How to Hear the Clave in Salsa

If your experience is anything like mine, you may have struggled to hear clave direction when playing or listening to salsa (and its precursors, son, guajira and mambo). Sure there are differences, but rhythmically these styles are largely the same, they’re just played at different tempos and with different instrumentation. I’m aware that it’s a gross simplification, but so I don’t have to write a book, I’ll just use the word “salsa” as shorthand.

“Clave Police, Miss. If you’d kindly accompany me behind this ‘ere car and do some dancing…”

It took me the best part of a year practising and performing on pretty much a weekly basis with bands that played Cuban music to get totally comfortable hearing and feeling clave. They were very patient with me, but I got a lot of dirty looks (and remarks) along the way from percussionists when I screwed up, and I screwed up often. Hopefully, this article will provide you with some shortcuts so you can get things together quicker than I did.

Here’s the secret about clave – if you want it in a nutshell:


Yup, all that stuff you may have read and been taught about clave is all very well and good, but the problem for a learner is that for experienced salsa musicians these days, clave is so ingrained and obvious that it’s almost regarded as obtuse to actually play it…

Exciting picture, huh? Sort of sticks in the memory…

The clave rhythm is the backbone of Cuban popular music (and many other Caribbean traditions besides). But in all but the most traditional styles, clave isn’t played at all. So it’s very difficult to pick up on exactly how the musicians are orientating themselves around this non-existent (perhaps better to say implied) rhythmic centre.

Think of clave as the subconscious of Cuban music. It’s there in essence, underpinning all of the instrumental patterns. The musicians feel it totally instinctively and could tap it out for you at any point if you asked them to, but it’s very rarely actually played. Your goal is to subsume it into your subconscious in the same way – so that you don’t have to think about it, you just feel it.


A little digression: I nearly said “the musicians and the dancers feel it”. But I’m afraid it still amazes me that a lot of dancers who have obviously devoted hours upon months upon years learning to dance this style can be so ignorant of the fundamental structure of the music. The number of times I’ve watched from the stage as real hotshot dancers take centre of the dancefloor, set themselves and start their fabulous routines on totally the wrong beat…

The Spanish word for being the wrong side of clave is cruzado (which means “crossed”), although there are much ruder, more contemptuous terms for the same condition (I’ve been called most of them). This means being a whole bar out. But I’ve often seen dancers, and very accomplished ones, go one worse and start not only on the wrong bar, but on the wrong beat, sometimes even the wrong half-beat. Don’t know what you’d call that – if we’re being polite, maybe supercruzado?


“He looks awfully rhythmic, doesn’t he darling?”

Okay, back to the elusive Mr Clave. So how do you chase the invisible man? You track his footprints and watch how the foliage around him moves. In short, you look for the effect he has on the environment around him.

This is the best way to learn to listen for clave – something that isn’t there. Even though it may not be present, clave casts a clear shadow on the rhythms played by most of the instruments in a salsa band.

This article will give you clear things to listen for in certain instrumental patterns so you’ll find it much easier to hear and feel clave. By the time you’re used to hearing these figures and aligning yourself accordingly, you’ll have absorbed clave in practice, in action.

You’ll have learned it backwards. Before long, you won’t even be capable of doing it wrong. Before we start, there’s one more point to make.


Cuban music is all about a number of people getting together, each playing something simple and distinct, to create a whole that is communal, greater than the sum of the individual parts. True Gestalt, if you will. One guy playing “ga-ga-oom” wouldn’t turn you on much. One guy going “ti-ti-ta-dee-ta-dee-ta-dee” wouldn’t do it either. Nor would someone going “wait … boom wait bu-boom”. But put them all together, with the groove locked up tight, and you have magic. Cuban music is about celebrating the communal experience.

If you want to play Cuban music properly, stop defining yourself by your instrument. Sure, you’ll always specialise, but everyone will pick up a guiro or bongos and get involved. In fact, salsa musicians will sometimes sit down at the bar at the end of the night with a box of matches, a couple of biros and some (usually full) glasses, and create music.

