Timbales are shallow single-headed drums that developed in the Cuban dance bands of the 19th and 20th centuries. They are widely popular in many different types of modern Latin bands, and learning how to play timbales can lead to many new musical opportunities for percussionists.
The timbales are played by striking the shells of the drums, the wood block, and cowbell, as wells the drum heads and rims. The rhythms played on these instruments include patterns like cáscara and the mambo bell. Both of these patterns fit specifically with clave, so it’s important to learn that relationship. Additionally, timbaleros play fills to make musical contributions and signal certain transitions.
This article explains the basics of the instrument. This includes the sounds you can make, grooves, fills, and some contributions from famous timbaleros.
The timbales are a true syncretism of the Afro-Cuban culture. If you take the timpani of European music and make them smaller and more portable, you’ll have the beginnings of a timbale set. The bands of the late 1800s and early 1900s developed the instrument design and rhythms that established the foundation for how to play timbales.
Most timbales are comprised of a 14 inch macho (male) drum on the right and a 15 inch hembra (female) on the left. Like bongo, timbales are named with male and female identities because of the West African tradition of naming drums that come in sets of twos. The high drum is aggressive like a male, and the low drum is warm like a female.
Many modern setups include a kick and snare drum. This creates a sort of hybrid drum set and timbale setup that opens new opportunities to play different grooves. For example, the songo (see below) requires a kick drum.
The debate over whether the drums should be a fourth apart or a fifth is a matter of personal preference. If you like the sound of one interval over another, go with it. The interval of a fourth can be tuned relatively by using the first two notes of “Here Comes the Bride” — between “here” and “comes” is a perfect fourth. A fifth is the first two long notes of the Star Wars theme song.
The drums can be struck in the center of the head for a sound that does not ring as much or near the edge where the waves will travel farther across the head before canceling out. The low drum generally sounds better with the dead center approach, and the high drum is mostly played closer to the edge.
Rimshots are a high drum specialty. They are created when you play the rim of the drum with the head at the same time, especially with the end of the stick close to the edge. Use the rimshots as an accent to play fills and different solo figures. It will cut through the band and establish a contrast between the non rimshot hits and the low drum sound.
The shell of the drum, also called pailas, can be played by hitting it and leaving the stick on the shell or letting it rebound away from the shell. If the stick stays in contact with the shell after striking it, the resonance of the shell is dampened. This could be the sound you want, or perhaps you want the shell to ring a little. Go with what sounds good over strict rule.
Not all of the sounds are made with the sticks. Some of the grooves shown below include strokes on the low drum that are played with the fingers. These strokes with the hand are an older approach to playing timbales and work well in quieter settings. In other words, the strokes played with the hand can easily get lost in a large Latin jazz ensemble, but they are still felt in the groove.
Most timbale setups have a small cowbell and a large cowbell. The cha cha bell is the small cowbell, and it is used to play the downbeat accented pattern for the cha cha cha. The large cowbell is called the mambo bell, and its pattern is more syncopated and varied (see Timbale Grooves below).
Clave is the main rhythm played on the block. The original blocks were made of wood, but most of the blocks on modern setups are plastic. The block can be used to play the cata part for rumba or the block part for cumbia, depending on the style of the song.
The first timbale setups did not include cymbals, but almost every modern timbale set has at least one cymbal. The cymbal is generally around 16 inches and can be used for crashing and ride patterns. The ride patterns are typically cascara rhythm, the same rhythm commonly played on the shell of the high drum.
Learning how to play timbales is about playing the patterns with the proper accents and without getting lost by switching the side on which the clave falls. Once the groove starts, the timbale player is accountable, like everyone else, for maintaining the clave rhythm or risk being cruzado — crossed.
The cáscara pattern is played on the shells of the drums and includes specific accents, some of which line up with clave. Be sure to determine whether the song starts with the two side or the three side before playing.
You can play cáscara as written here with the pattern on the high drum shell and filling in the eighth notes on the low drum shell. It can also be played on the cymbal with the other hand playing clave on the block.
2:3 Cáscara – on cymbal with clave on block
Mambo bell Pattern
Like the cáscara, the mambo bell pattern has a two and three side that lines up with clave. It also has a specific accent pattern. Play the accents closer to the opening of the bell and the unaccented notes in the middle on the top of the bell.
