Kalimba of the Month:
Gm tuned TM Alto Hugh Tracey Kalimba

TM Alto Kalimba

My wife Deb has a different set of kalimbas than I, and it is always a "let's see" kind of thing when I am playing a kalimba and she picks up one of her kalimbas, for they probably are not in the same key.

Last week, I picked up Deb's TM Alto kalimba, which is tuned to G minor. The G minor tuning was first requested by Gary Diggins, and he tends to get all of his kalimbas in that tuning. (Gary uses minor-tuned kalimbas because he thinks it helps people be more expressive and more vocal, singing expressively over the plaintive sounds of the G minor kalimba.)

While I played the G minor TM Alto kalimba, Deb then picked up her Bb Treble, tuned to B flat major. If you know anything about music theory, you know that B flat major and G minor are two keys which use the same notes - in other words, these two kalimbas work together very well.

And this experience made me realize that there are so many varieties of kalimba that most people don't know very much about. This G minor TM Alto is an incredibly sweet instrument, and I realized that I should start sharing the things I am discovering about these odd kalimbas in the newsletter. And so, the Kalimba of the Month is born.

First of all, this kalimba started with the same 15 note, two octave G major scale as the popular Alto kalimba, but the tines have been mounted on a solid piece of kiaat wood. The example kalimba for this month has been retuned to G minor - this different tuning is interesting - if you have been playing a regular G major scale, this new scale will help you find new things to play and help you open new doors as you play the same old things and they sound different, and as you adjust your playing to the new tuning. Playing in a new tuning is one of the best ways to shake up your playing and get out of the same old ruts, and will eventually lead to increased understanding of scales in general and music theory.


You can retune the kalimba to G minor yourself. On the other hand, some people send me their kalimbas, and I retune them however they need to go. I offer this service under the name The Kalimba Doctor, but when you purchase a kalimba, you can request an alternative tuning, which we will do for free (with the exception of Sansula retunings, which incur an $8 charge as they are more time consuming).

OK - let's learn to do it. First, take a look at the kalimba retuning page for the general background for retuning. The notes you will have to retune are shown below.

tunings for ALTO in G major and minor
This tuning chart shows the normal G major Alto tuning and the G minor tuning. You can see that a total of six notes, three per octave, need to be flattened by a half step to change from G major to G minor.

Each note is labeled with a name, e.g., G, and a number, e.g., 1. In the key of G, the note G is the root, or the 1 note. You will notice that in going from G major to G minor, some of the names change - F# goes to F, B goes to Bb, and E goes to Eb. But the numbers do not change. B is the 3rd of the G major scale, and Bb is the 3rd of the G minor scale. We simplify by saying B is the major 3rd, and Bb is the minor 3rd. To go from major to minor, we flatten (by a half step) the 7th (F# to F), the 3rd (B to Bb), and the 6th (E to Eb).

If you have never retuned before, remember that this process is completely reversible. You will not ruin your kalimba. You may introduce a new buzz into one of the tines you are retuning, but the buzz can be easily fixed. When you are ready, start by just flattening the two 7ths (F# to F), and play the new scale. Nice, eh? That scale is called the mixolydian mode. Next, add to the flattened 7th the flattened 3rds (B to Bb). This scale is a minor scale, called the dorian mode. Now, complete the transition by flattening the 6ths (E to Eb). You are there! Now, it may have taken you 10 or 15 minutes, but I speak the truth: once you get good at this, you can make this retuning - changing 6 notes by a half step - in one or two minutes.

Some people, such as Gregorio McCluer, are constantly retuning their kalimbas. They retune into something that sounds intresting, explore the tuning enough to know part of what that tuning is about, maybe record a song or two or even write down the tuning - and then they are off to the next tuning a few days, weeks, or hours later. If this is you, you only need one kalimba of each type.

Some people like to stay in that tuning for months or years. It is something they can always go back to just by picking up the kalimba. If you write songs that are repeatable, you may want to purchase a new kalimba each time you find a new tuning you really groove on.


Back to the G minor TM Alto Kalimba

The wood on the TM Alto is shaped like one traditional form of the kalimba instrument. The AMI Trade Mark borrowed this shape, and then the TM Alto was born. So, when you play the TM Alto

The TM Alto has a sexy curve to it. Thanks to the curved foot, this one fits nicely in a bowl or a gourd. It has a soft sound, but the sustain of the notes is longer. You can really feel the vibrations in your hands, and there is something healing about this. These features of this kalimba make this a very sweet, private and intimate instrument. Wonderful for soul or spiritual work and healing work. And the small board helps this one fit nicely into your hands, so this one is good for people with smaller hands too, women, and older children. For smaller children who have outgrown their 8-note kalimbas, there is a Celeste Alto - the same 15 notes, but without the curve - it is a bit smaller than the TM Alto.

Anyway, in the fast bright loud and brash world, this TM Alto kalimba can get overlooked. But if you want to create a peaceful, soft, beautiful world all your own, if you want to play soft and pleasing sounds before you go to bed, or if you want to share an intimate moment with your lover or your Lord, this kalimba is a good alternative.

This kalimba goes well with the Bb Treble and with the G minor karimba.

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