altopickup 150 How to Play the Alto Kalimba

The Alto Kalimba is one of the most versatile kalimbas - there are a dozen books and downloads available for it, and there are thousands of songs you can play on it, including traditional African music.

 

 

The Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba

The Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba

Taj Mahal introduced America to the Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba in 1973 when he played it on the Flip WIlson show, and since then it has become one of the most popular kalimbas on the planet. I got mine in 1986 and still play it almost every day. I can recommend it to almost anyone. There are more than a dozen books and instructional downloads for the Alto, meaning you can spend years or decades progressing on this instrument. While these books and downloads all assume you have the standard G tuning, there are also several alternate tunings that you can explore.

There are several different models of Alto Kalimba, the most popular one being the Alto kalimba mounted on a resonant box with an electronic pickup.

This is truly a bright shining star of a kalimba.

Alto Kalimba Video

These videos will help show you what wonders the Alto kalimba has in store for you, and will even help you to create your own wonders. Click on one of the gray circles below the video to see a different video.

  • First Look Inside


    First Look Inside was the first song I wrote on Alto Kalimba and also the first YouTube video I made, and it is also my best performing video with over a million views. You can learn how to play it with this free tablature download.

  • Carol of the Bells

  • Alto Kalimba in Middle Eastern Tuning


    Check the Tunings Section of this page to see how to change from standard Alto tuning to the Middle Eastern tuning.

  • C-Tuned Alto Kalimba


    The C-Tuned Alto has a very simple retuning but produces an instrument that plays fundamentally differently from the Alto in standard G tuning.

  • The Big Vibration


    The Big Vibration is both a song and a story I tell that features the song.

  • Alto Kalimba Lesson


    A lesson for the Alto Kalimba

  • Another Alto Kalimba Lesson


    Another Alto Kalimba Lesson

    The Story of the Alto Kalimba in Photos

    Each of the images in the slide set below tells part of the story of the Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba, which has been one of my favorite musical instruments for 30 years now. Click on the far left or right arrow keys, or on a gray circle below the photo description to go to the next one.

    • My First Alto

      My First Alto

      You can actually tell the order of the notes by tine lengths. The longest tine is the lowest note. The next note is the painted tine just to the left, and the third note is the adjacent painted tine on the right. There is a general rule: for every painted tine on the left, there is a corresponding painted tine on the right, and the right tine will be one note higher in the scale than the corresponding one on the left.

      When Kalimba Magic started in 2005, my son Tim was helping me set up the Kalimba Magic web page when I asked him to take a photo. He asked me what I wanted to convey in this image, and I said I wanted the photo to indicate my close relationship with my Alto kalimba, while also illustrating the regular pattern of the tines. I wanted the photo to show a hint of how I have really played long and hard on this kalimba - can you see the rut where my thumb nails dug into the wood in the foreground? I wanted to evoke the gentle nature of this remarkable instrument. But most, I wanted the image to reveal how Light shines into the kalimba and is reflected back to the world in all sorts of amazing ways. Then he took this photograph.

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    • Tine Color Choices

      Tine Color Choices

      Since 1954, the Hugh Tracey kalimbas have come with selected tines painted. What use is it to paint 1/3 of the tines? To help you keep your place on the kalimba, to interface the left notes with the right notes, and to help you translate notes from written kalimba tablature. If you follow the stories of the paired kalimbas in this photo collection, you will also realize that the painted tines can help you relate one kalimba to another. At Kalimba Magic, tine painting has become very important to us, and we paint them ourselves. When you purchase a kalimba, you can take the luck of the draw as to tine painting (blue is the most popular color, which we always have prepared), or you can choose from blue, green, black, white, red, or all unpainted tines.

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    • Sweethearts: Alto and Treble in Standard Tuning

      Sweethearts: Alto and Treble in Standard Tuning

      Originally, Hugh Tracey viewed the Treble as the primary instrument, with the Alto being a nice accompaniment instrument. Increasingly over the last 40 years, the Alto has taken main stage in the kalimba world. In my recordings, the Alto often forms the meat of the song, and the Treble is added for beautiful frills. Many of the instructional materials exist in similar forms for both the Alto and the Treble kalimbas. The Alto and Treble Fundamentals Books, the Hymnals, the Classical books, and the Advanced Christmas Carols books can, for the most part, be played with Alto and Treble together. Our Sweetheart Deal is a discounted Alto and Treble Kalimba pair, both with pickups and a book for each kalimba, that can introduce you and a friend to the joys of two voices singing as one.

