17 Latin Grooves Every Drum Set Player Should Know

The dreaded words on my junior high jazz chart used to haunt me. It would say “Latin” or “calypso.” I had no idea what that meant, no books to reference Latin grooves, no teacher knowledgeable enough to help me, and certainly no YouTube in 1992. A lot has changed since then. 

In high school, I had the best percussion teacher. He had a jazz degree from UNT, taught us Afro-Cuban rhythms and samba with traditional instruments, and we learned West African dance drum songs. When I read “Latin” on the chart in high school, I knew to listen for the bass line to determine if it was Cuba, Brazil, or something pseudo-Latin.

Depending on which country the style references, you have to make decisions on drum set about how to voice the parts on your instrument. Certain things, like clave, are a given and must be included or implied by the way you play other rhythms. But at some point the parts have to be decided so you can do your job establishing the style, kicking the band, and improvising.

1. Bossa Nova

The music of Brazil has some specific characteristics. You’ll notice that the kick drum parts for bossa nova and samba are the same. This doesn’t mean that the traditional rhythms are that exact kick drum pattern. It’s just a rhythmic theme from Brazilian music that drum set players have adapted to the kick drum and bass lines.

Bossa nova comes from musicians in the late 1950s playing a soft samba with guitar playing the underlying rhythms through jazz chords. It was a beach sound versus the samba school street music. One or more percussionists could accompany the guitar, but the vocals and guitar became the focus, especially with songs like “Girl From Ipanema.”

The rhythmic elements of bossa nova include clave, a steady shaker, and lower sounding drum like from the pandeiro or, in this case, the kick drum. It’s probably so popular in the jazz and the rest of the pop music world because of its adaptability to drum set. 

For a deeper dive into the concept of “clave,” check out this article.

 2. Songo

The Steve Houghton songo was the first variation of the groove I learned after studying the Essential Styles books in high school. Changuito developed the songo while playing with Los Van Van, and it is closely related to the jazz, funk, and a folkloric mix known as timba in Cuban music.

Songo can be played on drum set or a hybrid between drum set, timbales, and even electronic triggers. You can hear the tumbao from son and the bell from mambo, but it is not something you are likely to hear from a salsa band. This groove is highly adaptable for a variety of jazz, pop, or fusion tunes that call for a Latin feel that leans more toward Cuba than Brazil.  

I think of songo as having a strong half-note pulse on the cymbal, cowbell, or shell of the drum and a bomba backbeat on the and of beat two in each bar. It’s a two-bar phrase lends well to borrowing folkloric drum conversations to add melody to the song.     

3. Mambo

Unlike the previous grooves on this list, the mambo requires drum set players to combine parts from a few different instruments. This means the player will have to make some decisions about which instruments and rhythms are important enough to adapt and which ones are not.

I think of it in terms of the timbale and conga parts. Clave can be played on a jam block or cross stick on the snare drum, for example, while the cascara can be played on the rim of the drum, the shell of the drum, hi hat, or the ride cymbal, including the bell.

The song will help you determine whether you should be playing cascara on the cymbal, cowbell, or hi hat. During the up sections of the song, you’ll choose cowbells and cymbal bells, for example. If it’s the down section or abajo, you’ll probably play cascara on the shell of the drum, the rim, or the hi hat – simulating the shell of the timbale as it would be played traditionally.

The conga is the other part that I usually include while playing mambo on drum set. Of course, if there’s a conga player in the band, there’s no need to double this part. Since I’m limited in terms of how many hands I have free to play the conga part, I play the slap as a cross stick on the snare and the open tones of the tumbao with a rack tom.

Variation 1

Variation 2

4. Samba

The First samba variation notated below is probably the most common one you’ll hear. However, I don’t think it’s the most sophisticated one. The second variation is a better adaptation of the traditional parts on drum set, but many of the Latin tunes require a heavier kick drum to support the band, which is why I think the first variation is more common.

