Feb. 19, 2011

Vol. 6, Num. 2

Kalimba Magic NEWS

Ask Mark
Tunings and Painted Tines

Ask Mark

I get one or two dozen emails each day asking me all sorts of questions, and I answer almost every one. Some questions get asked over and over again - so I try to answer those ones really well, put them in an "Ask Mark" article, and then send a link to the appropriate article when someone asks the question again. —Mark Holdaway

Alto and Treble
Tuning a kalimba

Do kalimbas come pre-tuned?

I was wondering if the kalimbas come already tuned to the key you want them in, or if I have to tune them myself!


Many kalimbas sold on the market are NOT pre-tuned, but all of the makers with whom Kalimba Magic deals do pre-tune their kalimbas. Thomas Bothe (the German maker of the amazing "2B") pre-tunes almost every one of his kalimbas to a unique tuning- that is a part of his art (I just refine his tunings to get them squarely on the note). All the other kalimbas we sell are pre-tuned in standard tunings.

However, if you would like, I can tune your kalimba to a different tuning than the tuning it usually comes in. Part of the unique service that Kalimba Magic offers the world is a choice of tunings on many of our instruments. As a kalimba performer who uses several different tunings, I have a very good idea of how far from the standard tuning I can go and still have the kalimba sound good (some tunings can't work simply because of the physics of the given instrument). I am usually able to get the notes to better than 5 cents from the desired pitch.

So if you need an Alto kalimba in F#, if you want a Sansula in Heavenly A, if you want a Bb Treble, Kalimba Magic can provide you with these custom tunings. When I sell a kalimba in a non-standard tuning, I include written documentation of that tuning, which is often a graphic showing labeled tines. When your kalimba eventually goes out of tune over the weeks and months of playing, this tuning chart will come in very handy!

Comparison of Treble to Alto Tuning
The painted tines on the standard- tuned Alto and Treble kalimbas are the same notes.

What's the significance of the painted tines?

Hugh Tracey apparently invented the idea of painting some of the tines. Such painting is not evident in any traditional African lamellaphones, but was present in the first treble kalimbas Hugh Tracey began selling in the 1950s. So why are some tines painted?

It took me a couple of hours to write this song
in Rick Tarquinio's Heavenly A Tuning, and another
two or three hours of practice to "perfect" it for
YouTube video recording.

How long does it take to learn to play in a new tuning?

Out of curiosity, how long does it take you personally to learn a new tuning, given that you've had many years of practice?


Some tunings are just like putting a capo on a guitar - it is really like no change at all - all the tines are a wee bit higher or lower, sort of like playing on a chessboard at sea level vs. playing on a very similar chess board in Denver, Colorado. The game is exactly the same, just a bit higher.

Other tunings are like a breath of fresh air - true, any songs I knew on other tunings will not work the same way anymore in the new tuning - but it is like discovering a new wilderness and exploring in it and seeing what it has to offer. Mostly I use unusual tunings to create new improvisational music. These tunings help me be in the moment, instead of recreating a past moment of glory.

So, back to your question: if a new tuning maps simply into an old tuning that I have a lot of experience with, I might find my way in playing "known songs" in a few minutes. If the new tuning is something completely different (the Sansula and 2B tunings are very idiosyncratic), it could take hours or days for me to really wrap my head around it.

Thomas Bothe sends me kalimbas in unique tunings, and I have taken on the job of documenting those tunings and making recordings of them. It takes me about 10 minutes to "see what the tuning is supposed to be" and to "refine the tuning" (shift each note so it is right on a western note, rather than somewhere in between A and Ab), and then when I record each tuning, it takes me 5-10 minutes to make a 45-90 second recording that represents what that tuning is about and illustrates part of what that kalimba tuning knows how to do. But, to actually write or learn a complex song on one of those kalimbas and be able to repeat it - my song on the Heavenly A-tuned Sansula, for example - would probably take me several hours or longer.

Send me your questions! I certainly don't know everything about the kalimba, but I know a lot, I'm learning more each day—and I am happy to share this information.

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