As you move your stick toward the edge to play the accent, you will create almost a crescendo in the dynamic. Some players really pronounce this way of phrasing, while others establish more of a stark contrast between the accented and unaccented notes. Listen to your favorite timbaleros, and make a choice that you like.
2:3 Mambo Bell Pattern
The mambo bell pattern has several variations, and sometimes it’s identical to cáscara. There are no hard and fast rules once you’ve learned these patterns. The variations must make sense to the foundations of Afro-Cuban music, such as clave, but inventing new patterns or applying variations to a song should never be out of the question.
Cha Cha Cha
The Cha Cha is played with medium tempo downbeats on the cha cha bell. It sounds simple, but the tempo and feel of the groove, without rushing, is where things get interesting. Watch Tito Puente. He’s the master.
You can play the low drum mute and open tone part with your free hand. This part is played with the fingers while the same hand holds the timbales stick. Although there are different techniques for these strokes, you can use your ring and middle fingers to strike the drum with a wrist motion.
Variations on the bell part are simple, too. The example below adds eighth notes to beats two and four. These eighths are often unaccented, which means that the quarter notes on beats one and three are accented.
Many different fills can be played on timbales. The fills that transition from cáscara to mambo and back to cáscara are fundamental to learning how to play timbales.
The first fill is played before you start a groove on any low dynamic section of a song. This is the kind of low dynamic in which we play cáscara on the shells of the drums. The fill is a macho drum rimshot on the and of beat 3 and a dead center tone on the hembra on beat 4.
The cáscara starts at the top of the next measure after the fill. This fill brings the groove back down to the lower dynamic and keep the group together. It’s also played in unison with the congas and bongo.
The second fill is called abanico, and it’s probably the most recognizable timbale fill. The abanico signals the transition between quieter dynamic sections and the louder dynamic sections in which the mambo bell pattern is often played.
Abanico is a rimshot, followed by a roll on beat four of the measure before the beginning of the next section. If the clave is 2:3, the rimshot is on the and of beat three — the second hot on the three side of the clave. If the clave is 3:2, the rimshot is on the downbeat of beat three.
The roll is usually either a 7-stroke roll or a 9-stroke roll. If the tempo is fast, play a 7-stroke roll that starts on the left hand or the hand opposite the one you use to release the roll with. Release the roll with a rimshot on the downbeat of beat one in the first measure of the next section.
For slower tempos, the 9-stroke roll fills more space. Since it’s a 16th-note roll structure, the same hand will start and release the roll.
The following timbale players stand out the most to me for one reason or another. They all changed the way the timbales are approached or perceived. If you are going to learn how to play timbales, it’s best if you know a little about the best players.
Tito Puente used to play a conga de comparsa (or mozambique) patter on the bells as well as on the drums. For example, he would play a bell pattern like the one below on two drums while filling the inner beats on two other drums.
Then, he would improvise on the drums on which he played the bell pattern. The high and low interaction of the bell pattern translated well on the drums. This is one of Tito Puente’s signature ways to play the timbales.
Manny Oquendo was a part of the development of modern Latin jazz and salsa in New York. He played with many great ensembles, including Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. His approach to timbales is traditional, and he’s known for playing sparse hits and rhythms while playing solos.
Changuito developed the songo with Los Van Van in the 1970s. He’s more than just a timbale player, but we will stick to the topic of this article. Changuito developed the songo by approacing the drum set like a timbalero and bongocero with an emphasis on rhythms from different Afro-Cuban rumbas.
Sheila E. has played with everybody. She can play drum set, timbales, auxiliary percussion, and has done so for everyone from Herbie Hancock to Marvin Gay and Beyonce to Prince. Her legacy is one of song writer, percussionist, music director, singer, and studio musician. She made the timbales and auxiliary percussion her soapbox into the mainstream popular music and culture.
Timbales are an Afro-Atlantic development that over time became less related to its European relative, the timpani. It’s distinct from any other instrument in the world, and has specific patterns and fills for a variety of styles. Learning how to play timbales is about knowing the patterns and fills to play for each musical style.
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