26 May 2020

Comparing the Alto and the Treble Kalimbas

Posted in News and Announcements

Which One is Right for You?

Comparing the Alto and the Treble Kalimbas

How does the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba compare to the Hugh Tracey Treble kalimba?

While the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba is physically larger than the Treble, it has only 15 tines, while the Treble has 17 tines. How does that work? How do you get more tines on a smaller instrument?

Just for reference sake: the boatload of newish Chinese-made kalimbas are mostly modeled after the 17-Note Treble kalimba. At this time, there are no larger Chinese-made kalimbas modeled after the 15-Note Alto kalimba.

Read on for more information on the Alto and Treble kalimbas!


OK - here are the differences between the Alto and the Treble kalimba as seen from 40,000 ft - good luck getting that high these days, as most planes aren't flying. So, just use your imagination.

If you have smaller hands - if you are a woman or an older child, or a man with smaller hands - the Treble Kalimba is probably better for you. If you have larger hands, the Alto Kalimba is probably better for you.

If you have excellent dexterity in your hands, the smaller Treble kalimba, with more, smaller, closer tines, may be just fine. My very first kalimba was indeed a Treble, but I wasn't Mr. Dexterity back then... and then I got an Alto kalimba, with larger tines and a bit more space between the tines... and boy did I ever take off on that thing... on a trajectory that landed me here, writing about kalimba for a living!

Also, the standard tunings of the Treble and Alto kalimbas are a bit different. While both are in the key of G (that is, all natural notes except for F#), the Alto very naturally puts the G (the root note, or key note) in the center for its low note. The Treble, even though it is in the key of G, has B (the 3rd of the G scale) as its low note. This is not a problem, but many people really love having the root note also be the low note. It is psychologically strong to put the root note right in the middle of the kalimba as it's lowest note.

And here are some details:

TrebleAlto Tunings

The ALTO kalimba's box is 8 x 5.5 x 1.5 inches, and the TREBLE's box is slightly smaller: 7 x 5 x 1.25 inches. Even though the Alto is larger, the Treble has more tines: 17 to the Alto's 15. The Treble's tines are 4mm wide, and the Alto's are 5mm wide, so you can fit 17 Treble tines into a space narrower than the Alto's 15 Tines.

The Treble's smaller box means that it doesn't resonate so well with lower notes. The Treble's lowest note is a B, and you start to lose resonance as you go down to an A or lower. The Alto's lowest note is a G, and you start to lose resonance when you go down to an F or lower. (That said, I have been able to get Treble tines down to G, and Alto tines down to C below middle C... more on that another day.)

A typical Alto kalimba will weigh about 1 pound = 16 ounces (0.450 kg). A Treble kalimba will weigh about 12 ounces (0.335 kg). However, there is a lot of variability. One customer built a form-fitting box for his Alto kalimba and then found out that his new Alto kalimba didn't fit into the same footprint as his old Alto. Because they are hand made, the kalimbas have slight variations in the size and shape of the box, and sometimes the face wood is slightly thicker or thinner too. That said, starting in 2020, the Hugh Tracey kalimbas have been made in a standardized size.

An even larger source of variation in weight is the wood itself. Some kalimbas have a piece of wood that is half dark brown and half blonde. If you look at the curve of the grain between the brown and blonde, you will probably be able to see that the blonde wood is on the outside of the tree while the brown is on the inside of the tree. So the heart wood is brown and the sap wood is blonde. I have found that light colored kiaat wood is much less dense than the darker colored wood. Dark wood can add 2 or 3 ounces (56 - 84 g) to an Alto kalimba, and light colored wood can be a few ounces lighter.

The denser dark kiaat wood tends to be somewhat softer in sound with a longer sustain, and the less dense light kiaat wood has a louder sound with a shorter sustain. I have just started carrying blonde kiaat Altos, as I like the shorter sustain and louder, brighter sound.

By the way, the Celeste (solid wood) models and the karimba have the same footprint as the Treble kalimba, but the solid piece of wood is only 5/8 inch at its thickest. A celeste kalimba weighs between 8 and 11 ounces (0.225 kg - 0.310 kg).

Does the Pickup Add Weight to the Kalimba?

I estimate that the pickup and the jack add less than half an ounce (14 g) to the weight of the kalimba. This is much less than the variation in the weight caused by density variations in the wood.