Salsa Rhythms – A Complete Guide for the Percussion Section


Salsa Rhythms percussion displayed

Like most Afro-Cuban music, salsa rhythms are based on clave patterns. These rhythms can sometimes sound a little confusing, so in this article we will explore how to play the most common basic percussion parts for salsa music.

Salsa rhythms are based on the son or rumba clave and can be played in 2:3 or 3:2. All of the rhythm section instruments in a salsa ensemble play parts that fit with clave. These parts include the piano montuno and bass and conga tumbaos. Additionally, the winds, horns, and vocal rhythms fall on particular beats relative to the clave rhythm. 

Although the son clave is the most common fundamental rhythmic pattern in salsa, rumba clave will also make an appearance. Styles like guaguancó and Mozambique use rumba clave and often present opportunities for added improvisation within the song arrangement.

Salsa music is based on mostly Cuban styles, yet it also developed as a popular dance hall ensemble format from the Cuban and Puerto Rican bands in New York during the 1950s and 1960s. In the following article, we will explore the origins, instrumentation, and rhythms of modern salsa ensembles.

Origins of Salsa Rhythms

Salsa rhythms come from both the popularizing of the Cuban son and rumba styles as well as the migration of Cubans and Puerto Ricans to cities in the United States like New York. A lot of the origin events take place in the 1950s and 1960s when immigrants filled dance halls with Cuban dance music and a touch of jazz.

Band leaders like Tito Puente and Machito played mambo, chacha, and Latin jazz. They used elements of Cuban musical forms like call and response choruses and the clave rhythmic foundation to make a familiar but new way of playing.

This development in popular Cuban dance music was further supported by Johnny Pacheco’s Fania Records, which was founded in 1964. The label included many great salseros from New York like Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, and Ray Barretto, to name a few.

Salsa Instrumentation

The origins of the slasa instrumentation can be found in the Cuban conjunto and charanga orquestras. The conjunto had horns, congas, and bongo, while the charanga had strings, flute, and timbales. 

The percussion section of a salsa ensemble consists of a combination of the Cuban conjunto and charanga instrumentations. Typical salsa bands have congas, bongo, timbales, smaller percussion instruments like maracas and guiro, piano, bass, vocals, and a horn section with mostly brass and some woodwinds.

Arsenio Rodriguez is widely accepted as the one who brought together the modern salsa rhythm and horn sections. He added the conga drum, piano, and trumpet and the rest is expanding upon this format.

Clave Rhythms for Salsa

Clave is a two-measure rhythmic cycle that’s derived from the African bell pattern. It has three hits in one measure and two hits in the other, and it can be played in either 3:2 or 2:3.

The measure you start with matters because it is an identifier of the clave. For example, if you play the measure with two hits first, the clave is called 2:3. Likewise, if the measure with three hits is played first, the clave is called 3:2.

son clave musical notation for drum set

Salsa clave rhythms include both son and rumba clave. The main difference between the two clave rhythms can be found on beat four of the three side. Rumba clave’s third hit of the three side is on the upbeat of beat four, and son clave’s third hit is on the downbeat of beat four.

rumba clave musical notation for drum set

If you switch the measures by mistake, that’s a big deal. It’s called cruzado or crossing the clave. On rare occasions, you might hear advanced players cross a part of a phrase as a musical choice, but not the fundamental clave rhythm. It stays the same throughout the song.

Related: Clave Rhythm – A Brief History of a Sacred Popular Rhythm

Basic Salsa Rhythms for Instrument Parts and Clave

A salsa percussion section is the heart of the ensemble because it keeps the time in clave and drives the dynamic and stylistic phrasing.

Piano Montunos and Clave

The piano montuno is an ostinato that outlines the harmony. It has a two side and a three side that match clave. Essentially, the piano montuno bridges the rhythm section and the melodic instruments and vocalists in a salsa ensemble.

Piano montunos come in various melodic and harmonic forms, but they all follow a basic pattern. The rhythm is mostly upbeat with some downbeats that outline the two side of the clave.