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    • Alto Kalimba and the African-Tuned Karimba

      Alto Kalimba and the African-Tuned Karimba

      The Alto Kalimba has a range of exactly two octaves in the key of G, with G in the bass (the lowest note) and also G at the top. The African-Tuned Karimba, with a repertoire of traditional African music, also has a range of exactly two octaves, but is usually in A. A few things to consider: first, every traditional song that the African Karimba can play is, in principle, also accessible to the Alto kalimba, and these songs are available as instructional downloads. Second, if you want to play with another person, the Alto Kalimba and the African-tuned Karimba can actually play together - you can either tune the Alto up to A, or you can tune the Karimba down to G. Furthermore, the karimba tuning can be westernized to match the Alto's notes, or the Alto's tuning can be altered to match the African Karimba's scale.
    • Alto and the B flat Treble

      Alto and the B flat Treble

      Another concept of interest is the Hugh Tracey Bb Treble Kalimba - which I originally developed from a normal Hugh Tracey Treble kalimba in G. Because of my deep affinity for the Alto kalimba, and not feeling very comfortable with the Treble, I decided to see if the Treble could feel more like an Alto. I tweaked the Treble slightly - I retuned and repainted its tines such that it looks and feels and sounds like an Alto, only pitched a little higher. Its root note in the bass is Bb, instead of G, which means that Bb is the "key note", or #1, or "do", in the "do re mi..." scale, and that it is the lowest note on the kalimba. A kalimba's longest tine is where we are most likely to want to start playing, and if it is also the root note of the scale as it is here, it enables the player to understand the kalimba almost immediately, making it very easy to jump to the root (which is the most stable note), due to its primary position. The numbers on the tines (which indicate the degree of the scale) on the Alto tuning chart match the numbers on the Bb Treble tuning chart, so they play the same, but the Treble is pitched a minor third higher, which means that the notes don't match exactly. This is like putting a capo on the third fret of a guitar.

      Why is the Bb Treble interesting? In addition to speaking with a lovely and charming voice, the Bb Treble kalimba is useful in that it offers a new key. If you sing with your kalimba, and the G Alto is pitched too low to accompany your voice, the Bb Treble might be just what you need. Similarly, if you are playing with other instruments, you might want to play along with them on kalimba on a song that is not in the key of G. The Bb Treble can be tuned to A, Bb, B, and C, so it has a lot of possibilities in helping extend your range as an accompanist on kalimba.

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    • Alto and Treble as a Matched Pair

      Alto and Treble as a Matched Pair

      Here is another way, beside Sweethearts, that you can enjoy the Hugh Tracey Treble and the Alto Kalimbas together - this time as a matched pair. Both kalimbas are altered to make them easy to play together; every tine on the Treble is one octave above its corresponding tine on the Alto, until you get to the bottom two Treble notes, which have no analog on the Alto Kalimba.

      Playing two instruments an octave apart can be very powerful; hearing music played in this interval sounds better than in unison, and harmonies between these two matched kalimbas are wonderful. Plus it's a delight to echo what you can actually see and hear the other player doing, or to carry on a "conversation" between the two instruments. A lovely way to learn the magic of playing together with someone else. Here is an example of the matched pair in action.

      It might seem that one should be able to easily play a standard Treble and a standard Alto kalimba together. But despite the fact that there is a 13 note stretch on each that is identical, there are a lot of songs that you can play on one but not the other. I learned hundreds of songs on the Alto that require the lowest two notes...and when you pick up the Treble in standard tuning, you are missing those two notes, so you cannot play that song on the Treble, without a major change in location of notes which necessitates relearning the song. Similarly, songs you might learn on the Treble that require the upper four notes cannot be easily transferred to the Alto. However, everything you can play on the matched Alto can also be played on the matched Treble.

      The Matched Pair can be tuned to the keys of G, F#, F, and E.

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    • What Makes an Alto Kalimba?

      What Makes an Alto Kalimba?

