Next article: The Bass Note

The djembe

Djembe Basics

How to read djembe notation


With the ease of sound and video recording today, it's often quicker to listen or watch and repeat than to learn music notation, but understanding how rhythms are written down gives musicians a much better understanding of the song itself and music in general too.

The drum notation we use is much easier all those squiggly dots and dashes of regular music score. It'll only take you a few minutes to get basic understanding and you'll be on your way.

Drum Notation

Rhythms are written down on a chart with four rows. The chart is read from left to right while reading the information given in each row.

1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

The top row is a lineal representation of the passage of time. It divides the song's structure into equal time measures and shows you the available spaces where notes can be played.

The second row shows the notes to be played, with different notes represented by different symbols. The notes appear underneath the time at which they are to be played. The third row simply tells you which hand to use and the fourth row shows a phonetic (verbal) representation of the note, a technique which is often used in djembe drumming.

Time 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
Word GU do go

You count by reading the numbers in the top row from left to right, either aloud or in your head, while playing the notes shown in the second row underneath. You use the hand indicated in the third row and you can also speak the rhythm using the words in the fourth row.

The Time

The time is usually divided into counts of four.

1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

It can also be divided into counts of three.

1 2 3 1 2 3

The whole numbers can also be sub-divided half beats. (the + sign is pronounced 'and')

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

This is read as 'One and two and three and four and'.

There are other variations but this will do for now.

The Notes

The three basic notes of the djembe, the bass the tone and the slap are shown as symbols.


We'll explain in detail later what each symbol means and how to play them, but here's a reference for future use.

Note Symbol

The hand


Instead of using just 'left' and 'right' (or L and R) to show which hand to use when playing a particular note, we use a picture of a hand, either red or black.

This is because left handed people play rhythms using the opposite hands to right handed people, so where a right-handed person would use their right hand for a note, the left-handed person would feel more natural using their left.

So, for right-handed people a black hand means use your right hand and a red hand means use the left hand.

For left-handed people the black hand means use your left hand and the red hand means use your right.

Make sense?

Which hand?

Right-handed Players

Right Left

Left-handed Players

Left Right

The Words

Traditionally rhythms are taught not using notation, but verbally by singing the rhythm out loud and copying it on the drum.

We use these words so you too can learn how to speak the language of djembe rhythms.

Each note has a corresponding word, which also indicates which hand to use and so hearing the language spoken in the rhythm of the song tells you everything you need to know. Ingenious!

Word GU do go

Here are the words used for the basic notes, depending on the hand used.

Note Symbol
TONE go do
SLAP pa ta

That's it! Here's another look at the whole chart put together.

Time 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
Word GU do go

Don't worry if you don't completely understand it all yet. It'll slowly become clearer as you learn more.

Next article: The Bass Note