Understanding G, B flat and D Treble Kalimbas

Have you ever wanted to get clear on the differences between the various treble kalimbas?

Blue dots are roots of the major scale, purple are roots of the relative minor scale

One of my best contributions to the kalimba world (in my humble opinion) is the concept of the Bb and D Treble kalimbas. These are alternative ways of structuring the standard G Treble to make it more like the Alto kalimba, but pitched higher. Making a Treble kalimba more like an Alto makes the Treble easier to play and simpler to understand. The Alto’s note layout is more logical, and any song that you can play on the Alto can be played on the Bb or D Trebles, so any instructional resource for Alto can be used for these two Treble tunings, and there are more resources for Alto than for any other kalimba.     


Treble kalimbas in various tunings are great to have for a bunch of reasons. Trebles are smaller than Alto kalimbas, making them somewhat easier to handle. They are higher than Altos and thus have a different range, which, among other things, means that they can be heard better than an Alto over guitars and drums. They have great flexibility, and a song can sound different based on WHERE you play in their range. They have two more notes (tines) than the Alto, so you can play more stuff on them, and their tines are closer together which means they can be played faster (though it requires a bit more dexterity to do so). 

Painting kalimba tines is a way of creating easy visual reference points that can be very useful while playing.  In our two alternative Treble tunings, the painted tines are progressively shifted (from the G Treble) up to higher pitches (on shorter tines farther out to the edges of the kalimba), which, in conjunction with retuning a few of the tines, puts the kalimbas into progressively higher keys.

The standard Treble kalimba in G tuning has five tines painted, including the central tine, and has two unpainted tines on the far left and far right sides of the kalimba.

The Bb Treble kalimba has six painted tines. The central tine is unpainted, and there is one unpainted tine on the far right and the far left. If you want to understand how the Bb Treble got to be this way, read the article on How the Bb Treble Got Its Stripes.

The D Treble kalimba also has six painted tines. There are three unpainted tines in the center, and the far right and left tines are painted.

Listen to the music playing (or click the player near the bottom of the page) and look at the diagrams of the G, Bb, and D Treble kalimbas below. As I played for this recording, I used the painted tines as a reference. For example, the second note in each musical phrase is the painted “1” tine in the middle of the left side of the kalimba.

Tell the difference 3

In the diagram, as we go from the G Treble, to the Bb Treble, and to the D Treble, that painted “1” tine keeps getting pushed out further on the instrument, occupying a shorter tine. And that shorter tine will play a higher pitched note on the Bb Treble, and higher still on the D Treble.

The cool thing about this system is that I can learn to play the song once, referenced to the painted tines, and then I can pick up any of these kalimbas, and seamlessly play that song in any key I want to. (Well, except that the standard G Treble is missing the low “1” and “2” tines.)

A kalimba can play in several different modes, but the major and the minor scales are the main ones. In order to play in the major mode, we make the blue dot notes – or the “1” tines – be the root note. The root note is simply the “home base” note, the note we tend to emphasize in our song, the note we tend to start or end a phrase with.

In order to play in the minor mode, we emphasize not the “1” note, but the “6” note – the purple dot tines. Making your major kalimba play in the minor is as simple as slipping down to the adjacent tine!

An interesting fact: the D Treble has its root note, D, the “1,” on the second tine to the right of the center. The lowest note is the “6”, or B, the root of the minor (it has a purple dot, as do all of the B notes on this kalimba). That is, if you just pick up the D Treble kalimba and reference to the lowest note (moving just one tine to the left from the root note), you will naturally be playing in the minor. 

The Bb Treble can be tuned to A, Bb, B, and C and still maintain excellent sound quality. (If we tuned the Bb Treble up to F, we would compromise the sound quality on the upper notes.)  

The D Treble can be retuned to C, C#, D, D#, and E.

The G Treble could be tuned to other keys as well… but it makes more sense to me to retune a G Alto to cover F, F#, G, and G#. In other words, between the G Alto, the Bb Treble, and the D Treble, we have a system of similar kalimbas that can cover every western key.

The Bb and D Treble kalimbas both read Alto tablature. This means if you own one of these kalimbas, the series of Alto books and downloads is available to you for learning songs.

The G Treble kalimba is lacking the lower two notes of the G Alto kalimba, which are prominent in almost every Alto song. Hence, the G Treble cannot read Alto tablature, but the G Treble has its own series of books.

Related Posts

Search Blog


Sign up for our newsletter and free resources with your email address:

We pinky promise not to spam you and to only send good stuff.

Recent posts


Get an expert answer to your kalimba question!