      What makes an alto kalimba? Generally, it is one that can play the alto kalimba repertoire. This includes the Hugh Tracey Alto, composed of 15 notes mounted on a resonating box and tuned to contain two octaves of the G major scale. The Celeste Alto is also an Alto kalimba which is mounted on a flat board resonator. The Goshen 15-note kalimba in the accompanying photo is capable of playing all the same music. I have written over a dozen books and downloads for the Alto kalimba, which contain material that is basically representative of the Alto repertoire. AS AN AFTERTHOUGHT AND A CONTRADICTION TO THE ABOVE ASSERTIONS, ADD A SENTENCE LIKE REFERRING TO THE EVIL TUNING, AS A COUNTER EXAMPLE - THIS IS STILL AN ALTO KALIMBA EVEN THOUGH IT CANNOT PLAY THE REPERTOIRE -THEY DON'T ALL HAVE TO PLAY THE KNOWN REPERTOIRE.

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    • Kiaat Wood Makes Hugh Tracey Kalimbas Beautiful

      Kiaat Wood Makes Hugh Tracey Kalimbas Beautiful

      Every Hugh Tracey kalimba is mounted on a body made of kiaat wood. Kiaat is a native African hardwood tree, and is also known as "muninga", among many other names. It grows in northern South Africa, in nearby Mozambique, and some areas in the Zambezi river basin. Hugh Tracey observed some traditional kalimbas that were made of kiaat, and of all the woods he experimented with, he liked this wood best. Furthermore, at that time he could purchase inexpensive scrap wood left over by furniture makers, who used kiaat wood for its durability. The heart wood of kiaat is usually a moderate to deep brown, and can have red highlights in it. The sapwood from the outer inch of the tree is blonde or yellow. Finally, there can be black lines accentuating the grain. Since every board cut from a kiaat log will have some sapwood at its outer edges, it is not uncommon to have a beautiful two tone kalimba, with both white or blonde sapwood and brown heart wood. At Kalimba Magic, before we ship, we always remove the kalimba from its cardboard box to check the wood, the pickup, and the tuning. We take the time to marvel at the gorgeous wood that chances to come to us. We then choose a paint color that will compliment the unique wood patterns, and paint the selected tines. We finish off by straightening up any tines that are out of place or not perfectly aligned, and perfecting the tuning.

      And we make sure we thank the people in Africa who make these works of art, and help give them a sense of pride for the beautiful job they do in selecting wood for, and assembling, these exceptional instruments.

      Books and Downloads for the Alto Kalimba

      • Alto Fundamentals Book

        Alto Fundamentals Book

        The Alto Fundamentals Book is a good introduction to the Alto kalimbas. The book also applies to the Bb Treble kalimba, the D Treble kalimba, and the front side of the G-tuned Chromatic kalimba. It covers technique, chords, scales, left-right exercises, some songs. 32 pages with CD.

        Purchase Book/Download

      • Alto Primer

        Alto Primer

        This booklet is a great introduction to the instructional resources available for the Alto Kalimba. The first half shows you over a dozen musical approaches you can take to a simple African-based musical phrase, going from elementary to complex, and lots of fun along the way. The second half of the booklet includes one song or exercise from each of the different Alto books and downloads. Truly a great place to start with the Alto Kalimba.

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      • 10 Trad. Karimba Pieces for Alto

        10 Trad. Karimba Pieces for Alto

        These 10 traditional African karimba pieces were given to Andrew Tracey and Paul F. Berliner through Jega Tapera, an African elder from Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in the 1960s. The age of these pieces could be as much as 1000 years old. Arranged by Mark Holdaway for the Alto kalimba, they are provided in both KTabS and PDF format. MP3s of all the songs played in this download are provided to allow you to hear how the pieces go, even if you aren't able to run KTabS on your computer. Available as download only.

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      • 11 Adv. Trad. African Pieces for Alto

        11 Adv. Trad. African Pieces for Alto

        This download consists of a ZIP FILE containing tablature PDFs, KTabS files, and MP3s for each of 11 traditional African Karimba songs, arranged for the Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba in G. These songs and their multiple variations were collected from the literature by Ivodne Galatea, with assistance from Mark Holdaway.

        Important note: these songs were created on the African Tuned Karimba, also known as the mbira nyunga nyunga, and it is possible to play them on the Alto kalimba, but it is more challenging, and will require some special tricks - in other words, learning them will involve work, but these pieces should be worth the effort you put into them.

