Playing in Clave

The pianist ’s guide to authentic cuban grooves
Image placeholder title

While not quite “mainst ream” for the average pop keyboard player, the technique asso ciated with Latin piano interpretation—montuno-playing—has certainly impacted the jazz world, with hard bop pianists such as McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, and many others having explored Latinized jazz grooves in the 1960s. However, for a more authentic way of interpreting the Cuban-derived Salsa or Latin jazz rhythms of today, all pianists need to come to terms with the fact that you can’t fake it if you want to get gigs with the “real cats.”

Without oversimplifying the need to do some serious shedding on Cuban music history, it is safe to say that authentic montuno playing boils down to one primary ingredient: understanding the clave. Here are a few examples of montuno patterns, in a variety of styles and clave directions, illustrating how the piano rhythm is shaped by this foundational principle in Cuban music.

1. The Primordial Pattern: The Standard Montuno with 2-3 Clave

Though there are literally hundreds of different patterns you can play in a montuno context, Ex. 1a has become the standard and is derived from the Cuban tres guitar. The style of music associated with this pattern, the son, is the most influential of all Cuban popular genres and is also used for faster tempo styles including sonmontuno and guaracha. The relationship of this “primordial” montuno to the clave is fairly straightforward: The downbeat of the 2-bar phrase falls on the two-side of the clave, and the measure of syncopated notes aligns with the 3-side. In Ex. 1b, adding an arpeggio on the first chord of the 2-side measure creates variation. Note the accents in the first measure on beats 1 and the and of 4; these come in handy for comping patterns, as we explored last month.

Image placeholder title

2. One-Measure Patterns are Clave-Neutral

Given the binary structure of most Caribbean music genres, what makes the clave so special is precisely its antecedent-consequent relationship of tension and release. If you take away the montuno’s binary structure and avoid accenting the pulse on the 1st and 3rd beats, the result is more akin to one of Cuban music’s original styles, the changüí (the oldest form of son). The majority of ostinato patterns played by the tres guitar feature this type of ultra-syncopated phrasing, which are useful when you’re trying to create more rhythmic excitement or when you’re unsure of the clave direction.

Image placeholder title

3. Cha-cha-chá: Always in 2-3

Before venturing into more complicated patterns, it’s a good idea to get a solid handle on some of the other commonly played styles in Salsa and Latin jazz. The Cuban cha-cha-chá is one that cross-pollinates easily into jazz as well as Latin rock and is always played in a 2-3 clave direction. Ironically, the standard pattern in the style is basically a one-measure figure, with the right hand playing the pulse and the left hand on the upbeats (Ex. 3a). It can be made into a binary figure by adding a simple consequent phrase, with the right hand adding another accent on the 4th beat of the second measure (Ex. 3b). In the late ’30s and early ’40s, a new pattern emerged that became the signature riff of Tito Puente’s infamous tune, “Oye Como Va” (Ex. 3c). Note that while all of these examples contain a basic ii-V chord motion, the same rhythmic principles can be applied to any progression.

Image placeholder title

4. Arpeggios in 3-2

Pianists in traditional as well as contemporary Salsa have continued to evolve montuno-playing techniques, with the frequent use of arpeggios being the most noticeable variation. Add some harmonization to a simple triadic phrase (resulting in 10ths), and create a rhythmical phrase that essentially outlines the clave rhythm, and you get a distinct montuno in 3-2 clave (Ex. 4a). The same approach is even more dramatic when the pattern anticipates by starting on the and of 4 (Ex. 4b), creating an opportunity for the entire rhythm section to kick into the phrase with a syncopated entrance.

Image placeholder title

5. Timba Abierta: Groove in 3-2 Rumba Clave

While commercial Salsa and earlier Latin jazz styles tend to emphasize the son clave as the principle guiding rhythm, modern Cuban styles such as timba are more likely to use rumba clave as a foundation. This results in a generally faster tempo, increased variation and staccato phrasing, a tendency to accent unusual beats (such as the and of beat 1), use of beat displacement, contrary motion, and a funkier feel all around, often superimposed on top of a more fluid bass line. Example 5 demonstrates this more liberal approach to contemporary montuno playing.

Image placeholder title

While repetitive grooves can sometimes seem monotonous, a little variation adds the necessary spice to create truly authentic montunos.


Rebeca Mauleón is the author of several books and articles on the subject of Afro-Cuban music, including the Salsa Guidebook and 101 Montunos (both available from Sher Music). She is Director of Education for the San Francisco Jazz organization (SFJAZZ) and has recorded and performed with Tito Puente, Carlos Santana, and many others. When not teaching, producing or writing, Mauleón fronts her own band. More examples of her work can be found on her blog and at her website at