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John with Manuel Valera & New Cuban Express Jazz Standard, 2013 Photo by Tom Ehrlich

While the other exercises in this book deal with a variety of different rhythms to gain
flexibility with the clave, it is of course very important to see how basic instrumental
parts relate to the clave as well. For bass players, this means the various fundamental
tumbaos that are most commonly dealt with.

Clave-Neutral Tumbao Rhythms

In the case of all clave-based musical styles, basslines fall into two categories. These
categories are known as Clave-Aligned and Clave-Neutral. Clave-aligned basslines
outline the clave direction via the rhythm of the line itself. These basslines occur
occasionally in salsa, charanga and Cuban son but are very common in modern Cuban
styles such as timba and songo. Modern incarnations of Puerto Rican bomba and plena
are also known for having clave-aligned tumbaos. Clave-aligned basslines are often
more rhythmically dense and funkier than their clave neutral counterparts. In addition,
another differentiating factor is that clave-aligned tumbaos are most often specific to a
particular song.

However, the overwhelming majority of basslines in these styles are clave-neutral. As

the name suggests, these tumbaos fit on either side of the clave. There are four basic

clave-neutral tumbao rhythms that are most common in Afro-Cuban music and salsa, as
well as four different variations of these common patterns. The names given to these
rhythms were codified in the books of prolific author Kevin Moore, whose extensive
Beyond Salsa series sheds light on almost every facet of Cuban music imaginable. Much
of the nomenclature used in his books work so well they are very hard to advance upon.
Therefore, many of the terms used in this book have been adopted from his lexicon.

The four tumbao forms are very similar to one another, usually differing by the
placement of one accent. However, these subtle differences result in significant changes
to the overall feel of the line. Numerous combinations of these sixteen rhythms are
possible before notes even come into the equation, making them the rhythmic building
blocks of this style of bass playing. The four types are as follows:


Tresillo is the most common and well known of the tumbao variations and is the first
Latin bass pattern most people learn. It is also found in many other styles of music
including American pop, Zydeco, rumba-flamenco, Balkan, Arabic, African, Afro-
Brazilian, Candombe Uruguayo, and a multitude of genres containing North and West
African influences. It may in fact be one of the most versatile and widely used rhythms
in music.


The Habanera pattern is similar to the tresillo however it leaves out the tie between
the and of two and beat three. Also like the tresillo, it is found in other Africanized
styles such as Reggae, Reggaeton, Soca and Bachata.


Guaracha is named after the style of Cuban music it is most commonly associated
with. Guaracha is a style from Cuba that is very similar to son montuno, however is
associated with musical theater and cabaret and is often played at a very fast tempo.
However, the bass rhythm can be used in many other styles including son, mambo, and
chachach. The addition of beat two imitates the slap of the conga and gives the line a
very particular lilt. It is a very effective device to add a different flavor to other tumbao
patterns but can serve as the main pattern as well.


Bolero is also named after the style. However, the bass pattern is not exclusive to
ballads and is very common in older styles of Cuban music, especially charanga.
However, the rhythm and its variations have found their way into very modern styles
including songo and timba and even Brazilian afox, where it often doubles the kick
drum for an especially punchy effect.

As stated in the previous chapter, the point here is to also demonstrate the basslines
relationship to the percussion. All of these rhythms are categorized via their accord
with the conga tumbao. In order to fully appreciate this, a basic knowledge of conga
terminology is needed. In traditional son and salsa the marriage between the bass
tumbao and the conga tumbao is essential in order to make the music feel right. While
there are many variations of the conga tumbao, some clave-specific and some not, the
principal one-bar conga pattern is what we will be dealing with. The three most
important hits in the conga pattern for the bass are the slap, the bombo, and the two
ponche accents played at the end of the pattern.

Basic 1 Bar Conga Tumbao

3-2 Conga Tumbao

2-3 Conga Tumbao

The slap is extremely important as it gives beat two of the measure. However, the
ponche is where the bass really locks in with the conga. All of the basslines in this
chapter hit with one or both of the ponche accents. In fact, all of the variations
discussed in this chapter are defined by way of their relationship to the ponche.

The first is the most basic pattern that you see in the first group is in fact the same as
the examples shown at the beginning of the chapter. Their relationship to the conga is
referred to as Unanticipated-Single-Ponche or USP. As you can see, the third note of
this bassline will line up with the first ponche of the conga. When the two parts hit at
the same time, there is a defined statement of where the time is.