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      • Kalimba Carols for Alto and Treble

        Kalimba Carols for Alto and Treble

        25 favorite Christmas carols, ranging from simple, single note melody lines, through two note harmonies, full harmonies, and counterpoint. 32 pages with CD. 75% of this book is for the Alto kalimba and 25% is for the Treble kalimba. These are easier than the advanced carols collection.

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      • Adv. Christmas Carols for  Alto

        Adv. Christmas Carols for Alto

        Arranged by Mark Holdaway, this collection is available as a book or as a download. Both have 20 favorite Christmas Carols; the download provides KTabS files, tablature PDFs, and MP3s of the songs played by KTabS, letting you hear how each piece goes, with or without the KTabS program. The arrangements here are very close to those I use when I perform these carols at Christmas time.

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      • Classical Alto

        Classical Alto

        Arranged by Mark Holdaway and Sharon Eaton, this collection is available in book form or as a download from KTabS. Both have 20 favorite classical melodies, ranging from simple to very challenging. Including Bach, Handel, Holst, Pachelbel, and many others, this assamblage will keep you busy for months, if not years.

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      • Alto Hymnal

        Alto Hymnal

        Arranged by Sharon Eaton, this book has 50 hymns, ranging from simple to difficult. Amazing Grace, How Can I Keep From Singing, Jesus Loves Me, There is a Balm in Gilead, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and 45 others.

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      • African-American Spirituals for Alto

        African-American Spirituals for Alto

        "African-American Spirituals", arranged by Mark Holdaway, is available as both a book and as a download. There is documentation that the African kalimba was first brought to the New World by African slaves in the 18th century (evidence of kalimbas was found in Brazil and the Caribbean, also in New Orleans which is the only known North American site). The Alto kalimba was created by the Englishman Hugh Tracey, based on an ancient African instrument, with the objective of using the kalimba to play Western music and appeal to Western ears. The Alto kalimba is a unique composite of African and Western traditions, as indeed are African-American spirituals. The download provides both KTabS and PDF format, and a CD is included with the book.

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      Blog Posts on the Alto Kalimba

      These are the new series of blog posts, which started in December 2015. As newer posts, the quality is generally higher than the archival newsletter articles. Many of these posts give away free tablature and have sound recordings to illustrate the music.

      • "Away in a Manger" on Alto Kalimba - First learn the Easy Melody, then Add Chords. Voila!

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      • Seven Basic Moves on the Kalimba - demonstrated on the Alto kalimba.

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      • Peaceful Protest - A download of peace and protest songs for the Alto Kalimba

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      • Alto Exercises to Expand Your Skills, Part 1 * Familiarity with octave and fifth intervals gives the basic foundation for playing traditional mbira music on the Alto kalimba

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      • Alto Exercises to Expand Your Skills, Part 2 * FAST SAME-SIDE PLAYING: AN ESSENTIAL STRENGTH FOR MAKING MBIRA MUSIC ON KALIMBA

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      • Easy Christmas Carols - "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" on Alto * You may be surprised - you can play this simple carol and you can read tablature!

        Read more

      • Playing "When I'm Gone" (the "Cups" song) on C Alto Kalimba * Get the free C Alto tablature for this huge internet hit song

        Read more

      • "Taireva" Tablature for Mbira and C Alto Kalimba * Learning this song on Alto Kalimba has put me into "Beginner's Mind"

        Read more

      • New! Hugh Tracey Alto and Pentatonic Kalimba Package * Two Great Kalimbas that go Great Together!

        Read more

      • Free Tablature! Alto and Pentatonic Kalimba Kushaura and Kutsinhira * Following the lead of traditional mbira music works great on modern day kalimbas too!

        Read more

      • Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, on Kalimba * Free Tablature for Alto, Treble and G Chromatic Kalimbas

        Read more

      • Getting the Most out of Your Alto and Lotus * The easiest way to get the most relevant information for your kalimba

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      • Free Tablature - Learn "Carol of the Bells"

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      • "First Look Inside" - Tablature for Alto Kalimba * You can download the tablature for this Hit Youtube Kalimba song for free!

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      • Songs for The Alto Kalimba - "Zambezi" * Free Tablature for Tinashe's Song "Zambezi"

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      • TIP: Alto Kalimba Riff #1 * Free Tablature to help you play the music in this YouTube video on your Alto Kalimba

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      • TIP: Alto Kalimba - Accents can make a part stand out * Get this free tablature that illustrates the use of accents in your kalimba playing

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      • TIP: Playing the Alto Kalimba - Easy Alto * A download and some free tablature

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      • TIP: Playing the Alto Kalimba - "Kuzanga"! * Free tablature for the mbira song "Kuzanga," translated to Alto kalimba!

