How to Read Number and Letter Kalimba Tabs

May 11, 2022

How to Read Number and Letter Kalimba Tabs

You have bought a kalimba and are now trying to learn a few songs, right? Searching a little bit, you find out there are a lot of tabs available on the internet, and they come in different shapes and sizes: PDFs, blog posts, images, and whole sites focused on these kinds of tabs. Great! Now you can learn every song out there. You are unstoppable! There is just this tiny detail on the way: you don't know how to read them.

It's some kind of elvish. I can't read it

Jokes aside, these number and letter notations are the simplest way of writing a kalimba tab. There is a good explanation of music notes on the How to Read Kalimba Tabs post, but I'll shorten the explanation so you don't have to go back and forth. 😉

The first seven letters of the alphabet represent music notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. If you take a look at your kalimba, you'll probably see them arranged in a different format: C in the middle, D on the left, E on the right, F on the left, G on the right, and so on. Each tine has a corresponding music note, and the smaller the tine, the higher the sound it makes. Here is an example, click on the play button to see it in action.

This tab you have just played is a vertical kalimba tab or ktab. It's the complete representation of a kalimba song since it represents music notes and the duration of each one of them. Compare it to the letter notation below:

It's the same song but represented differently. It's easier to write it down and read (to a certain point). But there is one fundamental difference: it lacks the duration of each note. And, without the notes' durations, it's impossible to know how to play it just by reading. Want to see an example? Try to play the tab below without clicking on the play button. Then, click on the play button.

Did you get it right? No? It's the same letters, in the same sequence, but the timing is missing.


If you look at your kalimba, you'll notice the notes start to repeat at some point. You go from C to B, then the sequence repeats itself, but with a higher sound than before. These notes are one octave higher than the previous ones. This octave appears as a character after the note. There is no standard, but people generally use asterisk *, degree symbol °, and apostrophe '. So, a C played one octave higher is C*, or , or C'. Easy, right? When the note is two octaves higher, you duplicate the character you used. So, a C played two octaves higher is C**, or C°°, or C".

If you have a 21 keys kalimba, you'll notice the lowest note is not where the scale begins. There are four notes below the start of the scale. You can use the same octave characters to represent these notes but place them before the note. So, F one octave lower becomes *F, or °F, or 'F. Also, you can use a dot (.) after the note, so F one octave lower becomes F. and F two octaves lower becomes F..

Here is a playable example on a 21 keys kalimba:

How to Read Letter Kalimba Tabs

Before reading those tabs, get familiar with the song you're trying to learn. Listen to it a few times if needed. After that, follow these steps:

  1. Mentally divide the kalimba tab into smaller bite-sized pieces.
  2. Try to play the first piece. If you're uncertain about the timing, listen to the corresponding part of the song and try again.
  3. When you're confident that you're playing it correctly, go to the next piece and do the same process.
  4. After memorizing a few pieces, try to play them all in sequence.
  5. Repeat the whole process until you're able to play the song.
  6. Practice, practice, and practice. You'll get better and play it smoothly with time.

Practice time! Try to use this process on the twinkle twinkle little star tab below:

So, you have just learned how to read the letter kalimba tabs, congratulations! 🥳 🎉

Let's learn the number notation now, shall we?

What are Numbered Kalimba Tabs

To understand numbered tabs, we need to comprehend something called tuning. Remember the notes on your kalimba? C, D, E, F, G, A, and B? These notes in this order define a tuning called C major. Let's assign a number to each note, so C becomes 1, D becomes 2, E becomes 3, you get the idea. We'll end up with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Instead of writing the tab using letters, we'll use numbers. Here is the same twinkle twinkle little star, but using numbers instead:

Pretty easy, right? It's the same thing, but with numbers instead. So, why use it when the letter tabs work just fine?

Many songs are in the C major tuning, and you can probably play them on your C major tuned kalimba. But, guess what, there are thousands of songs in different tunings. Here is the D major tuning: D, E, F#, G, A, B, and C#. To play a D major song on your kalimba, you have a few options: tune your kalimba to D major or transpose the music to your kalimba tuning. To transpose a song, you would need to replace every song note on the D major scale with the corresponding note on the C major scale: D becomes C, E becomes D, F# become E, and so on. But, if you think about it, the position of the notes is the same! Here:

  • D is the first (1) note on the D major scale; The first (1) note on the C major scale is C.
  • E is the second (2) note on the D major scale; The second (2) note on the C major scale is D.
  • F# is the third (3) note on the D major scale; The third (3) note on the C major scale is E.

So, if you write a tab using numbers instead of letters, you can play them using any tuning! No need to retune your kalimba, nor to transpose the tab. Quite practical!

Try to play the tab below. It's in a mysterious major tuning, but you don't need to know which:

See? You played a song of another tuning on your kalimba without thinking about it! Compare the letter tabs below: The first one uses the original tuning, and the second one uses the C major scale.

Imagine transposing letter tabs to your kalimba tuning every time you want to learn a new song. What a nightmare 😅

Playing Notes Together

To play a few notes together, you can group them using parenthesis (), brackets [], dash -, slash /, and backslash \. They represent the same idea of playing notes at the same time. The most commonly used way is the parenthesis () and the dash -. So, to play the C, E, and G notes together, you can write them as (C E G), or C-E-G, or [C, E, G], you get the idea.

Here is a playable example:

That's All Folks

Reading those tabs is not that hard, right? It takes patience to understand what's going on and how long to play each note, but it's doable. If you want to go one step further and learn how to read those vertical kalimba tabs, check this other post: How to Read Kalimba Tabs.

Did you know that you can easily convert between number, letter, and vertical kalimba tabs on TabWhale? You can even transpose the tabs to match your kalimba! Go to You'll find a lot of kalimba tabs there for free. 😉

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