23 November 2018

How Should I Paint the Tines on My 17-Note Kalimba?

Written by Mark Holdaway, Posted in News and Announcements

And what books should I get for my 17-Note Kalimba?

When Hugh Tracey started making his 17-Note Treble kalimbas in South Africa in 1954, the instruments had one out of every three tines painted, on each side of the kalimba. These Treble kalimbas ended up with five painted tines, in the key of G, with the low note being B.

Now, a new crop of 17-note kalimbas from China has surfaced under names such as Gecko, Donner, and Walter kalimbas. They are all in the key of C. So while looking exactly like the Treble Hugh Tracey kalimba, they are in a different key, which changes everything. These kalimbas come unpainted with decals for marking the tines, and the manufacturers recommend marking five tines - which is the exact Treble painting scheme. But this can be a problem and here is why:

Tine painting defines how a person learns to play a kalimba and tremendously eases the process of learning songs from kalimba tablature.  Hugh Tracey's Treble kalimba is in the key of G and has its own unique tine-painting layout. But you cannot use Treble instructional materials with your 17-note in C. In order for you to take advantage of the vast offering of Kalimba Magic books, instructional downloads and hundreds of songs that are applicable to the 17-note in C (including all downloads for the 10-note kalimba, 66 Songs for the 17-Note, plus the entire body of Alto kalimba literature) - the Treble's five-tine painting scheme will simply not work. 

By using the six-tine painting scheme outlined in this post, your 17-note becomes part of a world of song instruction, help, and community at your fingertips.


What follows is a more detailed discussion of two kalimbas that look the same but are very different.

Let me start by taking my hat off to the Chinese companies that are making these various kalimba brands. They are fairly good kalimbas for a very reasonable cost - a good value as they say. And the C major tuning the Chinese kalimbas come in is an excellent choice. While the Hugh Tracey kalimbas in G have been great for a variety of reasons, most people find the tuning of the Hugh Tracey Treble to be a bit odd. Putting the 3rd of the scale, B, as the low note of the kalimba makes the kalimba a bit awkward to play. Alternatively, if the root note (or the "1") of the scale, is the lowest note in the center of your kalimba, it really grounds your playing.

For many years now, I have been offering a modified Treble kalimba with the root note on the low tine. I call it the Bb Treble (pronounced "B flat treble"), and it has six tines painted. The "Bb Treble" can be tuned to A, Bb, B, or C. In other words the Chinese 17-Note kalimba in C is tuned exactly like my "Bb Treble kalimba tuned up to C," which I have been selling and playing since 2007.SuggestedPaint17

When I started making those 17 Note kalimbas with the root note, or "1" note, on the longest tine, I painted them just like the Alto kalimba, which also has the root note in the longest tine (although they are in different keys). This means that all the songs that I could play on my Alto kalimba (which I had been playing for 20 years at that time) also worked on this new tuning for the 17-Note kalimba. I am still working within the system of "tine-painting logic" that Hugh Tracey started in 1954, and I am extending that logical system to new kalimba tunings. (See the video below for very clear illustration and explanation of various tunings and tine painting.)


A major benefit to you for working within Hugh Tracey's tine painting system is that it gives you access to my kalimba books and downloads, including materials explicitly for the 17-Note kalimba in C, but also books and downloads I wrote for the 15-note Alto Kalimba (which will instruct you on the inner 15 or your 17 tines).

The kalimba tablature I invented in late 2004 is a map of the kalimba, and represents the painted tines as shaded columns. If your kalimba is painted in a way that is not consistent with my tablature, it will be a real hassle trying to read it.

However, there is a situation now where the best selling kalimbas in the world come with a tine-painting suggestion that would result in preventing those kalimbas from being used with the entire library of Kalimba Magic instructional resources.

This is how it came to pass. For decades, people have been making knockoffs of the 17-Note Hugh Tracey Treble kalimbas. The new brands of Chinese kalimbas starting in 2017 are the latest of those copies. They copied the way the Hugh Tracey Treble kalimba is painted, but not the way it is tuned. Had they asked me, I would have told them to paint six tines, but instead they painted five. You can see kalimbas with this tuning and painting scheme in April Yang's kalimba videos.