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      • TIP: Playing Patterns in DIfferent Octaves * An upper octave pattern can be shifted to the lower octave, but it's handedness is reflected

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      • TIP: Straight Left-Right Playing and Syncopation * You can syncopate by leaving out notes

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      • TIP: Playing the Scale * For many kalimbas, you play the scale by alternating L-R-L-R and moving outward

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      • TIP: Playing the Scale - A Lower Octave

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      • TIP: Playing the Scale - in Octaves * Because two notes separated by an octave are on opposites sides of the kalimba, you can play them at the same time!

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        Archival Newsletter Articles on the Alto Kalimba

        These are archival newsletter articles from 2005-2015, and offer a lot of information on the Alto kalimba, as well as a lot of free tablature. Be aware that some links within these archived articles may not work, but in the near future we will correct this, and all the material will be available in another format. Click on the grey circles below for 14 great articles.

        • The Original c. 1968 16-Page Manual for the Hugh Tracey Treble and Alto, scanned and bundled as a PDF.

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        • Sizes and Weights of the Alto & Treble Kalimbas (2010)

          Read more

        • A Special Family: the Bb Treble, D Treble and Alto (2010)

          Read more

        • Kalimba Americana
          New Downloadable Collection for the Alto Kalimba (2010)

          Read more

        • First Look Inside by Mark Holdaway
          Tablature for Alto Kalimba (2010)

          Read more

        • Relating the Hugh Tracey Pentatonic & Alto Kalimbas
          A Crash Course in the Western Scale (2010)

          Read more

        • Turn Your Alto into a Pentatonic
          Maurice White Style (2010)

          Read more

        • "Running With You II" by Mark Holdaway
          Tablature for Alto, Treble, and Bb Treble Kalimbas (2010)

          Read more

        • New Peace and Protest Song Download For the Alto Kalimba (2011)

          Read more

        • Introducing the C Alto
          (what a difference retuning F# to F can make)
          And a new 66-Song Download for the C-Alto (2014)

          Read more

        • Free Tablature for Karimba and Alto, Shumba Panzira NOT (2015)

          Read more

        • Kalimba College: Painted Tine Insights
          Relationships Between Alto and Treble Kalimbas (2015)

          Read more

        • Free Tablature, KTabS, and MP3 Files!
          "In the Night" and "Sunday Morning" for Alto, Treble and Bb Treble Kalimbas (2015)

          Read more

        • Matched Octave Alto and Treble Kalimbas (2015)

          Read more

          Alto Kalimba Models

          Every Alto Kalimba has 15 tines mounted on a box or a solid wood board, and comes tuned in the standard G tuning (so it will work with the books). It is available in many other alternative tunings.

          Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba

          Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba

          This is the old Alto Kalimba I have had for 25 years. Yours won't look this old or beat up for some time, but with a bit of luck your Alto Kalimba will last this long and more. In my experience, the wood opens up over the first few years of playing, and they begin to sound really fine.

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          Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba with Pickup

          Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba with Pickup

          Since 2006, the Hugh Tracey kalimbas have been available with an optional electronic pickup. This passive pickup device is mounted on the underside of the face wood, near the bridge, and the signal is transmitted to the 1/4 inch jack on the foot of the kalimba. Using a standard 1/4 inch guitar cord, you can plug into an amplifier, an effects processor, a direct box, a mixer, or a PA system. For recording purposes, I greatly prefer the sound quality of a microphone to this inexpensive electronic pickup. On the other hand, the pickup allows you to play very loudly, so the kalimba can compete and show up well when playing with a loud band or with drummers.

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          Hugh Tracey Celeste Alto Kalimba

          Hugh Tracey Celeste Alto Kalimba

          The Hugh Tracey Celeste Alto Kalimba, 15-notes, board mounted. This has the same notes as the box-mounted Alto Kalimba and reads the same Alto tablature and books.

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          Hugh Tracey Celeste Alto Kalimba with Pickup

          Hugh Tracey Celeste Alto Kalimba with Pickup

          The board-mounted Celeste kalimbas and karimbas have pickups mounted from the back, with the jacks mounted in the head of the kalimba, facing away from the player.

