C”, the B17 is tuned with a low note of Middle C.
There are some issues with these low-tuned Alto kalimbas. Their bodies were designed to resonate with G as the low note. The lower notes will sound a bit stiff, because we are hearing more of the overtones in a sharp attack, and less of the pure fundamental tone. This can be overcome by playing the kalimba on a table or a larger box that will resonate at the lower pitch. It can also be overcome by playing through the electronic pickup.
If you want or need to get some low notes into your musical mix, the down-tuned Alto Kalimba + PU in E, D, or even C is a very clear choice.