Why Get an Alto Kalimba?

Let Me Count the Reasons

The 15-Note Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba has been made from African kiaat hardwood by African Musical Instruments in South Africa since 1954.


I have recently heard from several people who were trying to purchase an Alto kalimba, but their attempts were somehow foiled. Some ignorant sellers are marketing cheaper kalimbas, claiming them to be Hugh Tracey Alto kalimbas. One fellow who was trying to get a good deal had bought two different kalimbas that claimed to be Hugh Tracey Alto kalimbas… but neither of them were! He begged me: “How am I going to get an Alto kalimba?”

Well, it isn’t that hard.

I have been selling the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba to the world since 2005. And it is one of my favorite kalimbas. I play it more than I play any of the hundreds of other kalimbas I have around me. It is like a reliable best friend that I can always count on. But the Alto is currently being overshadowed by the ubiquitous and inexpensive Chinese-made 17-note kalimbas, but it is really deserving of much more attention.

Read on to find out the most important reasons why you should have your own Alto Kalimba.


First, what IS an Alto kalimba? Hugh Tracey created the Alto kalimba in 1954, so I would start by saying that if you get an Alto kalimba, it should be a Hugh Tracey kalimba. It should have 15 tines, each 5mm wide, all flat – on the same level, typically tuned to a two-octave range in the key of G, from G3 to G5. Typically six of the Alto tines are painted, for a variety of important reasons.

And here are my biggest pro-Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba considerations:

1) The Alto kalimba is the right size for my “normal / large” hands. The Alto kalimba is larger than most kalimbas, and it fits perfectly and comfortably in my hands. The Alto tends to be preferred by people with larger or medium-sized hands. People with smaller hands tend to find the Alto to be too big.
2) The Alto kalimba has lower notes. Because of the larger size of the Alto, it also plays lower, richer notes, going down to G3, though we can also tune it farther down to F#3, F3 or even to E3. Those 17-Note kalimbas in C? They only go down to C4.
3) The Alto kalimba is better for accompanying singing. Generally, you want the accompaniment to be made with notes that are lower than the melody you are singing. With its lower notes, the Alto kalimba is better for supporting vocals.
4) I think the Alto kalimba is much easier to play than the smaller, denser 17-Note kalimbas. With its larger tines, there is more space between the tine centers on the Alto, and it is easier to play the tines you intended to play, and less likely that you will accidentally hit more tines than you intended to play.
5) I find the Alto kalimba to be easier to understand. With exactly two octaves of the G major scale (in the normal G major tuning), it is easy to get your head around this kalimba’s music. I really “get” this kalimba, and I know a lot of other people do too.
6) I assert the Alto kalimba is easier to learn. There are more books, ebooks, and downloads for the Alto Kalimba than for any other kalimba in the world. I should know – I have written 17 books, eBooks, and instructional downloads for the Alto kalimba. I created these materials because I love to play the Alto, and I know that a lot of people will get a lot of enjoyment out of these songs and books.
7) Optional electronic pickups. You can get really loud, reverb-y, distorted, or just plain weird if you plug your Alto kalimba into an amplifier. Hugh Tracey kalimbas come with an optional electronic pickup. Using a guitar cable with 1/4″ connector, you can plug your kalimba into an amplifier, an effects processor, a PA system, or a direct box. Using a 1/4″ ➝ 1/8″ adapter, you can plug into your computer. This gives you many interesting and fun possibilities… such as the digital delay effect I used in the demo video that plays with this article.
8) Buying a Hugh Tracey Alto supports AMI (African Musical Instruments), the company that Hugh Tracey started and that has been making and selling Altos since 1954 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

9) The coupon code HT20 will get you 20% off any Hugh Tracey kalimba through December 15, 2019.

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