Saturday, 10 November 2012 06:26

Salsa Beats Tutorial

The number one issue which keeps popping up in our salsa musicality workshops is "how to find the 1." Hopefully this will help...
The good news is that one of the most common comments we get after a set is that dancing to live music, the beats are so much more clear. You can literally feel the rhythm pulsing from the stage. So, please continue to support live music.

Let's start with the basics:

Salsa has an 8-count basic step. There are a few people out there that count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, but most choose to use 1-2-3-*-5-6-7-* as their count since nothing happens on the 4 or the 8. By the way, the nothing happening on the 4 or 8 part is true whether you dance on1 or on2. Moving on, it's important to know that salsa music is almost always written in 4/4 time or some variant thereof which means that you can always pretend like it's in 4/4. What does that mean? Well for our purposes, we'll say that a "bar" of salsa music has 4 beats. Therefore, an 8-count is actually two bars of salsa music. The 1-2-3 part of the count is the first bar and the 5-6-7 part is the second bar.


The clave is the heartbeat of salsa. This is played with two sticks called claves. There are several clave beat patterns in latin music, but salsa mostly uses two patterns: the 3-2 clave and the 2-3 clave. These numbers refer to how many strikes of the clave are present in each measure of the music. A very common misconception that dancers have is that the 1 count is always on a particular side of the clave. This is not true. It is actually the melody that determines where the 1 count is found. More on this later.
3-2 Clave
2-3 Clave


The next layer of salsa music is called tumbao. It's played on the conga drums and it provides the most distinct indication of beat aside from the clave. The congas are capable of making many very distinct sounds, but there are only two that you really need to be familiar with for dancing salsa: the open tone and the slap.
The open tone is the most distinct sound that the conga makes. It is what is identified most easily in salsa music as being produced by the conga. It sounds like this:??????
In the basic tumbao, you will hear 2 quick open tones. This happens on the 4 count and if you are dancing on1, you should not be taking any steps when you hear the open tones.
The slap sounds like this:
You can use the slap to find the 2 count and the 6 count if you dance on2. On1 dancers should still be aware of the slap and its placement in the music.
The tumbao pattern covers two bars of music. The open tones ("DUN DUN") will be heard twice -- once on the 4 beat and again on the 8 beat. Be careful with open tones though because although you will hear them on the 4 and the 8, the musician may choose to take other liberties with open tones. A very common example is the 3-point shuffle below which also contains open tones on the "6&" beat.
Basic Tumbao
3-Point Shuffle
Tumbao With Clave



Montunos are repetitive patterns usually played by the piano. There are montunos for almost every type of latin music. The ones for salsa are very distinct.
The classic salsa montuno is a I-IV-V-IV chord progression.
Montunos are fun because the simplest variations can make a big difference. Here is the same chord progression with harmonization.
The piano has a dual role as a rhythmic instrument as well as a melodic instrument. Listening to the melodies formed by the montuno as well as the horns and singers in salsa is the way that you can distinguish the "one" from the "five" in the basic step. If you were to sing montuno or any other melody, your natural starting point would be right around the 1. It doesn't matter whether that starting point is on the 2 side or the 3 side of the clave. Here's another sample -- Can you find the "one"? Is the "one" on the 2 side or the 3 side of the clave?

Putting it all together

Now that you have the basic elements of salsa music decoded, pop in a CD and see if you can find the beats. Don't take everything here for granted and expect to hear all of these elements in every salsa song. These are only the basics. Musicians take lots of liberties and make lots of variations on basic patterns. Even so, you should be able to use your understanding of the basic forms to figure out the beats to the more complicated songs.