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          C-tuned Alto Kalimba

          C-tuned Alto Kalimba

          The C-Alto is the exact same instrument as the Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba, but tuned to C. The range is still the same as the standard Alto - two octaves starting with G below middle C. In other words, G, or the 5th of C, is in the bass. I put black dots on the two C tines to remind me that they are the root notes - or the "1" of the scale. Having the "5" of the scale in the bass is particularly useful for a large body of songs. Plus, I can play this one with my marimba band.

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          C-tuned Alto Kalimba with Pickup

          C-tuned Alto Kalimba with Pickup

          The exact same instrument as the previous C-tuned Alto, but this one has an electronic pickup.

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          Goshen 15-Note Kalimba

          Goshen 15-Note Kalimba

          The Goshen 15-Note kalimba is tuned to the same notes as the Hugh Tracey Alto in its standard G tuning, and so can play all the same music as the Alto kalimba. It isn't as loud as the Hugh Tracey Alto, but it is a reasonable, inexpensive alternative.

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          Alto Kalimba Tunings

          There are many other tunings for the Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba, but I recommend that you start with the standard G major tuning. Most of the tips, tablature, and books were written for the standard tuning, so a good path to follow is to keep your kalimba in the key of G for a year or two or three as you learn, and then branch out into other tunings as you progress.
          • Standard G Tuning

            Standard G Tuning

            The Hugh Tracey Alto Kalimba's standard tuning comprises two octaves of the G major scale. The lowest and highest notes are both G, which is the root note, making this tuning easy to understand. Furthermore, there are tons of books and downloads that work with this tuning. The A, Ab, G, F#, F, and E tunings are all basically the same pattern, all with the root note at the bottom and the top notes - hence they can all read the same tablature and use the same books. Why would you want another key other than G? If you don't know, stick with G tuning.

            The letters on the tines in the diagram are the names of the notes each tine is tuned to. The numbers are the degree of the scale - that is, 1, the root note, is "Do" as in "Do, Re Mi, Fa, So". The number 5? count up, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, which would be "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So". Of course, 8 is the "Do" at the top of the scale, and is the same note name as the bottom "Do" of the scale - that is, 1 and 8 are the same note. The "Do, Re, Mi..." scale is synonymous with the major scale, which is the standard reference for all other scales. Some other scales will have lowered versions of some of the degrees of the scale - a minor 3rd is a lowered, or flattened (taken down a half step) 3rd, and we refer to it as "3-". Some scales have raised or sharpened (raised a half step) versions of some of these notes, and we indicate them with a plus sign, as in "4+". And some scales will completely skip some degrees of the scale - the major pentatonic scale skips the 4 and the 7. Stick around, and you'll learn a lot about music through the little kalimba.

          • Evil Tuning

            Evil Tuning

            Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire used a 17-Note Treble Hugh Tracey kalimba tuned to an A minor pentatonic scale with redundant notes, wowing people on songs such as Evil and Kalimba Story during the 1970s. The tuning on our Evil Alto kalimba is analogous to the tuning of Maurice White's Treble kalimba.

            In the tablature diagram, the painted tines in the middle of the left side and the middle of the right side are both tuned to A notes, and the next lower tines on both sides are tuned to G notes. This novel tuning permitted Maurice to perform a fast trill on either of those notes by alternating quickly between the left and right versions of either the A or the G, twice as fast as you could trill any single note played on just one side.

            The lowest note is the "7-" or flat 7, also known as a minor 7, and it leads into the root note, A = 1. Other notable features are the minor 3rd or "3-", and the missing 2 and 6, and the root note A at both the top right and the top left. This type of scale came out of the work of Chicago jazz musician Phil Cohran, who employed an electric kalimba with a similar tuning when he recorded with Sun Ra in the 1960s. Part of the draw of this scale is its distinct African "feel" - one of Hugh Tracey's research findings was that about 40% of traditional African kalimba tunings use a pentatonic scale like this one. Phil Cohran inspired Maurice White with his use of the kalimba as a symbol of Africa, the pentatonic scale to represent African music, as well as his use of those redundant notes in building musical excitement.