You need to know the music from every instrumental perspective.  If you play piano or sax, learn the basics of bongo and campana or guiro. If you’re a drummer (or timbalero) or bass player, learn a basic piano montuno or two, and a bass tumbao. Get familiar, get at least competent with everything, every “desk”.

Oh, and you’ll usually have to sing the choruses as well. Don’t sing? Don’t speak Spanish? Tough, everyone gets involved on choruses – that’s what makes them choruses. Well, sometimes the bass player is excused, because the offbeat nature of salsa bass makes it very tricky to sing and play at the same time. Having said that, there are guys out there that play bass and sing, even lead vocals – when you see someone doing this, you’re watching the best of the best. Go and say hi. Go and say wow.

While we’re on the subject: it can be wonderfully liberating to play an instrument that you don’t regard as your specialism. All bets are off, you can concentrate on the basics and just enjoy yourself. I’m a piano player, but I’ve had a great time in the past joining in on bongos, guiro, bass – I’ve even played some very rudimentary timbales on occasion.

There’s one instrument that is truly a specialism, in my experience – the congas. Conga drummers are dedicated experts who can produce an astounding range of different tones from the two drum heads. Ask these guys for a lesson, sure, but don’t jump on stage and expect to just join in unless you really know what you’re doing.


Cuban music, with its rhythmic roots in West Africa, is based on a two pulse for dancing – one-two one-two. Overlaying this on 4/ 4 time, the strong pulse occurs on beats one and three of two consecutive bars. In addition, there is a repeating pattern of emphasis that gives each of these two bars a contrasting rhythmic character – the clave.

In the true tradition of all good music, this pattern elegantly balances tension and release, complexity and simplicity, excitement and rest, puzzle and solution, tease and kiss, punchline and joke. This structure is designed for one purpose and one purpose only – to compel people to dance.

There are many different types of pattern that are called clave (some are fitted to 6/8 time, rather than 4/4). But the two claves that dominate modern popular Cuban music are called son clave and rumba clave:

Son clave (2/3)

Rumba clave (2/3)

The majority of salsa is based on son clave, more modern styles such as songo and mozambique are based on rumba clave. We’ll focus solely on son clave in this article.

Here is son clave again, shown with the pulse (your first exercise should be to tap clave in one hand with pulse in the other):

Son clave (2/3)

One side of the pattern has three “hits”, the other side has two – as a result, they are referred to as the 3-side and 2-side of clave respectively. The 3-side is characterised by tension, syncopation, excitement, activity. The 2-side is characterised by release, downbeats, resolution, rest.

Clave is thought of being in either 3/2 or 2/3 direction – which means that any given section (introduction, verse, horn mambo, chorus, solo) starts on either the 3 or the 2-side of clave.

How does clave direction change? Well, it’s a two-bar cell that repeats over and over, and once it starts it doesn’t change. Clave direction is perceived to have changed when an arrangement uses an odd-bar break between sections. For instance, you may start in 3/2 direction for the verse and then there’ll be a three, five or seven-bar arranged interlude, after which the chorus will be in 2/3 direction. The structure of the music has shifted but the clave has stayed constant. This sort of odd-bar switch can happen a number of times within a single song.

To put it another way, once you start the clave, it continues without interruption in the same direction – perceived changes in clave direction happen as a result of odd-bar interludes. Well, almost. In very recent times, some bands have jumped or switched the clave. This is the very rare exception to the rule. First, learn the rule.


Cascara (2/3)

This pattern is mainly played on the sides of the timbales (the two metal drums – the word cascara means shell), but it can also be played on various bells, woodblock or cymbal.

