A Montuno Primer

Doug Emery teaches how to play Motuno
Image placeholder title

As a keyboardist growing up on the music scene in Miami, Florida, I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing the best that Latin music has to offer. The influx of talented musicians from all over the Caribbean has been a great education on some of the piano concepts and rhythms that drive these Latin grooves. Here’s a primer on the basics of playing montunos to help add another layer of color to your musicianship.

1. Clave Concepts

At the core of most tropical rhythms is the clave. In Ex. 1 I’ve written the clave in both the 2-3 form as well as the 3-2 form. Because montunos are typically built on a two-bar phrase, the clave determines how you start the phrase. For a good example of a clave clearly heard on recording, check out the song “La Rebelíon” by Joe Arroyo in the video noted at the end of this article.

Image placeholder title

2. Montuno Basics

Identifying the clave can sometimes be tricky to musicians not versed in these types of rhythms. I find that listening to the bass line usually helps in this endeavor, since it will often spell out the 3 part of the clave. Once you have determined the clave, you can lay the montuno on top of it, which is constructed by arpeggiating the chord on the 3 bar, and alternating between octaves and two-note chords on the 2 bar. In Ex. 2, I have written out a very simple version. Note that in the audio example, I kept in the clave and added a bass part as well so you can hear how they work together. A great example of this can be heard on Marc Anthony’s hit song “Vivir Mi Vida.”

Image placeholder title

3. Melodic Montunos

As you get more comfortable and are able to internalize the clave, you can start to stray from the basic montuno by creating melodies in octaves and varying the rhythm slightly.

Image placeholder title

4. Cha-Cha Grooves

While for the purpose of this article I am simplifying things, there are many different grooves and each one has its own variation on these concepts. One groove in particular that varies from the salsa-type montuno is the cha-cha. Unlike the salsa groove, the bass line of the cha-cha often lands on the downbeat of beat one. Ex. 4 is a version of a simple cha-cha groove.

Image placeholder title

5. Cha-Cha Plus Montuno

Here’s a cha-cha with a more montuno- ish vibe. A good example of this would be Ismael Rivera’s song “Satélite.”

Image placeholder title


“You don’t have to be a Latin musician to learn and incorporate the infectious sound of the montuno into your playing” says Doug Emery, a session and touring keyboardist based in Miami who has worked with artists such as Chayanne, Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan. Emery is currently the musical director for Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees and can be heard on his upcoming release In The Now. Find out more at dougemery.com.