            Coming soon: Evil Alto Sound Recording

          • A minor Blues Tuning

            A minor Blues Tuning

            There are actually several "blues scales". I've known about this type of blues scale for 40 years. It is almost exactly the same as the minor pentatonic scale, and it would go great with the Maurice White Evil Tuning. It has an extra note thrown in, the Eb, between the 4 and the 5 in each octave. You can think of it as a raised 4 or "4+" or as a flat 5 or "5-". In contrast to the Evil tuning, this one does not have any redundant notes. In this tuning a C is added at the very top, with two "5-" notes, the Eb's that are both on the right side. In the language of the blues, the "5-" note is also called the "blue note"; in the classical world, the "tritone"; in medieval times it was called the "devil's interval" and its use was forbidden by the Church!

            This is not the same tuning Kevin Spears uses, but it is quite similar in nature.

            Coming soon: recording of the Alto A minor Blues Tuning.

          • Middle East Tuning

            Middle East Tuning

            The Middle Eastern tuning was my first alternative tuning, in 2001 of all times.
          • C-tuned Alto

            C-tuned Alto

            There are two broadly different ways of changing the key of your kalimba. One way is by retuning all the tines in the same way (i.e., pulling out every tine by a half step, which will retune the standard Alto kalimba from G down to F#). The other way is to retune around the Circle of Fifths - changing just one note per octave will transform both the key and the note layout of the instrument. An example of this is going from the Alto's standard G tuning to the C tuning shown here. The two F# tines are retuned a half step down to F, and the root note becomes C.

            Why would one want to change an Alto kalimba to C from G tuning? Three reasons come to mind: (1) you might need to play kalimba in the key of C to accompany a vocal song for it to be in your vocal range, (2) you can play similar music but in a significantly different range with respect to the root note, enabling you to potentially play a lot of different music and (3) you might need to play in the key of C to play with other musicians - I use my C-tuned Alto to play with my marimba band Baba Marimba.

            Here's the best thing about the C-tuned Alto Kalimba: this is one of the easiest retunings, so you can do it yourself.

          • G minor Tuning

            G minor Tuning

            The G minor tuning is conceptually very close to the standard G major tuning. Every note that is present on the standard G Alto is also on this kalimba in the same place with the same letter, but the F# is now F (F also called F natural), the B is now Bb (B flat), and the E is now Eb. (By the way, these are the same basic changes that must occur to turn a G Treble into a Bb Treble.)

            It is instructional to compare the G Major tuning with the G minor tuning. The root (1), the 5th, the 2nd, and the 4th, i.e., the most important notes for chord progressions in any particular key, are the same for G minor as for G Major. The G minor tuning has a flat or minor 7th (designated as 7-), a flat or minor 3rd (3-), and a flat or minor 6th (6-). The notes that are changed in this retuning do cause a pronounced change in the emotional flavor of the scale.

            Why would you want this tuning? To more completely understand and experience the minor key, with the psychological advantage of having the root note of the minor key in the bass. G minor also goes with Bb major, so this would be a good kalimba to play with the Bb Treble.

          • F Major Tuning

            F Major Tuning

            The F tuning is made from the G tuning by simply tuning every note down by a whole step. The role each tine plays in this scale - that is, the 1, the 5, etc., do not change, so anything you learned on the G Alto will be easily played on this tuning, just a step lower. And unless you have perfect pitch, you won't even realize this instrument is different from the G Alto, since it seems to play just the same as the standard G tuning.
          • A Major Tuning

            A Major Tuning

            To tune to A major, every tine on a standard-tuned G Alto is pushed in just enough so that the whole instrument rises a whole step in pitch. Just as with the F Alto, unless you have perfect pitch you will not really even realize this kalimba is different from the G-tuned Alto. Every song you play on the standard G Alto can be played on this kalimba, it will just sound a step higher.

          • In Summary

            In addition to F, G, and A, the Alto kalimba can also be tuned to E, F# (Gb), and G# (Ab). Why don't more people get their Altos tuned down to E, a great key in which to play along with guitar? The body size of the Alto is designed to resonate down to the low G note, but it starts to lose resonance at F#, more in F, and more still in E. You can compensate for this by playing in a gourd or on a table - a larger resonant structure that will help amplify the lower notes. Playing through a pickup also helps with the reproduction of notes from the low range of the kalimba.

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          Questions?

          If you have any questions, feel free to contact us via the email form, or speak directly to Mark Holdaway at 520-488-7641.

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