The most important part of samba is the shaker part. It’s notated by the sixteenths and accents In the second variation. This surdo part is notated in the same variation with a heavy accent on beat three of the bar, which is played by the kick drum. Sometimes I add an eighth note to anticipate this surdo hit because the samba school players add inner beats with their hand or mallet to establish the feel.

If you need a heavier sounding samba and perhaps even a more traditional one, the third variation is the best at simulating the high and low surdo parts. These parts are played on the floor Tom while the tamborim parts are played as a cross stick. But this instrumentation shouldn’t limit you. As long as the parts have the same rhythmic feel, you’ve done your job adapting the traditional samba to the drum set.

Variation 1

Variation 2

Variation 3

7. Cha Cha

The issues adapting the cha-cha to the drum set are very similar to the ones you face with mambo. The main parts you want to adapt are the timbale rhythms, the guiro, and the conga.

The quarter notes played on the downbeat by the timbale are the dominant voice in the cha-cha groove. During the down sections of the song, this part is usually played with a cross stick on the snare drum. If it’s the up section of the tune, I’ll play it on a cha-cha bell or the bell of the ride cymbal.

The conga part is the harder of the instruments to adapt to drum set. Since I like to play the guiro part with an open and close hi hat technique, the only way I can play the conga part is to play an open hand approach to high hat and snare drum. By incorporating the conga part (tumbao), even with the open hand technique, it becomes difficult to find a way to play the quarter note on the downbeat.

6. African Bell

The African bell pattern may not be your what comes to mind when you think about Latin grooves. But if you listen to the traditional Afro-Caribbean styles, you’ll definitely come across the 12/8 African bell pattern.

The groove that I shared below is the same one you’ll find performed by Steve Houghton in the essential styles book. It’s not the beat that I play exclusively when I think of interpreting African bell pattern on drum set. But it’s very common and works for a lot of different situations.

For more variations on the African bell pattern, see number 13 on this list – rumba Columbia.

7. Ballroom Rumba

Knowing how to play the ballroom rumba has helped me a lot on both big band and blues gigs. It’s worked on Duke Ellington and Ray Charles tunes alike.

This groove reminds me of pseudo-Latin attempts to play a mambo groove on drum set. It immediately brings me back to the big band era, perhaps even Ricky Ricardo‘s band on I love Lucy.

Pay particular attention to the way the snare drum part is voiced, which is played with the snares off. If you place your left lower palm on the drum while playing the cross stick, it mutes the head and changes the timbre of what you’re doing with your right hand. This effectively gives you three different sounds if you follow the part as I’ve written it.

8. Bolero

The best sounding boleros I’ve ever played included timbales, congas, maracas, and bongo. Adapting these parts to the drum set is no easy task. But sometimes the gig calls for a bolero, and it’s your job to be ready.

The conga part and timbale rhythm are probably the most recognizable voices in this groove, so I focus on those instruments. The toms are my go-to for conga parts, and the timbale shell rhythm works on rims or hi hat. I usually go with the remote hat or a tight cymbal stack on the left side of the kit to make it easier for me to play the toms.

9. Cumbia

Like the mambo, cha cha, and bolero, the conga part in cumbia is crucial if you want to adapt the groove to drum set. Since most bands playing cumbia have a drum set player, most of this groove is already voiced for the kit.

The galloping timbale part in the Mexican cumbia groove is the key, like clave, to holding the entire rhythm section together. This “a caballo” part is usually played on the shell of the timbale. I play it on the hi hat or a jam block, but it can be interpreted several differents ways, as it should in different phrases.

The conga part is a slap on the first upbeat and an open tone on the second upbeat. This is easily voiced as a cross stick on the snare to simulate the slap while your rack tom works for the open tone.

 10. Soca

Soca is one of two grooves on this list that were developed on drum set. The songo was developed on a drum set and timable hybrid while the soca has been a drum set groove from the start.

The soca was created to add some funk into calypso music played in Trinidad and Tobago. The kick is quarter notes on the downbeats, while the hi hat plays upbeats. The snare is the most syncopated and funky. Its first hit is just between the first hi hat upbeat and the second kick, and the second is with the second hi hat upbeat.