Legendary timbalero Tito Puento

The most easily distinctive clave characteristic of this pattern is the strong accent on the two of the 2-side – this beat is played on the 3-side, but lightly and is immediately followed by a strong hit on and-of two. Note also that the 3-side is much more actively syncopated than the 2-side. There are any number of minor variations, but all of them include this strong two hit.

Timbal Bell Pattern (2/3)

This pattern is mainly played on the bell mounted with the timbales, but also on the cymbal or handheld campana (bell).

It has the same strong two on the 2-side as cascara, and again the 3-side is much more active. Again, there are variations, but the strong two is always present.


Practice tapping these patterns in one hand while tapping clave in the other. For an extra challenge, do the same thing while tapping pulse (one and three) with your foot.

This will take a little while to get together, but once you’re comfortable with it, your sense of clave will automatically be 200% better. Of course, this kind of independence exercise is what drummers and percussionists do all day, every day.

Here’s some good news. Once you have the above two patterns down, you’ll have everything you need.

But your understanding of the music will deepen and your clave sense will become more sophisticated if you take things further and listen for more detail. Some instruments play very freely (bongos), or clave-neutral patterns (maracas, guiro, bass). But the following patterns are clearly based on clave, and are well worth learning. Practise tapping or singing them against clave (and then add the pulse).

Bongo Bell Pattern (2/3)

The bongo player (bongocero) plays drums during the verse and shifts to bell during the choruses and solos. This is the pattern played on the bongo bell.

The accented hits are played near the mouth of the bell with the hand holding the bell relaxed to let it resonate. The other hits are played on the body of the bell, with the other hand muffling the bell to produce a higher, less sustained tone. You might vocalise it like this: “DONG dit DONG di-di | DONG di-di DONG di-di”.

This pattern is designed to reinforce the pulse of the music (one and three), but it also contains a clave characteristic in that the 3-side is more active. This becomes even clearer if you think of the two eighth notes on the fourth beat of the first bar as anticipating and belonging to the second bar. It’s also important to notice that the two and three on the 2-side (“dit-dong”) coincide exactly with the clave.

Tumbao (2/3)

Tumbao is the pattern played by the conga drummer. The conguero in a salsa band is a genuine artist with the prodigious technique necessary to produce a huge variety of different tones from the drum heads. This pattern is notated in a very simplified way, to highlight the most noticeable accented hits. It could be vocalised a bit like this: “ta-ka ta-ka ta-ka DU-DU | ta-ka ta-DU DU-ka-TA-KA”.

Actually, the main point of the tumbao pattern (in conjunction with the bass) is to accent the four on every bar – as you can see from the accented pairs of eighth notes. Incidentally, the bass in salsa tends to play on two-and and four of every bar. This can be confusing if you’re used to hearing the bass play on the downbeat (as in jazz and pop) – so until you’re used to hearing salsa bass, don’t use the bassline to orient yourself rhythmically.

Anyway, sometimes, the congas will play just the first bar of the figure given, repeating over and over, as a clave-neutral pattern. There are lots of tumbao variations – but they’re all characterised by strong accents on the four of each bar and some emphasise the two-and on the 3-side of clave.

Montuno (2/3)

Charlie Palmieri: el rey de los blancos y negros

The montuno (sometimes also called the guajeo) is the busy arpeggiated pattern played by the piano player (or guitar or tres player). The pattern given is very simple but rhythmically very typical.

Montuno playing is stuffed full of variation and syncopation, but in its purest form it has the clear clave characteristic that there are downbeats on the 2-side only. The majority of the notes in the pattern are offbeats, apart from the first two, which hit one and two on the 2-side only.

Basically, when you hear the piano play on one, that’s the start of the 2-side bar.


Okay, finally, here’s a cheat. An awful lot of salsa is in 2/3 direction. If you’re totally lost and you have to play something, your first guess should be 2/3 (dos-tres).

