The Backbone of Salsa


The baritone (tuba) and its close relative, the bombardino, are similarin appearance to the tuba, but smaller. As a result, their sound is pitchedhigher than the tuba (one octave), but below the trumpet and horn.The bombardino is als o known as a euphonium, which is derived from Greek meaning "soft voice"


Bongo is the term for a variety of small drums, derived from African roots, most likely in Cuba around 1900. It consists of a pair of unequal sized small drums that are joined together. The smaller drum is called the male, or minor drum, while the larger is the "female" or major drum.

Bongos are an integral part of Latin percussion, particularly as a solo instrument. They are mainly played sitting down, held between the knees. In the 1920's the bongos were lower tuned than they are today, and played with a technique more reminiscent of conga drumming, including tabla-like pitch changes. The skins were tacked on, and to maintain the tuning the "bongocero" would use a small charcoal brazier that he kept by his feet.


The conga drum was adapted from Africa where it began as solid, hollowed out log with a nailed-on skin. It took various shapes and sizesto vary its sound. There are four different sizes of conga drums. The largest is called the tumba, and the smallest is called the niño. Some artists use a set of all four sizes.

Today, conga drums are sometimes made out of fiberglass as well as wood. In its present form, the conga has a tuneable skin. Regardless of its physical design, this instrument is a vital part of the percussion section so typical of Salsa music.

The large makuta drum of Bantu origin has been identified as a possible ancestor of the barrel-shaped Cuban hand drum known as tumbadora, better known aboard as conga.

Tumbadoras come in three sizes - the large, true conga (or bass tumbadora), the medium-sized tres por dos and the smaller quinto, the latter of which plays the most elaborate rhythmic patterns, while the basic rhythm is carried by the other two drums.

Some people do not regard the high-pitched quinto as a real tumbadora or conga drum.

Despite any remote African ancestry, it should be noted that the tumbadora, like the bongos, could not have been developed without the European manufacturing techniques and materials, including the Spanish wine barrels.

On any percussion instrument of this type, tones can be played by either the heel of the hand or by one or more fingers. In addition to such tones, the drum head can be slapped. In the standard conga pattern for one drum, consecutive "dead" tones are played with a rocking motion - heel, fingers for two tones and fingers, heel, fingers for groups of three tones.

The "rebound" is played with the same hand position as a slap but instead of slapping it merely falls on the head in order to imitate a dead tone.


As the Spanish colonized the islands of the Caribbean they brought many things, including musical instruments. Guitars were very popular and as time passed several new variants developed. At least four different instruments were adapted from the six-string Spanish classical guitar: the requinto, the bordonua, the cuatro, and the triple, each of which produces a unique tone and pitch.

Unique to Puerto Rico, and the one for which greatest number of adaptations and compositions have been written, is the cuatro, a guitar-like instrument. Originally the cuatro had only four strings and was similar to the vihuela. However around 1875, it was changed to five sets of double strings. The name 'cuatro' (translated as 'four') comes from the early, 4 string version which is known as the 'cuatro antiguo'. It happens that the tuning of the modern cuatro is in variables of half-octaves (that is, fourths). Thus, it is tuned from low to high B E A D G, with the B and E in octaves.

Usually carved from solid blocks of laurel wood and known for resonances and pitches different from those produced by its Spanish counterpart, this instruments graceful baroque body has been revered for decades as the national instrument of Puerto Rico. It is matte finished for protection without sacrificing tone to a heavy varnish. The instrument is sort of violin-shaped, more rounded like a guitar but with points at the inner bouts like a violin. The bridge is a classic guitar type, but the instrument is steel strung.

The cuatro was the instrument of the jibaro, rural farmers, and also the name of the music they played on cuatros and guitars and güiros. It also was used to sing aguinaldos, the Puerto Rican Christmas songs, from house to house.

As William Cumpiano, of the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project, so aptly put it, "The cuatro holds a central place in Puerto Rico's cultural iconography, like the bagpipe for the Scot or the harp for the Irish. For many Puerto Ricans, the cuatro represents Puerto Rico. It has inspired its secular and religious festivities, and has provided a anchor for its cultural identity."


