29 April 2018

Did you buy an inexpensive Chinese-made 17-note kalimba in C? At a loss about finding a book to help you learn?

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

OK - I can help you

Long before Kalimba Magic started writing books for the Hugh Tracey kalimba and touting the advantages of Hugh Tracey kalimbas, there was trouble afoot. A Pakistani company had started to make poor quality copies of the 17-note Hugh Tracey kalimbas. They cost about 30% of what the Hugh Tracey kalimbas sold for, but the company advertised that "tuning doesn't matter” – their instruments basically came untuned. So I really didn't have to worry all that much about the competition. Yes, people would still buy these cheap kalimbas, and they got more or less what they paid for.

Lately, however, a new 17-note Treble copy has sprung up from China. These instruments are a bit different, in large measure because they are well-tuned. Did you acquire a 17-note kalimba made in China, but cannot find any kind of instructional materials? Well, there is a ton of help for you, you just need to be aware of a difference in tuning that we will guide you into handling with ease.


The Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba is the one I have been playing all my life. Its format has the root, or lowest, note of the scale in the central position, meaning it is the longest tine in the center of the kalimba. The Hugh Tracey Treble kalimba is not set up that way (the root note is not the lowest note on the kalimba) and it never has felt right to me. Because of this I eventually designed a Treble with the root as the lowest note, and painted it exactly like the Alto. And thus was born the Bb Treble kalimba. Easy to play, and set up like the Alto. Sometimes people order a Bb Treble tuned up to the key of C. On this one the root is the lowest note and it is painted the same as the Alto as well. Thus, all three of these, the Alto, the Bb Treble, and the C-tuned Bb Treble can ALL USE THE ALTO TABLATURE. If the tines of your Chinese 17-note kalimba in C - which has the root as the lowest central note - are painted the same as these other kalimbas then the Alto tablature and teaching materials will all work for it too.

Here is the tuning difference issue. The fact that this 17-note kalimba is in C, while the Alto is in G, means that the sound files that accompany some of the Alto books and downloads will not apply exactly to your 17-note. You can listen to the sound files to see how a song sounds... but you can’t play the exact same notes. Just like when a capo is used on a guitar, you’re playing the exact same music but you're not hearing exactly the same notes. And this is how you need to listen to the Alto sound files when learning to play a the 17-note kalimba from China, or a Bb Treble.

HowToPlay C17
Click image to download PDF for "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

The new 17-note has one other difference, which is that it has two more tines than the Hugh Tracey Alto which has 15. When you compare your 17-note to the Alto tablature, you will have one tine on the far left and another on the far right that won't be included in the tab. But you do have 15 out of 17 notes and so you can learn a whole lot of music from Alto tablature.

And there are, at last count, seven books and eleven instructional downloads that I have written for the Alto kalimba. There is more instructional information for the Alto than for any other kalimba, comprising the genres of classical, folk, Americana, protest songs, Christmas songs, hymns, spirituals, and traditional African music. In other words, learning to play the 17-Note kalimba in C using the 15-Note Alto tablature is a minor hassle that will gain you access to the best set of kalimba instructional material in the world.

About the Author

Mark Holdaway

Mark Holdaway

Mark Holdaway has been playing kalimba for over 30 years.  He invented his kalimba tablature in 2004, and has been writing books and instructional materials for kalimba ever since.  His business, Kalimba Magic, is based on the simple proposition that the kalimba is a real musical instrument capable of greatness.  Mark's kalimba books are a down payment on this proposition.

Comments (5)

  • David C

    David C

    22 May 2018 at 22:31 |
    Yes, I'm one of those who got a Gecko 17 note in C, with C4 as the base. I've already picked out a few songs that I would need to change for a different tuning. I'm wondering is there an advantage to a G tuning? I'm currently deciding on which tuning I should have for the Celeste Chromatic.


  • Eric


    13 July 2018 at 14:28 |
    I got the Mugig 17 because (1) I am a beginner, and (2) the song I specifically want to play requires an A minor alternate tuning, and (3) I am going to be traveling with it -- so all these reasons kept me from wanting to start & destroy a $140, quality instrument. Definitely not a large-finger-friendly device: so I'll be sure to buy the real deal once I've abused this one in the field. Thank you for still providing support.


  • Mary


    14 July 2018 at 04:26 |
    Yes I purchased a Walter.D 17 key .Dont know if it is Alto or treble for 8 yr old Grandaughter, She lost her piano in the Houston Hurricane flooding last year and they can’t afford to replace. I would like to know iwhich christmas carol books I should buy from you. She can read music but we need a beginner type book. Thanks for help.


  • Janne


    15 March 2019 at 10:51 |
    So how do you tune a 17 note kalimba in C to a 15 note alto?


  • Gavin


    20 April 2019 at 22:48 |
    Hi. I bought a cheap Chinese 17 note kalimba. It is in the key of C. I can play some melodies on it but I feel disappointed because it seems quite unsuitable to play the arpeggio chords that I want to play. The main thing I have always wanted to do on the kalimba is to play chordal arpeggio riffs to accompany singing. I like the traditional Zimbabwean singing with the mbira and I would like to try to do something like that but with Western tuning. I also love the way the Fela Kuti used repetitive 2 chord riffs as the foundation of his songs and I would love to do that on the kalimba. I like the sound and tone of the riffs I have heard played on the Hugh Tracy alto in G but can’t afford to buy a proper Hugh Tracy kalimba at the moment. I have thought about trying to make my own kalimba/mbira. I’m not sure what to do.


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