The example below is a basic rhythm for a simple harmony. Montunos build from this foundation and often include various rhythmic and melodic ornaments.

basic piano montuno salsa rhythms

Bass Tumbaos

The fundamental rhythm of the bass tumbao has two accents — the and (or upbeat) of beat 2 and the downbeat of beat 4. The notes outline the harmony, usually playing the root, fifth, and octave.

Bass tumbaos are one measure, so they don’t have a two or three side that match the clave rhythm. 

bass tumbao salsa rhythms

Timbales Rhythms for Salsa

The timbales are drums with metal shells and a single drum head. They were fashioned after the European timpani and originally constructed from the bowls used in sugarcane processing.

Timbale players are called timbaleros, and they play a variety of rhythms on the drums, cowbells, and blocks, depending on the setup. These rhythms include mostly cáscara, mambo bell, Mozambique, cha cha patterns, and 6/8 bembé.

The cáscara rhythm is shown below in 2:3 clave because it’s the most common form. This rhythm comes from palito patterns played in rumba guaguancó and is played on the shell of the drum with the stick.

cascara timbale salsa rhythms

Pay particular attention to the accents in the cáscara rhythm. These accents bring clarity to the part and really help lock in the time for the band.

The mambo bell pattern is the other main salsa rhythm played on timbales. It’s used during the louder sections of the song and performed on the mambo bell, the larger cowbell.

mambo bell pattern salsa rhythms

Notice the crescendo on each grouping of four eighth notes. This interpretation is crucial to the feel of the part and can vary from player to player. Practice this rhythm and listen to salsa music to learn the different ways this pattern can be interpreted.

Related: How to Play Timbales – Basic Grooves and Fills

Congas Tumbaos

Conga drums are actually called tumbadoras in Cuba and other parts of Latin America. The name “conga” likely comes from the popularizing of the instrument by Dezi Arnez on television programming produced in the United States.

The primary pattern played on congas in a salsa ensemble is the conga tumbao, also known as marcha. It includes a slap and two open tones as a basic rhythm with heel and toe strokes filling in between.

tumbao conga pattern musical notatio

The pattern shown above is the full conga tumbao phrase, which is played during the louder sections of the song. During the quieter dynamics, conga players leave out the second measure with the tumba (low drum) tones on the bombo clave accent.

son clave notation in 2:3 with arrows pointing to the ponche and bombo accents
The clave rhythm has a few accent patterns used in phrasing Cuban music. For more information about clave, see Rhythm Notes article entitled “Clave Rhythm – A Brief History of a Sacred Popular Rhythm.”

A good tumbao is strong and fluid, so it’s important to develop your strength on this instrument with the proper approach. Some strokes are dropped and others are accelerated. Knowing which strokes are relaxed and which are accelerated is the secret to developing good technique and sounds on the conga drums.

hand is parallel to the conga about 8 inches above the head ready to drop for the heel stroke

Related: Good Sounds on Congas – Developing 5 Basic Techniques

Bongo Martillo Patterns for Salsa

Bongo consists of two drums that are joined together and placed between the knees of a seated player called a bongocero. The smaller drum is called macho and the larger one is called hembra.

The bongocero plays a pattern called martillo, which is Spanish for “hammer.” This is a good name for the pattern because the consistent downbeat strokes sound like someone is building something.

bongo martillo rhythm basic pattern

Martillo patterns are highly improvisational and include an accent phrase for salsa. The martillo shown below includes that accent phrase.

bongo martillo rhythm with salsa accents

Related: How to Play Bongos – Martillo, Salsa, and Other Grooves

Guiro and Maracas – Salsa Small Hand Percussion

The small percussion instruments like guiro, clave, and maracas are not simply something for singers to hold on stage. These instruments add a critical timbre to the groove.

How to Play Maracas

Maracas are one of the most difficult instruments to play and it takes time to develop technique. Believe it or not, there are amazing maraca players in Latin America who can play complex rhythms like drum rudiments.

Hold the maracas with your thumb and index finger wrapped around the area where the handle meets the rattle. The instrument should be almost vertical so the beads are resting close to your hands.

how to hold maracas

Use your wrist to make short sounds on the downbeats, alternating between your hands. When you get comfortable playing that exercise, try the rhythm below. The tough part is controlling the beads so that they don’t make a sound on the prep stroke unless you want them to.

maracas basic salsa rhythm

How to Play Guiro

Guiro is most recognizable for its part in a cha cha, but it’s also played in mambo, songo, and other rhythms you might perform on a salsa tune.

