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Latin Drumming

Latin Drumming Tips

Pro Tips for Latin Style Drumming - by Preston Fulcher

  • Clave is an instrument AND a rhythm. Claves are two wooden sticks that are played by striking the two together, there are many different types of claves (i.e. rosewood, and now even synthetics.)
  • It is impossible to place too much emphasis on the clave rhythm when dealing with latin music. Songs are often entirely arranged around this rhythm and therefore each musician and not just drummer should be completely familiar with it.
  • There is a big difference between being aware of the clave in the song, and playing "IN" clave.Ultimately, the idea is to "internalize" clave.
  • A typical latin rhythm section would include three percussionists. A Bongocero (bongo player), Conguero (conga player), and a Timbalero (timbale player). Each percussionist plays a vital role in the groove as well as the dynamics of a band. These three musicians stay in constant sync. with each other.
  • A Bongo player has two jobs, to play the bongos throughout the verse or "down" sections of a song, and to play a rock solid bongo bell, a.k.a campana* pattern during choruses or "up" sections of the piece.
  • The standard rhythm for bongos is an eighth note phrase called, martillo. With emphasis on "1" and "3" A good bongocero can improvise freely within the martillo pattern.
  • NEVER take the campanero (bongo bell player) for granted, for in a latin group he or she may be the only person outlining tempo with emphasis on "1" and "3"! If you're ever lost in a piece of latin music, look for this person.
  • A Conga player carries the bulk of the groove by typically playing a straight 8th note pattern that repeats known as tumbao. One places emphasis in the conga tumbao with a slap on beat "2" and open tones on beats "4" and the "and" of"4".
  • The Timbale player is most closely associated with the "drummer" of the band. His job is to hold time and to set-up band figures using fills.
  • A typical timbale set-up consists of two, single headed drums (macho/hembra) a high-pitched cha-cha bell, wood block, a lower pitched mambo bell, and generally a cymbal.
  • A contemporary or "new-school" approach to timbales may also include a bass drum, floor tom, snare, additional pedals, and eventually the entire drum-set, but always surrounding the primary instrument, timbales.
  • Tumbao is a standard time-keeping pattern that is associated with the congas, bass, and sometimes timbales in latin music.
  • Bells have many different forms and names too long to list. They should be studied according to their geographic origin with certain respect paid to their tonal qualities as well as musical roles in any particular genre .
  • A typical cowbell has many different pitches with two important ones to be kept in mind. The mouth of the bell, witch creates the lowest pitch, and the neck, producing a higher pitch. It is played either with a cowbell beater (standard for bongo players) or a drumstick.
  • Congas a.k.a. tumbadoras posses a wealth of different tones created with a "near" standard of technique, here are some that all congueros should know; the closed slap, open slap, open tone, muffled tone, bass, and the heel-tip technique. With many variations on each.
  • Most all latin drums are tuned in a circular motion and not point to point.Don't be afraid to crank down your bongos when tuning them. Too often do people confuse the sound a bongo should make with congas. They should be able to pierce above all of the drums with your finger-tips.
  • When using skin heads ALWAYS tune down after each use. This prolongs the elasticity of the head and allows for many more years of playing time.
  • Many companies offer synthetic heads, there are many pros and cons, so try what works for you. One important "plus" for synthetic heads, is that you don't have to tune them down after each use.
  • For many people that play latin percussion in America, it is important to grasp the big picture so as to promote a well rounded understanding of latin drumming. There truly is a life-time of information to be acquired just from scratching the surface and one should pace themselves when studying this wide spectrum of music.
  • If ever watching a latin rhythm section, you may notice that the three percussionists "change gears" together. A timbale player cues the band into say, the chorus and he begins to play the mambo bell or cymbal, the conga player takes up a two bar tumbao incorporating a second drum, and the bongocero switches from bongos to the bongo
    bell. And just like that the dynamic has increased significantly.
  • With practice and only with practice, one can gain endurance on congas, creativity on the bongos, and finesse on the timbales. All of which can be attained.
  • Don't restrict yourself to just one latin percussion instrument. It is one thing to be an excellent conguero or bongocero or timbalero, but to be a latin percussionst can mean the difference between an employable professional and a hobbyist.

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