What Makes a Great Kalimba Tuning?

Each new kalimba tuning is a different universe of possibilities. Some of those alternative musical universes are very similar to one another. But some tunings present totally different music unlike what the other tunings can play.

A few times, I have imagined a tuning, and then gone and fiddled with my kalimba until it played what I imagined. But most great tunings are discovered rather than invented. By this, I mean that maybe you came up with that tuning by accident, and then you discover what that tuning can do!

The B11 Kalimba is a great platform for new alternative tunings. This video focuses on the lessons taught by four alternative B11 Kalimba tunings.

A great new tuning should capture your imagination almost right away. Music will just leap off the kalimba from simple and intuitive thumb motions. But what in specific should you look for when you pick up a kalimba in a new tuning?

Natural division of tines into different musical spaces

The B11 kalimba has an upper row of tines and a lower row of tines. The great kalimba maker Thomas Bothe creates similar kalimbas with an upper and a lower row of tines. In Bothe’s classic tunings, he would put one rich chord on the lower row tines, and a related rich chord on the upper row tines. Especially when you pick up a two-tier kalimba such as the B11, try playing the lower row tines for a bit… and then play the upper row tines for a bit. Not every great kalimba tuning will have this property, but the Bothian-C B11 tuning in the video does.

Also, there may be other ways of segregating the kalimba tines into different musical spaces. The right side of the Middle Eastern E tuning in the video is all an E major chord. The left side is mostly a D minor chord.

Look for a drone note

Many kalimbas (but not all) will have the root note as the lowest note. You can often use that low note as a drone. What does that mean? Try playing the low note, followed by a bunch of other notes… then come back to the low note, and repeat. Try playing the low note at the same time as you play another note. Try the low note with every other note, and remember which ones sound rich. Sometimes you will want to step off of the drone and let another harmony flourish… but of course, you will want to return to the drone.

Look for octave pairs

From centuries-old mbira dzavadzimu players, to centuries-old western composers such as Beethoven, to classic rock bands like Van Halen, doubling the octaves conveys strength in music.

How do you find the octaves on your kalimba? Look at the tuning chart and go through each note name (a letter usually). Are there duplicates? If the duplicate note name is on a tine of the same length, they will be redundant notes. If one tine is longer and the other is shorter, then they are octaves. They will both be “A” or “B” (or whatever) notes, but one is a higher version and one is a lower version.

You can always play two or three notes separated by octaves, and they will always sound good. Part of learning the layout of your kalimba is to understand where the octave pairs are.

Look for Scale Segments

Most kalimba tunings will have segments of the scale. That scale could be major, or some other type of scale. There are several different minor scales, and that just begins to touch the richness to be found in various scales. Some kalimbas will have a complete octave or more of the scale. Other kalimbas will just have bits and pieces of the scale. Learn where they are and how to use them.

Oh, what are scale segments good for? Most melodies spend a lot of their time stepping up and down parts of the scale, so scale segments are very useful for melodies.

Look for Chords

In the Middle Eastern E tuning, the three upper right tines make an E major triad, while the three upper left tines make a D minor triad. Some kalimbas will “hide” their chords, and you will have to work a bit harder to find them or remember what tines are in the chords. However, if the chords are simply presented such as in this Middle Eastern tuning, it helps make the kaliimba simple and intuitive to play, which always boosts the fun factor.

What good are chords? Outlining the notes of a chord one at a time is a useful strategy for making melodies. But chords can also be “strummed” or arpeggiated to accompany a melody being played at the same time.

Look for Convenient Pulloffs

A two-tier kalimba design like the B11 will permit you to slide your thumb off an upper tine, and then pluck a neighboring lower row tine. You can play the two tines essentially simultaneously, or you can put a bit of space between the two notes. In some tunings, you will not get very many coherent intervals from this natural mode of playing. However, anywhere there is a consonant interval – an octave, a 5th, a 6th, a 3rd, or even a 4th – you will notice the note pairing sounds sweet or strong. Remember where on your kalimba those sweet pulloffs occur.

Are there “Extra Notes” or “Chromatic Notes”?

Some tunings, such as the “Bluesy E” B11 Tuning in the video, will have extra notes. This tuning has a G (for an E minor chord) AND a G# (for an E major chord). Such chromatic notes can be confusing if you always paint with all the tines. But, if you learn to take turns with those notes, you will be able to do things in the music that would otherwise be impossible.  (“Taking turns” = to sometimes play with the G plus other tines, and then switch to play the G#.)

The G and G# of the “Bluesy E” B11 Tuning, if used wisely, can give you the illusion of changing key on your kalimba.

Learn More About the Mechanics of Kalimba Tuning

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