Hold the guiro in one hand and the stick in the other. Make sure the ribbed side is facing inward so you can strike it with the stick.

how to play guiro

Strike downward toward the bottom of the ribs and quickly reverse direction upward, dragging the stick across the ribs of the guiro. This should make a long quarter-note-length sound.

The short sounds (notated as a grace note below) are played with a down scrape and up scrape. The second up scrape prepares you for the next long sound as explained above. 

guiro musical notation cha cha part

Phrasing for Salsa Percussion Parts

Salsa percussion parts are generally played with a pattern variation for the louder parts of the song and a different variation for the quieter parts. For example, the conga tumbao will play the tumba on the bombo accent of clave — the and of beat 3 on the three side of the clave.

Timbales and bongo also have different parts for louder and quieter sections of the song. Both of these instruments play cowbell (or campana) during the louder sections and they’re back to the drum parts for the quieter parts of the song arrangement.

bongo bell pattern salsa rhythms

Transitioning between these two parts also consists of special fills. Before playing the quieter parts (or the “down” section), all three drummers play a unison fill with a short high tone sound on the “and” of beat three and a longer low tone on the downbeat of beat four.

percussion fill into low dynamic section salsa arrangement

The timbalero plays a fill to call the band into the louder sections of the tune. It’s called the abanico. It consists of a rim shot and a drum roll into the downbeat of the louder section where he or she plays the mambo bell pattern or some other rhythm, depending on the style.

abanico timbale fill musical notation

Salsa Rhythms and Styles

The styles from which salsa rhythms come from were born out of the charanga and son conjuntos of the first half of the Twentieth Century. By the time the 1940s big band dance craze discovered mambo in the 1950s, the groundwork for modern salsa bands in both New York and the Caribbean was already established.

The instrumentations of the son montuno and charanga ensembles gave us the piano, bass, timbales, congas, bongo, guiro, and maracas rhythm section. This all supported the vocals, horn section, and flute that carried lines and melodies with improvised sections first introduced in the danzon-mambos of the charanga ensembles, which is also where the cha cha comes from.

Cha Cha Cha

This style, like the mambo, was born out of the danzon-mambo in the 1950s. It’s a slow to medium tempo groove with an emphasis on the downbeats. 

cha cha timbale cowbell

In a salsa ensemble, the timbales play mostly downbeats on a medium- to high-pitched cowbell, while the bongo and congas play their usual parts.

cha cha timbale musical notation percussion

The guiro part is also an important percussion part that defines the cha cha sound. Instead of the guiro playing strong downbeats and shorter inner swipes, the slower cha cha tempo allows for more drawn out scraping across the instrument.

The first stroke is a down stroke that strikes the guiro close to the bottom where the stick quickly reverses direction, sliding up across the ribs of the guiro. This first long stroke is followed by two shorter scrapes across the instrument using both down and up strokes before repeating the pattern over and over.

Mambo

The mambo developed in the 1930s and 1940s as a more syncopated approach to playing danzon. It was called the danzon-mambo, and as it was adopted by the big bands of the 1940s, the danzon section was left out.

The timbales play the cáscara rhythm on the shell of the drum during the quieter sections of the song and the mambo bell pattern when the song dynamics are much louder. 

The following example includes the cáscara played with both right and left hands on the shells of the timbales.

cascara timbale salsa rhythms

Timbaleros also play cáscara with one hand and different variations with their bare hand on the hembra (low drum).

timbale cascara hembra variation

For both the cáscara and the mambo bell, it’s important to play the accents accurately. This is where the feel of the part really blends with the other percussion and rhythm section parts.

mambo bell pattern salsa rhythms

The mambo bell includes a slight crescendo during each grouping of four consecutive eighth notes. Play this crescendo by moving the stick across the cowbell from the middle to the edge of the bell for the loudest stroke.