  • Son as in “gone”, not “gun”
  • Rumba ROOM-bah (capitals denote the stress)
  • Clave CLAH-veh
  • Cascara CASS-cuh-ruh, not cass-CAR-ah
  • Cruzado croo-ZAH-doh
  • Montuno mon-TOO-noh
  • Guajeo wah-HEY-oh
  • Timbal tim-BAHL
  • Timbales tim-BAHL-ez
  • Timbalero tim-bah-LAIR-oh
  • Bongocero bongo-SAIR-oh
  • Conguero con-GEH-roh
  • Campana cam-PAH-nah
  • Tumbao toom-BAH-o
  • Guajira wah-HEAR-ah
  • Mozambique moe-zam-BEAK-eh, not moe-zam-BEAK


See also Robosalsa!

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Posted in f) Esquina Latina
16 comments on “How to Hear the Clave in Salsa
  1. Adam Cole says:

    Wow. This is extraordinarily helpful. I’ve been wondering about this for years. Thanks.

  2. Elias Couto says:

    Very well written! Will you put out another article showing how the instruments change their basic patterns for rumba clave? Is it safe to assume that the basic patterns may be reversed for 3/2 groves? Again, thank you for a great explanation.

    • Jason says:

      Glad you found it useful Elias.
      I’ll answer the easier one first – yes, just reverse the patterns for 3/2.
      As for rumba… Wow. Big ask, but I’ll get something together for you when I’ve had a think about it. But some thoughts just for now:
      There are lots of different types of rumba, but I guess the most commonly used nowadays is guaguanco. You hear its influence in styles such as Mozambique, songo, timba. West Coast fusion drummers have also taken a lot from it.
      It’s probably fair to say that the traditional distinctions between styles have been broken down into a generalised fusion. It’s also probably unfair to say that a lot of people don’t know the difference anymore!
      As I said, I’ll have a think and get back to you. I’d rather simplify than confuse, if I can.

  3. Pravin d says:

    Hey man.. very use article. I dance salsa and not a musician. The music notation are kinda difficult to follow. Maybe some sort of examples with audio would be really helpful or maybe an explanation in terms of counts and half beats.

    • Jason says:

      Check out this site:
      They have a great little app that has sliders for all the rhythm patterns given here, plus maracas, guiro, bass and spoken count. You can start with just clave and gradually dial in combinations of the others to get a feel for what they sound like individually and how they interlock. Then try the same exercise with the clave channel muted to start weaning yourself off having to hear the clave played.

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  6. Louis says:

    Hello Jason, thanks for your insights.

    I have one dance question for you : sometimes, like you said, a song will “switch” clave side, most often by playing an odd-bar number break. When dancing, do you then proceed with the same count, but “reversed” ??

    What I mean is : as a guy, I learned to step forward on 1 with the left foot, and backwards on 5 with the right foot. But if the band does an odd-bar number break, then I’ll be stepping back on the “new 1”, the beginning of the musical phrase, which feels kind of odd.

    Is that the right way to do it ? Or is the dancer also supposed to do a figure with 4 beats instead of 8, so men can still step forward on 1, and bac on 5 ?

    • Jason says:

      Hi Louis.

      I’m not a dance expert, but here are some thoughts.

      If you carry on dancing uninterrupted through the break, you could just continue with the same step pattern. In the footwork pattern you’re describing, experienced dancers will usually hit the 2 side with left forward regardless of the direction. So when the phrasing is in 3/2 you would be doing right back on 1, left forward on 5. It’s actually quite funky…

      (3/2 direction is tricky to feel for some musicians too, since it involves the first beat of the two-bar cell being anticipated on the preceding four (or four-and). It doesn’t quite feel like the start of a two-bar cell without that comforting downbeat. But it’s really no less natural once you get used to it.

      It’s ironic that salsa rhythm is generally taught as 3-2 – which is actually the less intuitive (and less common) phrase direction. You’ll often be playing in 2-3 and some enthusiastic souls in the audience will start clapping out 3-2 against it. You just get used to ignoring it!)

