2 Types of Tab to Play Kalimba Immediately

Posted: 2019-12-28     Last Update: 2020-08-26

how to read tabs poster

As a traditional African instrument which varies significantly from western ones, the player could hardly survive to play the thumb piano by reading the staff notation. It requests player to recognize the note and then reflects that into the right tine of kalimba whose layout is not in order. Thus, it will be a great benefit if what is seen is what is to be played. Given this approach, the player could be more focused on the music rather than doing the translation of the notes.

In this post, we will introduce two types of tablatures that are widely used when playing a kalimba immediately upon receiving without any additional music knowledge. One is Kalimba Tabs and the second one is Number Based Tabs. Both have their cons and pros while the recommended one is Kalimba Tabs.

Kalimba Tabs

The staff notation is a great invention for the development of music. However, when it comes to kalimba, it seems another story. The notes sit in somewhere completely different from those in staff notation which takes additional time to convert from that in staff notation to where it is in kalimba. Unless you are proficient for both staff notation and kalimba, as for novice, it is really struggling to play kalimba by reading staff notation. Luckily, a new system, Kalimba Tablature (KTabs), designed exclusively for kalimba has been introduced and developed for years.

What Is KTabs

ktabs overview

Kalimba Tablature, also called KTabs, is firstly invented and introduced by Mark Holdaway. It represents the notes to be played in the vertical kalimba imitated chart with all essential music elements available. Any player can play out a song or music through reading the KTabs.

Why To Choose KTabs

This is very straight forward. The tab has translated the notes from staff notation to the respective keys in kalimba where and how long it is supposed to be played. No matter it is the right note, right order or right duration, there are no additional converting efforts required. Challenges for playing the kalimba has largely been released from reading the western notation. Players can be more focused on expanding the music scopes or enhancing the playing techniques.

It has never been better for beginners. No music background required, anyone can pick up a kalimba whenever she or he wants and follow the melody she/he loves. With the development of this system, there are also plenty of resources, e.g. music sheets in KTabs, available in the internet every novice or more advanced player can try out.

How To Read KTabs

Though gained independence from staff notation, KTab still borrows some critical elements from staff notation. This section is targeted at someone who has zero knowledge in music or wants to refresh the fundamentals. Please skip to Basic of KTabs if you are only interested in the part of how to read KTabs.

Common Note

* Four beats per bar as assumed

Whole note: a note shown as while filled circle with duration of four beats


Half note: a note shown as while filled circle plus a stem with duration of two beats


Quarter note: a note shown as black filled circle (note head) plus a stem with duration of one beat


Eighth note: a note that has a black note head plus a stem and a flag with duration of half beat

ktabs 02

Sixteenth note: a note that has a black note head plus a stem and two flags with duration of a quarter of beat

ktabs 03

Whole rest: two small rectangles siting in two queues with duration of rest for four beats

ktabs whole rest

Half rest: four small rectangles siting in two queues with duration of rest for two beats

ktabs Half rest

Quarter rest: eight wave-like symbols standing in two queues with duration of rest for 1 beat

Quarter rest

Eighth rest: eighth rest symbol with duration of rest for half beat

Eighth rest

Dot: a dot means a duration multiply 1.5 as it original lasts

dot of ktabs

Tie: a tie is used to connect two notes in identical pitch which makes the duration as a total of two notes respectively. Given this being said, it is only required to play the first note. No need to play the second note.

KTabs Basics

Horizontally, time signature stands on the left bottom of the chart. Every key is marked with corresponding letters to show exactly the same in the tines of kalimba. You can easily navigate where to pluck in the kalimba by looking at where the note sits in the tab. The bold line in the center separates the left and right which visualizes the appropriate thumbs to be used when making notes. With the availability of the color, it is even easier and faster to pick out the correct key.

Vertically, every bar has been clearly demonstrated by bold lines marked with Arabic numbers. It always starts from the bottom to the top in one vertical chart, from left to the right when several charts are available on the same page.

Common Skills On KTabs

Single note

Once there is only a note in one row, just go with single note. Pluck the note gently and then move to the next one.


If there are notes more than one in a row sitting in different lines separately, it is turn for double-stop (click the hyperlink for a quick access to double-stop description in another chapter). Pluck all the notes simultaneously. When it comes to KTab, it normally has four patterns how the notes are laid out shown as below.

One note on the left and one note on the right

Two notes on the left

Two notes on the right

Two notes on both left and right


When two or more notes are found sitting in a row with consecutive positions in different lines, time to introduce glissando (click the hyperlink for a quick access to glissando description in another chapter). Glide the tines and the great sound comes. It normally has two patterns in KTab.

A serious of notes on left

A serious of notes on right


Number Based System

What is number based system

The numbered musical notation is a musical notation system widely used in music publications in China (not to be confused with the integer notation). It dates back to the system designed by Pierre Galin, known as Galin-Paris-Chevé system. The numbers from 1 to 7 are used to represent the seven scale degrees in a diatonic major scale. Other elements are also employed to visualize the music in the sheet.

Why to choose number based

It is easy to read. In Arabic numerals with availability of solfège, it can be quickly learned and applied. Nowadays, lots of kalimbas have been engraved with numbers on the keys which make it even easier for novice to play when notes on kalimbas are aligned with those in music sheet.

How to read tabs in number based

Music notes

number based tabs

Arabic numbers are adopted in this system.


number based tabs 02

A dot is used to present the major or minor scale. A dot above the musical note jumps into a higher octave yet a dot below the note means an octave is lowered. If more than one dot appears, the respective octaves apply as raised or lowered. Any dot is placed under the underneath lines when required.

Note duration

number based

The note duration is identical as shared in KTab yet is represented in another way shown as above.

Music Sheet

number based

The number “0” is utilized to represent the music rest. One “0” stands for a quarter rest. Two “0 0” means for half rest and “0” indicates eighth rest.

Bar Lines

Bar lines, double bar lines, end bar lines, repeat signs, first-and second-endings are pretty similar to the counterparts in the western notation system.

Key signature and Accidentals

The pitch of “1” is defined by the key signature, e.g. “1=D” means “D major”. It goes to “6” as for minor, e.g. “6=A” stands for “A minor”. The accidentals works the same way as of western notation.

Time signature

It is written in form of fraction to demonstrate the time signature: 3/4, 4/4, etc. which is usually coming after the key signature.


When a vertical wave-like symbol appears, chords are required when playing the instrument.



Both approaches have been widely utilized with their pros and cons in comparison.

KTabs is definitely fitting better for those who have a certain degrees of music knowledge and want to explore the most of kalimba world. It certainly demonstrates the music or song in a more precise way with an easier navigation. In the contrast, number-based system is in an easier position for those who acquire zero musical knowledge or less cognition capability, e.g. kids, yet still expects to learn playing kalimba in a quick way.

Which one do you prefer? Pick it up and start playing your kalimba right now.