I am firmly planted in the Hugh Tracey tine-painting system.

I refuse to make two different books with the exact same painting scheme (ie, apparently identical tablature) but different tunings. How cruel and confusing that would be. You see, I have already written four books and two instructional downloads for the Treble kalimba in G, and those books have tablature with the 5 painted tines.

My new materials for the 17-Note in C, with six painted tines, will never be confused with the G Treble materials.

(OK: I will, upon request, paint any 17-Note kalimba in C with five painted tines instead of my usual six. But just remember, that cuts you off from Kalimba Magic books, etc.)

Now, here is the silver lining in this big mess: NONE of the new brands of Chinese kalimbas actually come with painted tines!

Rather, they come with six decals that you can stick on your kalimba's tines. They recommend that you put five on. Kalimba Magic recommends that you put six on, in my scheme. ESPECIALLY if you download any of my instructional materials or buy any of my books. If you already stuck five decals on, I further recommend that you take them off.

And remember - if you own a 17-Note kalimba in C, DON'T get the Treble books or downloads, as the Treble's tuning is incompatible with your kalimba. It will not work, unless you retune your kalimba to G. Huh!? That got your attention!

If you own a 17-Note kalimba in C, I have recently created two downloads that are designed for your kalimba... in the Kalimba Magic painting scheme:

  • Easy Christmas Carols for the 17-Note Kalimba in C
  • 66 Song Download for the 17-Note Kalimba in C

"Easy Christmas Carols" is a simple PDF file, with live links to the MP3 files - that is, an ebook, modern and convenient. The "66 Songs Download" is currently (December 2018) a ZIP file - ie, a somewhat clunky product that requires you to know how to download and unpack ZIP files. By the way, the "66 Songs" ZIP file download will soon be replaced by two PDF ebooks: "44 Beginner Songs for 17-Note Kalimba in C" and "33 Intermediate Songs for 17-Note Kalimba in C." Expect these in January 2019, complete with recordings for most songs.

I hope this explains both the confusing situation with the 17-Note kalimbas and what you can do about it. It seems to me you have several choices:

  • If you get a kalimba from us, you probably want us to paint it in our system. This opens dozens of instructional resources to you.
  • If you have experience with either Hugh Tracey Alto or Hugh Tracey Treble kalimbas, you will really want to have the 17-Note Kalimba in C painted in the Hugh Tracey system.
  • If you prefer the instructional materials April Yang has provided online (YouTube), or if you have already been playing a kalimba set up like this for many months, you probably want to put those five decals on your 17-Note kalimba, Chinese stye lets say.
  • If you don't know, you should get your kalimba unpainted. Then you can use a Sharpie marker to temporarily "paint" some of your kalimba tines in any way you wish. You can mark it in the five tine manner when you want to learn something from April, and mark it in the six tine system when you want to learn from my books or downloads. The Sharpie marker will naturally wear off after several weeks of handling, or you can take it all off quickly with alcohol wipes.

The links below in "Related Articles" indicate all the currently available resources that will work for your 17-Note kalimba in C. The first two have recordings in C, and the rest list their various caveats.

The video below illustrates the relationship among kalimbas painted in this scheme.

About the Author

Mark Holdaway

Mark Holdaway

Mark Holdaway has been playing kalimba for over 30 years.  He invented his kalimba tablature in 2004, and has been writing books and instructional materials for kalimba ever since.  His business, Kalimba Magic, is based on the simple proposition that the kalimba is a real musical instrument capable of greatness.  Mark's kalimba books are a down payment on this proposition.

Comments (12)

  • Gwenn Melis

    Gwenn Melis

    13 December 2018 at 04:42 |
    Thank you for your detailed explanation. I am printing it out, and will try to digest it all, and then proceed from there. Now I am sorry I bought the Chinese version of the Kalimba, but hopefully will get it all sorted out, and be able to play it. Thanks again. I will bookmark you in case I need more help. Happy Holidays!


