TIP: Exploring Exotic Pentatonic Tunings – p7

The distinctive relationship between the “5” and the “1” on your kalimba

Here is a classic characterization about the “5 – 1” interval. Think, for a moment, about “5” as “Heave!”, and the “1” as the “Ho!” It’s kind of like call and response: the “5” is the call, and the “1” is the response. Once you play the “5” (or say “Heave!”), you are priming the ear for the “1” (or “Ho!”).  You can play the “5” and NOT go to the “1”, but doing that can leave the listener seriously up in the air. To prevent their feeling toyed with, replace that resolution with something that’s worth the surprise – make it good and satisfying!




The key thing in this tip is the physical relationship between the “5” and the “1” tines on your kalimba.  In each of these kalimbas, any time you find a “5” tine, the next higher “1” note will be adjacent to it and one tine shorter (or further out and away from the middle – meaning further left if you are on the left side, and further right if you are on the right side). So the “5” leads to the “1” harmonically, but the “5” also leads to the “1” physically!  On these kalimbas, they are next door neighbors! 

This is very important: instead of memorizing where all the “5” notes are and where all the “1” notes are, consider the two note phrase “5-1”.  For now, just consider the “5-1” phrases that are adjacent to each other.  Now, memorize the motion, “5 ->1”.

The Ake Bono and G minor Pentatonic tunings both have “5” and “1” in the same position on the kalimba.  The F7 Bebey tuning has the “1” and “5” in that position too, but shifted down by one tine.

And now the assignment: first, look through these videos once again, armed with your new understanding of the phrase “5->1”, and try to identify the places it is used.  Next, pick up your own kalimba and first practice just doing “5->1”.  (If you have a diatonic kalimba, the “5” and “1” tines will not be adjacent. They will either be on opposite sides or on the same side with one tine separating them.)

Next: play some of your own typical kalimba improvisation and see if you can identify the use of “5->1” in your own playing. If you videotape it so you can more easily separate the act of playing from the act of observing.

The motion “5->1” helps us to hear “1” as the root note.  When you pick up a strange kalimba, see if you can find any “5->1” intervals by ear.  If you work it as much as I am trying to inspire you to, you will be able to hear and understand the way “5->1” sounds.  It is an essential piece of “grammar” that  most western music uses.  You will probably be able to find several “5->1” pairs (e.g., “6->2” is also a 5th interval).  You can actually choose any of those notes on the right side of that equation (e.g., the “2” of “6->2”) to be considered as the root note… and you will be in a different mode.


“Floaty Kalimba” on the F7 Bebey tuned pentatonic kalimba.

“Peaceful Mystery” on the G Ake Bono tuned pentatonic kalimba.

“Malian Blues” on the G minor pentatonic kalimba.

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