mambo bell timbales

Congueros play the basic tumbao (or marcha) throughout the mambo style. While the timbalero plays cáscara, the conga player uses one drum. When the timbales play the mambo bell in the “up” sections of the song, the conga player adds the tumba part on the bombo clave accent.

tumbao conga pattern for cha cha

The bongocero plays two parts, as well. The “down” sections are for martillo, and the “up” sections are for the campana part — the bongo bell (see section above on bongo).

bongo bell salsa rhythms

Notice that the martillo pattern for salsa includes two accents. Like the timbale cáscara accents, these are crucial for the bongo part’s voice in the ensemble.

bongo martillo rhythm with salsa accents

If the band doesn’t have a bongocero, the bell pattern is often played by a singer or the timbale player will combine the mambo and bongo bell patterns. This is called the Changuito special after José Luis Quintana, the legendary Cuban percussionist.

changuito special mambo bell and bongo bell combined
The top line is the mambo bell, and the bottom line is a mounted bongo bell.

Between the mambo and the cha cha, these styles comprise the majority of the rhythms a salsa ensemble plays.

Bolero

The bolero rhythm is the most common style used for ballads in a salsa band. It’s a simple and repetitive rhythm, but it should not be taken for granted. Play it with good timing and drum sounds.

The two basic rhythms are played by the timbales and the congas. The timbale rhythm is mostly eighth notes on the drum shell, and the conga part is like a basic tumbao with a different open tone pattern.

Timbale Rhythm

bolero salsa rhythm for timbales

Conga Rhythm

bolero rhythm for congas notation

Bongoceros often play a simple martillo pattern (without the salsa accents) for boleros. This part can include doubling of the timbale rhythm and sparse fills.

Bembé (Afro-Cuban 6/8)

It’s not common that you’ll see the style “bembé” written on a salsa chart. It’s often something like “Afro-Cuban 6/8,” which could mean any number of folkloric styles that are in three or six.

Bembé refers to drum-based musical accompaniment to religious songs in a non-sacred context. The sacred context would use batá drums.

You may learn several different bembé rhythms because they developed differently among the neighborhoods in areas like Matanzas, Cuba. Some bembé rhythms are played with hands while others are played with sticks.

The following rhythm parts are simplified to introduce a basic pattern with hands. The bongo part is adapted from the high drum for this pattern and the conga part includes the low and middle drum parts.

The low drum is the lead drum for bembé, so you can improvise with licks that resolve on the first beat of the pattern.

Timbales

timbales bembe part

Congas

bembe conga rhythm

Bongo

bembe bongo rhythm

Guagauncó

Afro-Cuban folkloric music emcompasses a wide variety of styles, including, but not limited to, Yambu, Rumba Columbia, and Guaguancó. These styles have different approaches to playing them, like bembé, because of the many neighborhoods that developed their own rhythms.

The most popular styles of guaguancó are Havana and Matanzas. The Matanzas style of guaguancó was made popular by Los Munequitos de Matanzas and is the more sophisticated of the two, in my opinion.

Havana guaguancó, however, is easier to play with two drums (below) for a section of a salsa tune. The rhythm below is the Havana style for congas with some ideas on how the bongocero can improvise with some quinto phrases from Matanzas style.

Timbale (Catá Rhythm)

timbale guanguanco salsa rhythm part

Conga Pattern for Two Drums

guaguanco for two conga drums

Mozambique

The Mozambique rhythm was developed by Pello El Afrokán, and it comes from the conga de comparsa rhythms of Cuba. These rhythms are played during carnival festivals in the street, and they have a lot of parts.

Also like bembé, the Mozambique rhythm can be played many different ways. Drummers use congas, cowbells of various sizes, and small bass drums with different pitches for different parts.

The following rhythms are adapted for timbales, congas, and bongo bell.

Timbales

timbale mozambique part

Congas

mozambique conga part

Bongo Bell

mozambique bongo bell rhythm

Pachanga

A pachanga is like a Cuban merengue, and, like most of these styles, it became popular in the dance halls of the 1950s.

Timbales

pachanga timbale pattern

Congas

pachanga conga rhythm

Guiro and Clave

pachanga guiro and clave rhythm

Pilon

The pilon is similar to a lot of the rhythms on this list. It’s significant because it’s a precursor to the songo (see below). Plus, it’s an easy groove to dance to, which is always popular with the audience.