      However, dancers tend to throw in something special at a “break” point – it’s a perfect point to do some fancy stuff from your bag of tricks. Or even just a dead stop and set to restart bang on the next section can be really effective.

      Sometimes they know the tune and arrangement, sometimes they just improvise something. Improvising isn’t as tricky as it sounds since the sections are usually clearly telegraphed – you’ll feel that a coro/pregon or a mambo is coming and when.

      Salsa dancing may be taught these days rather as “a system”, but that system is actually something that’s been distilled from a rather loose, varied, intuitive folk style. In that respect, it has a similar kind of distinction between “ballroom” and “street” as tango does. Someone from Cuba, Puerto Rico or Venezuela who’s been dancing this stuff all their life and is fantastic wouldn’t win Strictly because the judges would say they’re not doing it “properly”…

      So above all, don’t fret about it too much – ultimately, the footwork rudiments are there as a framework for you to improvise around as the music makes you feel.

      • Louis says:

        Hi Jason, thanks for the great and thorough answer !

        It’s a good point that if I just keep going, then I’ll still dance with LF forward on the 2 side.
        It speaks about different conceptions of music : I’m european, and was raised listening to the Beatles and French popular music, where melody is king, whereas it seems that in African traditions, it’s the rhythms and how they play off one another that matter the most.
        So far, still being a salsa-beginner, it feels odd to make the same step on the beginning of the melodic phrase, and then on the middle.

        What you say about salsa being taught 3-2 is very interesting as well in that regard. When I first heard the clave, it was in a music class, disconnected to any real music (we just played the clave, not listening to salsa or any cuban or african music), and to us european students, it sounded much more natural to play the 3-2 version.
        I think it’s because most “western” traditional music is meant to have a begining and an end, and thus it’s more satisfying to end with the 2, non-syncopated side. Whereas African-rooted music is meant to be more cyclic and repeated, and then it makes more sense to finish with the 3, syncopated side, so you want to continue playing. Kinda like playing a melody and each phrase finishes with V7, so you can’t really stop the music!

        Anyway, I’m starting lessons seriously this month, to be ready for summer. I’ll drop by to say hey when I’ve found my super shine break to do in between clave switches ;)

        • Jason says:

          Bon courage Louis.
          Ah, le jeu de jambes… La marche n’est pas la guerre.

          Oh, one more thought. Before you start your classes do a lot of listening so you can pretty much instinctively identify the 2 side. Stop and listen for it. If you can’t get it, try starting on 2 where you think it is and carry on until your guess is confirmed or not by how natural it feels.

          And when you get into that classroom be aware that some teachers aren’t really that fussy about clave direction… At that point, you have a choice. You can still learn a lot, but being taught to dance cruzado can be very confusing.

          As for “shine breaks”, I’m fond of a couple of little moves stolen from tango and lambada. They’re a little more, how do I put it… forceful than some salsa stuff that requires a partner to know precisely how to play along.

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  9. art says:

    Hi, just discovered this article. Small piece but very, very informative – super little exercises on how to understand and appreciate the clave and it’s fundamental importance in salsa and Afro-Cuban sounds. Have you written, produced any books, guides expiring this further. Would love to know as I would them!

    • Jason says:

      Hi Art. I’d suggest you check out Rebeca Mauleon. She has a good book published by Sher that goes into lots of different Cuban styles. And subscribe to my Latin Spotify playlist – linked on the right panel under the jazz one. Listening is everything.

      • Bronte451 says:

        Hi Jason, already have this but many thanks for recommending this. Your article was very useful and it was interesting that you mentioned about being able to play other instruments too. I have noticed that Cuban musicians are pretty good and have a good understanding of other instruments other than their initial chosen one. I have found it invaluable to learn some of the many percussion instruments to appreciate how the overall sound is achieved (I am a guitarist but opening myself up to the percussive side, good learning curve). Best regards.

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