Systems of Tuning

If you are looking for the notes that each string should be, have a look here.  If you want to know how to change a string scroll to the bottom of this page for the videos.

Close-up of konso kora neck rings

Koras were originally made with hide rings for tuning and the ring is moved up or down the neck to increase or decrease the tension.  Friction holds the ring in place.  Considerable strength is sometimes needed to tune the top bass strings.

Kora neck from the back showing machine headsOther systems use wooden pegs or harp pegs but these can still cause problems unless the pegs are made with great skill.   Modern koras use guitar machine heads which make tuning easy and have made the kora much more accessible.

Learning to tune a konso (traditional hide ring) kora is arguably as difficult as learning to play it and many people entranced by the sound while in Africa, buy one and then find they are unable to keep it in tune once back home, relegating it to an ornamental piece.  We make machine head koras because they are easier and quicker to tune. We also convert koras, both those with konso rings or wooden pegs, completely replacing the neck with one that has machine heads.

A traditional konso kora takes serious determination to learn as tuning it is a separate skill to playing. It also requires considerable strength to tune the top bass strings.  However, the hide rings do offer the player more flexibility and total control over the pitch as they can alter the length of each string.  Adam’s own koras have konso. 

The limitations of a machine-head kora is that the strings have fixed length which gives it a relatively limited range.  To adjust the pitch of a string on a machine-head kora by more than two tones, you would probably need to change strings completely, lighter or heavier accordingly.  For example, our koras, which are normally tuned to F, could be tuned up as high as an A in major scale but that may put some of the lighter strings under strain. 

We use good quality Gotoh machine heads and use trebles as standard.  If you like really taut thick strings for the bass, it’s a good idea to consider having a few bass heads rather than trebles as they are stronger. Bass heads are an option when ordering your kora from us. 

The classical western notation and tuning is now used by many kora players, particularly those who play with musicians from outside the Jaliya tradition.  These musical scales and terms are not really necessary for kora playing and the Mandinka repertoire was not created using such scales.  Its use has developed as the kora has become more widespread and more musicians from different backgrounds work together.   These tempered scales have also made the music more accessible to ‘western ears’.

In effect, you can tune your kora to any scale you like as there are no rules or traditional written music.  There are several standard tunings, Silaba, Suarta and Hardino among others.  See here for more information on the relevant notes and how to tune your kora.

To change a string is straightforward, but it is important to make sure the knot at the tail string is secure and will not slip.  You can see here how to change a string of both a machine head kora and a konso kora here in these clips, taken from our main Video Tutorials Information Video.