Timbales

pilon timbale rhythm

Congas

pilon conga rhythm

Guiro and Clave

pilon guiro and clave rhythms

Merengue

The merengue pattern shown below is called pampiche. It’s one of three main salsa rhythms from the domincan republic and the most common one you’ll play in a salsa band.

The tambora is the main drum for merengue. Congas are an addition that came as salsa bands played more of these rhythms. Sometimes the timbale player will play tambora or simulate the parts on the timbales.

Additionally, the guira is like a merengue guiro. The main difference is that it’s usually made of metal and the striking implement is more like a comb than a stick.

Congas

merengue conga pattern

Guira

merengue guira rhythm

Bomba

Bomba is a folkloric music from Puerto Rico. Of the non-Cuban musical styles on this list, it’s not as common as merengue. But since Puerto Ricans make up many of the salsa musicians in the Caribbean and in the United States, it’s worth noting, for sure.

The bomba rhythm shown below is called sicá. It’s one of a few main rhythms played on the bomba drums. 

Timbales

bomba timbale part

Congas

bomba sica conga rhythm

Songo

The songo was developed by Los Van Van. It’s an approach to playing Cuba popular dance music that established a foundation for timba, a mixture of songo, salsa, and American popular genres like funk, R&B, and soul. Although the songo is not a common salsa style, the bands that play songo are different branches of the same tree that developed salsa rhythms.

Songo is the only Afro-Cuban style developed on a drum set. The rhythm can still be played by just timbales and congas, but the kick drum and snare are important elements to the groove. The most prominent rhythm is the half note down beat accent, often played on the cowbell or cymbal.

The example below is a basic songo for drum set and congas. Consider listening to rumba guaguancó for ideas on how to improvise with these rhythms.  

Drum Set

songo drum set

Congas

songo conga rhythm

These songo examples are played with 2:3 rumba clave. Songo, and its newer development called timba, are funky and open. If you listen to groups that play songo and timba, you will hear many different patterns built on these basic concepts shared above.

Salsa Song Form Analysis

Salsa musical form generally includes an intro, verse, chorus, and coda. The introduction is where you’ll hear the rhythmic and melodic themes emerge from light instrumental or vocal improvisations.

The introduction of a salsa song can be loud or soft. It can have horns playing phrases or soloists performing the melody or just a solid groove from the rhythm section — the possibilities are almost endless.

In Spanish, the verse section is called the “cuerpo,” which literally translates to “body.” I call it the verse or chorus because it’s where the lyrical verse is often sung.

The chorus of the song is the “montuno.” This is the section of the song form that’s louder, so the timbales and bongo rhythms are on the cowbells. The conga and bass tumbao phrases expand a bit to accent the bombo and stretch out.

A salsa arrangement will often end with a melody or rhythmic phrase that’s much like the one in the introduction. The ending often features breaks, both percussion and full rhythm section or ensemble. 

Listening Recommendations 

If musicians don’t listen to enough of this music, it’s impossible to get the feel under skin and pumping throughout your body. Although this can be said for all types of music, listening is especially important to learning salsa because there are so many different elements that comprise the genre.

The following list includes a mix of some of my favorite salsa groups. It’s just a starting point. Percussionists who want to develop their skills on congas, timbales, and bongo need to listen to a variety of groups. This will help determine what salsa rhythms are the fundamental patterns and which rhythms are specific to the individual musicians.

El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico

“El Combo del Mundo”

“Me Liberé”

“Te Regalo el Corazon”

Celia Cruz

“Quimbara”

“La Vida Es Un Carnaval”

“Oye Cómo Va”

Fania All Stars

Héctor Lavoe

“El Cantante”

“Escarchas” (guaguancó)

“El Día De Mi Suerte”

Willie Colón

“El Gran Varón”

“Gitana”

“Idilio”

Ismael Rivera

“Incomprendido”

“Las Caras Lindas”

“El Nazareno”

“Las Tumbas”

“Mi Negrita Me Espera”

Batacumbele

“Se Le Ve”

Los Van Van 

“Por Encima del Nivel” 

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