Salsa (Spanish for “sauce”) is a broad commercial term used to describe danceable Latin music. There are no specific chord voicings or progressions that give you a Salsa sound; it’s all about feeling the rhythm in chunks of two-bar phrases.In particular, Salsa is anchored by a rhythmic pattern called the Clave, which is Spanish for “key.” Think of it as a call and response—let’s say that “Hello” is a call and “How are you?” is a response. “Hello” has two syllables and “How are you?” has three one-syllable words. Similarly, the Clave pattern has two percussive hits in one bar on beats 2 and3, and three hits in the following bar on beats 1,the upbeat or “and” of beat 2, and beat 4. When the Clave starts with two hits like this, it’s called a 2-3 Clave. An alternative that starts with three hits is called the 3-2 Clave. (“How are you?” “Buen-o!”) Playing against the Clave is like driving the wrong way down a one-way street!
Here are some ways to develop a two-bar phrase in a typical Salsa way. Note that our 2-3 Clave is written on a separate staff under the piano part.
1. Simple, Not Salsa
Ex. 1 is a simple, triad-based I-IV-V chord progression. Play it a few times to get the sound in your ears. Played as written, all of the notes are played on the downbeats. This creates a lifeless sound due to the lack of rhythmic motion. Let’s transform this into a scintillating Salsa figure!
Ex. 2 uses the same notes as Ex.1, but we’ve changed it by playing notes on downbeats only on beats 1 and 2 of the first bar. Notice that the first percussive hit of the 2-3 Clave happens on beat 2 of the first bar of the two-bar phrase. Playing notes on the downbeat of beat 1 establishes the beginning of the two-bar phrase. Playing notes on the downbeat of beat 2 enforces the “2 side” of the 2-3 Clave. All of the other notes within the two-bar phrase are on the upbeats. This creates a sense of motion due to the inherent off-beat syncopation.
3. Chord Extensions
Ex. 3 uses the same rhythm as Ex. 2, but it expands the harmonic structure by adding chord extensions, which can enrich your Salsa playing by moving it away from traditional triadic harmony. Here we are adding the sixth and the ninth to our C and F chords, along with the seventh, ninth and thirteenth to our G chord. Notice how the sound becomes more engaging when our chords included additional voices.
4. Passing Chords
Using the same rhythmic figure found in the previous examples, Ex. 4 adds two additional chords to create a richer sound. An Ab13 chord is added before our G13, and a Db13 is added before our C6-9. These help the previous chords pass smoothly into the next ones. Both passing chords here are a minor second interval away from the chords they lead to. Notice how the sense of movement is also enhanced because the passing chords add an additional harmonic component to our rhythmic figure.
5. Space Is the Place
Ex. 5 expands our Salsa form even further with the use of space. The notes previously played on the downbeat of beat 1 in bar one are instead played on the downbeat of beat 1 in bar 3. Notes on the downbeat of beat 2 in bar one are played to establish the “2 side” of the Clave. Try building your own phrases by omitting as many notes as you can while playing notes on the downbeats of beats one or two, while still keeping the two-bar phrases in mind.
“I encourage everyone interested in Salsa to listen to records, paying close attention to what the piano and the rhythm section are doing, says pianist and composer Edsel Gomez.“Suggested artists include Eddie Palmieri, Sonora Ponceña with his pianist Papo Lucca, Roberto Rohena’s Apollo Sound, Willie Colon, and many more.” Born in Puerto Rico, Gomez has performed with Celia Cruz, Chick Corea, and Eric Benét. For the past 12 years, Gomez has also been musical director and pianist for acclaimed jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. Find out more at edselgomez.com.