I get one or two dozen emails each day asking me all sorts of questions, and I answer almost every one. But some of those questions keep coming around, and those are the ones that I am answering first in this new column. —Mark Holdaway
The way the kalimba tines are arranged, their lowest notes are in the middle. You can play the bottom note with right or left thumb but, as a rule, it will clearly be easier to use one of your thumbs to play that tine, and the next note up the scale, the adjacent tine, will have to be played with your other thumb. This essentially determines the right or left-handedness of a kalimba.
By the way, Hugh Tracey didn't actually invent the note layout on modern Hugh Tracey kalimbas. Of the more than 100 kalimba note layouts that he documented, one traditional note layout was very similar to the back and forth style used by most modern kalimbas. Amid dozens of rare and old kalimbas hanging on the director's wall at the International Library of African Music in Grahamstown, South Africa, I spotted one instrument that used the traditional layout on which the modern is clearly based. And this is a "right-handed" kalimba!
In the photo above showing this instrument, you can infer the pitches based on the length of the tines. Ignore the long (low) drone note at the far right—that was not included in the Hugh Tracey design. The remaining notes, however, are a blueprint for the basic Hugh Tracey note layout. The longest note is in the center, and the next longest is to the left, and then the next longest is to the right. SO, if the longest note belongs to the right hand, you go up the scale by alternating from right to left and on and on.
Both the Treble and the Alto kalimbas go like this, with the longest tine belonging to the right thumb. Also, these kalimbas all have an odd number of tines (neglecting the drone tine on the above traditional kalimba): 9, 15, and 17. This means that the shortest tine, or highest note is also on the right.
After people around the world began to discover Hugh Tracey's kalimbas in the 1950s and 1960s, someone must have said something like: "Hey, let's make an 8-Note variety and it will play 'Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do'. It will be perfect for a beginner's instrument." So they made the notes align with the lower 8 notes of the Alto, with the low Do starting on the right... but then the high note is on the left side.
An 8-Note kalimba could logically borrow the bottom octave of the Alto layout, which means the bottom note belongs to the right thumb, or the 8-Note could borrow the top notes of the Alto layout, which would mean the bottom note would belong to the left thumb. But all 8-Note kalimbas I have seen have been "right handed".
Two makers in the U.S., Catania and Goshen, both of whom had been making "right handed" 8-Note kalimbas, started making larger kalimbas with notes that went lower than the Do or 1 of the scale. Goshen made an 11-Note kalimba which has all the same tines as the 8-Note, but the three extra tines are longer and go in the center. This ends up making the lowest note belong to the left thumb. Catania made a 12-Note kalimba which also goes three notes lower than the 8-Note, and has one extra note at the top of the scale. Furthermore, the lowest note, which is the 5th of the major scale, can be recast into the root, or 1 of a new scale. This scale is called the mixolydian mode, and sounds just like the major scale, but it has a flat seventh. That flat seventh is sort of an African sound, so this is a very natural way to play these 11 or 12 note kalimbas.
Now—some may think that the handedness of a kalimba is a trivial detail, but the more things you know how to do on your kalimba, the harder it is to switch! Basically, your brain's left hemisphere knows one part and the right hemisphere knows the other part, and they fit together to make a melody or a song. When you flip the handedness of your kalimba, the hemispheres have to learn each others' parts, which can actually take some number of minutes (or hours, or days) to accomplish, i.e., you aren't going to get it in the middle of a performance. And yes, this little detail reduces kalimba player Duncan to someone who can't play his friend's kalimba, and it reduced ME to taking my wife's 11-Note Goshen and rearranging the notes, actually taking them all out and flipping sides for each tine! Now it plays like a Hugh Tracey—conceptually.
My books are all written for the "right-handed" style kalimba layout, i.e., the low note belongs to the right hand, but this layout should be equally intuitive for the right or left-handed musician. It is very understandable, however, if you are more comfortable having your kalimba set up with the low note on the left or on the right—probably because that was how you initially learned to play the instrument. It is a simple matter to switch the "handedness" of a kalimba: you could tune the left side notes to be what the right side was, and vice versa, but it is better to take all the tines out and trade places so you are playing each note on the tine that was intended for that note. Or, if you would like me to reconfigure your new kalimba layout to be "left handed" or "right handed", talk to me!
You need a chromatic tuner - some tuners are just for guitar and will only have E A D G B on them - but they are becoming hard to find. I recommend one of the KORG tuners - I have two different tuners (one for gigging and one for the kalimba workshop), and they both cost about $25. They have a built-in mic, but if your kalimba has a pickup, you can also plug a guitar chord directly from your kalimba to the tuner, so you can tune even when there is a lot of noise in the environment.
The tuner display will indicate which note is closest to the one you are playing, and how far out of tune it is. When tuning your kalimba, be careful that your tuner isn't picking up a spurious signal and reading a different note than the one you are playing. The "closest note" can jump around a bit. I think this is because there are many overtones present in the attack. So let the note ring out and the tuner will eventually get to the right note, and then look and see where the tuner's needle is pointing to. This tuner in the photo is indicating the D tine is a bit too high, by about 10 cents, so I need to flatten it, or pull the tine out to make the distance from tip to bridge a bit longer.
AMI (African Musical Instruments), where the kalimbas are made in Africa, uses a strobe tuner. The strobe tuner lets you see several overtones at once, and this is actually the best way to tune marimba bars. AMI tunes the fundamental tone and the first overtone on marimba bars.
In principle, it is possible to tune the overtones on kalimba tines by changing both the length of the tines and as well as the thickness of the tines at various places along their length, but that is almost never done. AMI does not tune the overtones of kalimba tines. Interestingly, there is evidence from historical kalimba tines that sometimes overtones were tuned, in addition to the fundamental.
I hope these answers are helpful to the greater kalimba community. I certainly don't know everything about the kalimba, but I know a lot and I'm learning more each day—and I am happy to share this information. So send me your questions. In doing so, you will be helping to expand kalimba understanding in the Universe.