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Salsa & Merengue
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For Players

On Stage
Getting Started
Line-up Types
Percussion: Congas
Rhythm: Piano
Rhythm: Bass
Percussion: Timbales
Melodics: Violin
Percussion: Hand
Rhythm: Guitar / Tres
Percussion: Bongó

Getting Started


I am a songwriter, band leader, record producer and I have been on a lifelong pursuit of finding out ways to combine the various aspects of Afro-diaspora music into the songs that I write.

You are providing a great service on your site to the music world, in your historical articles, and your bent for fairness and accuracy.

Ray G.
San Francisco


When embarking on something new, it's sometimes difficult to know where to begin, whom to ask, and what you need to know. Learning how to play Latin music is no different. More often than not, people start because they feel a real passion for the music and want to play a bigger part in it. Others are simply curious. It doesn't matter what your background is; whether you're a musician, dancer, somehow connected to the salsa scene, or simply have good taste. Playing salsa brings its own rewards to your musicality, your musicianship, and your cultural understanding.

Regardless of your level of experience and the instrument you play, salsa requires that you have a fundamental understanding of certain key rhythms, how they interact, and the instruments which interpret them. They are namely the son clave, tumbao moderno, pulse and cáscara; usually interpreted by clave, conga, hand percussion and timbales respectively.

One of the best ways of laying down this rhythm knowledge-base is by establishing a drum and percussion circle; where each person from the group takes on a specific rhythm and instrument, and the whole group plays together as a percussion ensemble. The roles are then changed in rotation until everyone has played all the different rhythms and understood how they work in a polyrhythmic context. You can then proceed to adding the rhythm and melodic instruments, and the vocals.

It isn't necessary to commit to purchasing the instruments right from the onset; a little Cuban ingenuity will do the trick. For example:

  • clave can be played on two hard plastic pens;
  • tumbao moderno on your thighs or a table-top;
  • pulse on a large tumbler with a pencil for a beater; and
  • cáscara on a pair of upturned drawers, or tapping a bottle with a coin.

If you can get input from practicing musicians experienced in the genre, then you're in an enviable position. Whether you can or not, there are many resources available to help you in your pursuit and you will find specific mention of them in the relevant web pages that follow. Few of them will help you as much as:

  • 'Latin-American Percussion: Rhythms And Rhythm Instruments From Cuba And Brazil' by Birger Sulsbrück (External link); and
  • 'Salsa Guidebook For Piano & Ensemble' by Rebeca Mauleón (External link).

They proved invaluable to me as we were starting out, and are still relevant even after years of experience. You should also visit the Salsa: Ear Training tutorials for more direction.

I cannot overstress how important it is that you continue to develop your intellectual understanding of the genre through the use of learning materials, even as you become more proficient in the Latin styles on your chosen instrument. For those of us not born into the tradition of this kind of music-making, we have a lot of catching-up to do.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society