The güiro, a notched hollowed-out gourd, was adapted from a pre- Colombian instrument. The güiro is made by carving the shell of the gourd and carving parallel fluting on its surface. It is played by holding the güiro in the left hand with the thumb inserted into the back sound hole to keep the instrument in place. The right hand usually holds the scraper and plays the instrument.


There is perhaps, no more widely used musical instrument in the various genres of Latin music, than the guitar. With few exceptions, the guitar, or one of its variations, figure prominently in ensembles small and large, with a sound that is well known throughout the world.

The modern guitar was developed in Spain in the 15th century but had four strings until a century later. Quickly adopted throughout Spain, the guitar displaced earlier instruments such as the vihuela. By the next century it had also become popular in the rest of Europe, where it was known as the "Spanish guitar" we know today.

Since there are many excellent resources describing the classical Spanish guitar, our discussion will be limited to those instruments widely in used in Puerto Rico and native Latin American instruments that evolved from it.

Of primary interest in the music of Puerto Rico when it comes to derivations of the guitar, is the native cuatro. But there are several interesting guitar derivatives, some of which were commonly used in Salsa music.


The trés is associated for the large part with Cuba, but also different versions were produced and used in Puerto Rico. The version in Puerto Rico had the same tuning as its Cuban counterpart but differed in its strings and shape.


This small instrument is actually a cross between a guitar and a cittern. It was widely known in Spain and throughout Latin America. With 12 strings, the bandurria is shaped more like a cittern and has a short neck with 9 frets. This instrument has a sound that is somewhat similar to the that of the modern cuatro.


Maracas were created and first used by native Indians of Latin America, as a percussion musical instrument. A pair of maracas is used to create the unique sound so common in Latin American music. In salsa music, the maracas have become one of the most important percussion instruments because they add a driving pulse in the high frequency spectrum.

Palitos / Claves

There is perhaps no more ancient or primitive musical instrument than a pair of "sticks" that are banged together to provide percussion rhythm. It is not known where or when this was first done but probably in Africa at the dawn of human life. Palitos are usually two cylindrical hardwood sticks approximately 20 - 25 cm long and about 2.5 - 3 cm in diameter. They are played by laying one stick across the palm of the hand so that one end rests lightly on the fingertips. This makes the sound of the stick resonate when it is struck by the other stick, which is held between the thumb and first two fingers of the other hand.

Palitos may be played by tapping them aginst the side of a drum or in by beating them against each other. The rhythms played with palitos are elaborations on the clave, the same two bar pattern without variation for the entire piece.


Panderetas resemble tambourines but without the cymbals. These are handheld drums with stretched animal skins covering a round wooden frame. These may also be called "panderos".

They come in three different sizes and pitch and commonly used to play the plena. Typically, plena groups use three panderetas, each with a different role. The "seguidor" plays the basic rhythm, a role like the first buleador drum in the bomba genre. The role of the second pandereta is like the bomba's middle buleador. The third pandereta, known as the requinto, or solo pandereta, acts like the "subidor", or lead bomba drum.


A salsa drum set consisting of two tuneable drums that differ in pitch, two cow bells, cymbal(s) and possibly a woodblock. It is typically played with two sticks. The timables were developed in Cuba based on the tympani from Europe.

The two drums are made of metal and have tuneable skins stretched overthe heads. The drums are mounted on a stand that also serves to attach cowbells, cymbals and perhaps other accesories. The drums are played with dowel-like sticks but may also be played by the bare left hand. Traditionally the low-pitched drum is on the left side, but may be reversed by artists that feel comfortable with the bongo drum placement. Modern playing style would include using the sides of the drum as well as on the drumheads, and use the attached cowbells and cymbals.

The timbables is a staple of percussion sections in mambo and salsa bands as well as Cuban danzon and charanga bands. ~ Music of Puerto Rico