  • Nellie J Smith

    Nellie J Smith

    16 December 2018 at 15:03 |
    I have the same problem. Purchased 17 note in C from a Co on Facebook. What can I do with it?


  •  Furgason


    28 December 2018 at 11:45 |
    Can't get anything to print. Says I don't have any downloads. Paid for


  • Violeta


    03 January 2019 at 11:07 |
    I'm in the opposite case. I purchased a 17 in G from German website and realized that all the instruction, music tabs that I have collected from China are in C. And within the Chinese Kalimba group, everyone just use a C o a 15 in G. Can't hardly find a G Song to practise. Luckly I've just found out this web.




      14 January 2019 at 21:28 |
      Mark, can you tell us when the 66 songs pdf version will be ready? Will it be available in book form?


      • Mark


        15 January 2019 at 13:17 |
        Tim - The "66 Songs" ZIP file download is being replaced by two modern PDF downloads:
        "44 Beginner Songs for the 17 Note Kalimba in C" (available now)


        "33 Intermediate Songs for the 17-Note Kalimba in C" (soon)

        No hardcopy books yet, sorry.


  • KarenVaage


    16 January 2019 at 20:55 |
    So if I have this right. If Ihave a kalimba tunes in C I can play many other songs from diderent tuned books but don’t have to retunetothat keyjust playthe tines the song calls for no matter where they are on my kalimba. Sounds confusing alright.


  • KarenVaage


    16 January 2019 at 21:02 |
    So if I have this right. If I have a kalimba tuned in C I can play many other songs from different tuned books but don’t have to retune to their key just playthe tines the song calls for no matter where they are on my kalimba. Sounds confusing alright.


    • Mark


      17 January 2019 at 13:23 |
      Karen - you don't worry about what note you are playing, but rather where the tine is on your kalimba. If the tablature is for the G Alto, and if the notes are the lowest central tine, then the adjacent left painted tine rnext, and then the right painted tine right next to the central tine, that will play "DO RE MI"... in G. Now, pick up a 17-Note Kalimba in C. the ALTO tablature says: play the longest tine in the center, then play the left adjacent painted tine, then play the right adjacent painted tine. And that will play... "DO RE MI"... but in the key of C. You see, you don't have to think about what notes you are playing, but you will feel it and hear it when you play "Do Re Mi".

      There are Bb Clarinets, and A Clarinets, and C Clarinets... the clarinet player will pick up the Bb Clarinet, and play certain finger motions to make a song. They can then pick up the A Clarinet and do the same finger motions... but the A Clarinet is a bit larger and plays a bit lower. The song is the same, the notes are all different, but the fingering is identical.

      OR - consider a guitarist (me) who tries to play a song with the chords G C and D7... but my voice is too high and I cannot sing the lowest notes of the song. Well, I'm not going to have a lot of success in lowering my voice, but I can raise the pitch of the guitar. A crazy way would be to retune the guitar, tightening the strings... wait, don't do that, I'll will break the strings eventually! Instead, I put on a capo that will clamp down on the strings at... whatever fret I want. Like the 2nd fret. Now, my hands still think they are playing G, C, and D7... but the tuner would say that I am now playing A, D, and E7. When I try to sing, my voice knows that I am singing higher. And it all works.

      So even if you are confused, this is a very simple trick that has been used my musicians for centuries.


  • Sammie


    15 June 2019 at 19:00 |
    Just purchased downloads, but there is nothing to download. Will I receive an email link?


    • Mark


      16 June 2019 at 19:47 |
      Sammie - I suggest you first look in your JUNK FOLDER. I will also initiate an EMAIL to you. - Mark Holdaway


  • Kale


    14 November 2019 at 05:59 |
    I honestly appreciate the so called "knock-offs" because they are a lot cheaper and are now way more accessible, along with many free tabs of covers so that learning the kalimba is more accessible to everyone, especially if you can't afford to purchase books of songs you might not enjoy. I bought a kalimba from kalimba magic years ago (it was a harrowing process) and I've not been able to learn new songs due to the limited selection available. I'm honestly wondering how to repaint the tines to better match the more accessible tabs online...


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