11. Rumba Guaguancó

I don’t know if it has been just my experience, but most of the drum set books that have a guaguanco groove in it are way off. The Malabe and Weiner book nails it with a simple folkloric rhythm example, exercises to voice the parts on drum set, and some groove variations that become increasingly more sophisticated. The only other book that nails it is Timba Funk by the drummers from Talking Drums.

Once again, the toms are the congas, the clave and kata are played on rims and shells, and the inner beats are on snare or other toms. The quinto drum fills in and converses with both the dancers and drummers, so stick to higher-sounding drums like the snare or a high rack tom that’s not playing the segundo part.

It’s important to play the fundamental tumbadora (conga drums) parts before filling in too much. If you learn the parts and play them, you’ll find that even the improvisations have loosely set rhythms, fills, and conversations.

12. Merengue

The tambora drum is the part to focus on for adapting merengue to drum set. The guira part is the only other one you could voice on the kit, but I recommend nailing down the tambora. It’s stick on rim accents and downbeat slaps sound amazing on a snare drum with the snares released, while the low open tones work well on the floor tom.

If you want to figure how to improvise within this groove, YouTube has several videos of excellent tambora players. Listen for the phrases that play off the last half of the groove over the following phrase and to the end before getting back into the groove.

I like to play the guira on hi hat with my left foot. This adds a balance to the syncopation as well as the timbres. The metal of the cymbal cuts without overbearing the busier pattern on the rim of the snare drum.

13. Rumba Columbia

This groove is another Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythm that uses the African bell pattern as its main ostinato to which all other parts are related. Like guaguanco, rumba Columbia is about drum conversations, so the improvisations should keep clave and these basic conversations in mind.

The first variation is commonly played at the beginning of a song in the rumba Columbia. It is similar to the parts played by shekeres for a guiro folkloric arrangement. The second groove is the montuno section of the song and usually means that the energy of the song is more intense.

I like practicing these grooves to engrain new ideas about groove and improvisation that could work on any shuffle or 6/8 groove. These conversations have influenced my improvisation and fills by allowing me to think of my performance in more melodic and syncopated ways.

14. Mozambique

This is the New York-style Mozambique, which has nothing to do with the Cuban-style rhythm. The Cuban rhythm is more folkloric in terms of instrumentation and the song and dance the drums and bells accompany.

The groove below was developed in New York in the 1960s, about ten year after the Cuban rhythm was developed. It is well adapted to drum set and latin jazz. Although you’ll hear some similarities between the two rhythms, experts suggest that they both have comparsa roots and that neither of them have anything to do with the African country of the same name.

Steve Gadd plays his own interpretation of the drum conversations to add a funkier feel for popular music. His bell patterns vary between the one written below and a 2-3 cascara, depending on the performance you watch. 

 15. Samba Reggae

The samba reggae is one of my favorite Brazilian grooves to play on drum set. The upbeat rimshots on the snare drum are the perfect timbre to complement the busy floor tom part that simulates the surdos.

An actual samba school makes samba reggae swing so much with its thunderous drums and cracks from the upper register instruments like the tamborim. I play both the high and low surdo parts with my right hand on one floor tom, but I would use two floor toms if the opportunity presents itself. It’s not a full school, but it’s a huge sound for the right arrangement.  

Trying to emulate the effect of so many drums on drum set is impossible, so the parts must speak for themselves. Be sure to play the dead pressed strokes on the tom because it simulates the high surdo part that calls the response of the larger surdos.

16. Bomba

Along with the plena, the bomba is a popular Puerto Rican folkloric music style. At first glance, it may seem similar to Cuban folkloric music and dance, but the bomba is played on bigger conga-like drums and is comprised of a one-bar drum and clave cycle.

17. Tango

The tango nuevo is what I think of when someone says tango. This style incorporates a larger ensemble and sometimes electric guitar. It’s often what we hear when we see ballroom dancing shows on TV because everything the tango has become since the early 1980s is considered tango nuevo. Play this rhythm, and you’ll ace the gig.