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

Percussion: Timbales
The presence of timbales in a rhythm section adds texture to the percussion group. The basic role of the timbalero is to provide a combination of syncopated and regular ride patterns to complement the different sections of a song, and to cue the onset of the new sections. Rhythmic independence between the left side and the right is a key objective of the aspiring timbale player.

Timbaleros work the groove selecting tasteful rhythms, accents and fills - amongst the most notable is Jose Luis Quintana "Changuito" formerly of the Cuban supergroup Los Van Van. Although sometimes considered non-core to a line-up, the addition of timbales can achieve a higher level of excitement and versatility to a band's sound. And excitement's what salsa's about.

The instrument
Timbales are available in a variety of diameters, the most common being 14" and 15" drums where the smaller is called the macho (male) for its more aggressive tone, and the larger the hembra (female) for its mellower tone. The sexed pair is typical of AfroCuban percussion instruments. Deeper timbale drums are called timbalones, and are commonly used in charanga line-ups. The shells are typically of stainless steel or brass: steel shells have a brighter sound and have more "cut" than brass shells which have a warmer tone. Tuning hardware is a necessity, and a double-braced stand would be helpful in keeping the drums stable whilst playing.

The typical timbale setup also includes two bells: a smaller high-pitched bell called the chacha bell, and a larger one called the mambo or timbale bell. A woodblock-sounding equivalent like the LP Jam Block is commonly found as well.

Two other additions are: a "crash-able" cymbal with a strong bell sound and high definition on the body, like the Zildjian Azuka Timbale Cymbal; and a trap-set bass drum.

Brands to investigate as a starting point are Latin Percussion, Meinl, and Toca. My preferred brand is Meinl, because of tone, quality, workmanship, support and design (for example the tuning hardware takes up less depth giving me more room to play on the shells).

What to play
When starting off I found that playing the ride patterns sectionally helped me understand how their particular feel and groove. The following recommendations as regards which hands to use i.e. dominant hand (d), non-dominant hand (nd); and the sections in which to play the rhythms in square brackets, are simply suggestions. Feel free to experiment. The rhythms are recommended in order of utility:

  • Cáscara on macho shell (d), manoseo del cuero on hembra accenting beats 2 & 4 (nd) [verse, chorus]
  • Timbale ride pattern (d) on timbale/mambo bell, pulse on chacha bell (nd) [chorus, montuno]
  • Abanico [for cue section changes]
  • Cáscara on macho shell (d), clave on woodblock (nd) [verse, chorus]
  • Timbale ride pattern (d) on timbale/mambo bell, clave on woodblock (nd) [chorus, montuno]
  • Clave on woodblock (d), pulse on timbale/mambo/chacha bell (nd) [any].

The best sets of instructional material for beginning timbaleros is, by far, that by Birger Sulsbrück and Victor Rendón. It depends on your learning style.

Recommended Resources

Latin-American Percussion: Rhythms And Rhythm Instruments From Cuba And Brazil by Birger Sulsbrück. (External link)

Salsa Guidebook For Piano & Ensemble by Rebeca Mauleón. (External link)

Close-Up On Bongos And Timbales, Vol. 2 - DVD by Richie Gajate Garcia. A good video for learning the basics. (External link)

The Art Of Playing Timbales, Vol. 1: Book & CD Package by Victor Rendón. A well-planned course from beginner to intermediate level. (External link)

A Master's Approach To Timbales by Jose Luis Quintana "Changuito". This is the ultimate guide to mastery through the laying down of good practice. (External link)

Additional resources are available on under Instructional -> Afro-Latin Percussion (External link)


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society