Tumbao Example 1a (Tresillo) USP

Tumbao Example 1b (Habanera) USP

Tumbao Example 1c (Bolero) USP

Tumbao Example 1d (Guaracha) USP

Unanticipated-Double-Ponche or UDP. It is not used as often as the other three but
it is prevalent in older Cuban styles as well as salsa. As the name would have it, the two
eighth notes played at the end line up with both ponche accents of the conga.

Tumbao Example 2a (Tresillo) UDP

Tumbao Example 2b (Habanera) UDP

Tumbao Example 2c (Bolero) UDP

Tumbao Example 2d (Guaracha) UDP

Anticipated-Single-Ponche or ASP. Harmonic and rhythmic anticipation are key
traits of Afro-Cuban music. The tresillo ASP is by far the most well known bassline
associated with salsa and Cuban music. An insurmountable number of tumbaos have
been created using this rhythm. It is so common that many consider it to be the
foundation of Afro-Cuban bass playing.

Tumbao Example 3a (Tresillo) ASP

Tumbao Example 3b (Habanera) ASP

Tumbao Example 3c (Bolero) ASP

Tumbao Example 3d (Guaracha) ASP

Anticipated-Double-Ponche or ADP is a cool variation that, one might say, most
closely mimics the conga tumbao. Due to its relatively higher level of syncopation, it is
most often used as an alternative variation. However, it can often stand alone as part of
the primary bassline of a song as well.

Bassist/bandleader Juan Formell Sr. was a great example of someone who used many of
these punchy rhythms to create a surprisingly modern effect. While he may be most
widely known for his role in the modernization of Cuban music, including creating a
lexis of new and often clave-aligned basslines, his approach to composing bass parts
took an interesting and almost contrasting approach as time went on. As Los Van Vans
music became more modern, often his basslines become more minimalistic and more
akin to his musics son and charanga roots. With very careful placement of these
rhythms coupled with his unique approach to harmony he was able to create very
powerful repeated lines that were often the primary hooks of his most famous songs.

Tumbao Example 4a (Tresillo) ADP

Tumbao Example 4b (Habanera) ADP

Tumbao Example 4c (Bolero) ADP

Tumbao Example 4d (Guaracha) ADP

Each rhythm discussed in this chapter can work on either side of the clave. However,
different combinations of these rhythms often imply clave direction more than others.
Each rhythm has its own, almost melodic, interaction with the clave. For example, the
same rhythm can feel surprisingly different if played against son or rumba clave. These
are important details to be aware of and will result in subtle yet significant changes in
the overall feel of your tumbaos.

As stated before each of these rhythms can come alive in different ways if you practice
them in this manner. By practicing the different tumbaos against the different claves
and clave directions, you will quickly see the difference in how they swing. As with any
of the exercises in this book, it is important to leave notes out at first and simply feel
things from a rhythmic perspective first.

Traditional Cuban son and salsa prove single handedly that there is almost no limit to
the amount of music that can be created via these relatively simple rhythms. This fact is
well documented in the plethora of recordings that exist. There are thousands of
beautiful baselines that have been created using nothing but these rhythms. They have
stood the test of time and are used as much today as ever before. A bass players merit
is often measured by his/her strength in this particular area.

No book, no matter how thorough, can cover all the combinations and variations that
exist in the realm of tumbao playing. There are many rhythmic variations of these
basslines and some do not fall into the categories listed above, yet are still clave-
neutral. There are many other elements in the music that can dictate the rhythm of a
tumbao, including the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic influence via other instrumental
and vocal parts within a song. To optimize your understanding of these rhythms, refer

to the incalculable number of son and salsa recordings from all eras. Learning a sizable
number of the countless tumbaos out there will help unlock how this elusive system

This book addresses the rhythmic aspects of the music in relation to the clave versus a
stylistic overview of Latin bass playing. There are many other books that have
covered traditional Afro-Cuban basslines. The Latin Bass Book by Oscar Stagnaro, The
True Cuban Bass by Carlos Del Puerto and Silvio Vergara and Beyond Salsa Bass by
Kevin Moore provide different yet equally helpful information on the history and
vocabulary of this style.

John with Manuel Valera & New Cuban Express Jazz Standard, 2013 Photo by Tom Ehrlich