The subtle brilliance of Hugh Tracey’s Treble Kalimba Tuning
When Hugh Tracey started making the Treble kalimba with five painted tines and 17 notes in 1954, it was the very first commercial kalimba. The Treble has a rich history, though the instrument’s setup is somewhat problematic. On most modern kalimbas, the “key note” or “root note” is the lowest note on the instrument and this has great advantages. The Treble kalimba, however, is in the key of G but is missing that low G and A. It actually starts on B, the 3rd of the scale. It can take some work to play a Treble well.
So we see that the Treble setup is confusing all on its own. And what is making things trickier for the Treble is the new Chinese-made 17-Note kalimbas, which look just like the Treble kalimba, right down to those five painted tines. The new kalimbas are in the key of C, and also have C as the low note which makes this new tuning an obvious choice, and lots of people are going to this instrument in lieu of the Treble.
Even though the 17-Note looks like a Treble, it is not at all a Treble, and its tine-painting scheme makes it impossible to learn from any instructional materials that Kalimba Magic offers. But this is easily remedied and you can learn all about it in the recent post _________________________.
So is the venerable progenitor of the new 17-Note kalimbas going to way of the dodo?
Actually, the unique setup of the Hugh Tracey Treble kalimba can take the kalimba player in some interesting and subtle directions.
The first benefit of the Treble’s setup is that it is not “root heavy,” as compared to many kalimbas, where having that root note right in the middle of the kalimba acts as a sort of crutch. By putting the root note in the kalimba’s low note, most kalimbas give you what appears to be a strong psychological advantage: no matter how confused or lost or flustered you get, you can always jump down to that lowest note right in the center of the kalimba, and it will sound grounded. That is also a good note on which to start a run or a melody line. So for those who are working on learning music and mastering kalimba, this is quite attractive.
I am developing a case here; so please consider this: The lowest note on a guitar is E, and lo and behold, among most high-school-aged guitar players, the key of E is the most common key to play in, because it feels good to crank out that low E note. Strong and simple.
Whereas, on the piano, you almost never play the low note, so it almost feels as if there is no bottom to the instrument. Any note could serve as the low note of the song. Or, in a way, there is not a strong key preference on the piano.
Which one is more sophisticated? A high school kid on guitar (yes, that was me once… and I still favor E on the guitar)… or a piano player with key flexibility?
You can make a case for the Treble along those lines. Once you are ready to move beyond the high school level of easy play, you might be ready for the Treble. Or, if you have a Treble in your hands, it almost forces you into a more sophisticated relationship with the instrument and the music it makes. You cannot rely upon the low-note crutch. Actually, if you try to do that trick and jump down to the low note, you end up playing B, the 3rd of the scale in the key of G, which can also be satisfying, but is a bit more subtle than the root note.
But not having the root note in the low note results in this advantage: by skipping those low notes, the high note on the Treble kalimba is actually higher up the scale. The 17-Note kalimba in C goes up to E, which is the 3rd in the key of C. The Treble kalimba only goes up to D, but D is the 5th in the key of G.
Why does this even matter?
I will refer you to a recent blog post, the “Four Way Playoff.” All four kalimbas could play “Silent Night.” But the highest note of “Silent Note” is the 4th of the scale (whatever scale that is) – it comes near the end of the song, on “HEAV – en – ly peace.” Anyway, the Treble kalimba can play this song an octave higher than the Alto kalimba. Why does this matter? Because some songs sound better in that high, sweet register, and “Silent Night” is surely one.
The 17-Note kalimba in C will play “Silent Night” in C, which is a 4th higher than the Alto kalimba… but it cannot get up to the 4th in the upper octave (remember, its highest note is E, the 3rd). Hence, on the 17-Note in C you have to play “Silent Night” in the lower register.
So where does that leave us? The Treble kalimba is a more sophisticated taste that can open some unique doors. If the delicate high notes and silvery tones of the Treble kalimba ring your chimes, you might want to look into getting a Hugh Tracey Treble kalimba.
I do know that when Hugh Tracey built the Treble kalimba, that was the first kalimba, the main kalimba. The Alto kalimba was lower, with wider tines – it was seen as an accompaniment to the Treble (just like the 10-Note kalimba supporting the 17-Note kalimba).
Hugh Tracey’s younger son Paul Tracey mainly plays the Treble. It is the kalimba he grew up with, and it has become his native language.
Maurice White (of Earth, Wind and Fire fame) played the Treble kalimba – though he did retune it to the pentatonic scale.
In the early days of the Hugh Tracey kalimba, the Treble kalimba was where all the action was. The Alto kalimba was almost seen as an afterthought – though it was a good enough afterthought to inspire American bluesman Taj Majal to play the Alto. Somewhere around 1980, the tide shifted, and tastes began to run toward the lower, more supportive, more grounded tones of the Alto. Over the last 13 years, Kalimba Magic has shipped about 2.5 times more Altos than Trebles.
But to many, especially to those who cut their teeth on the Hugh Tracey Treble in the 60s or 70s, the Treble will always be the real Hugh Tracey kalimba.