The Edit

THE BEAT IS ON: LATIN PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS

What defines Latin music? The rhythm and passion that beats at its heart. There are a huge number of types of Latin music styles – ranging from dance favourites such as rhumba, merenge and salsa to chart-topping reggaeton and through to the intensity of tango.

Find out which popular Latin musical instruments are used in the various genres and learn how you can use vintage Latin instruments to create music with composer Dave James.

What are the most popular Latin instruments?

The distinctive sound of Latin music also comes from its instruments – from percussion to Spanish guitar, hand drums, cowbells and tango’s bandoneon. Each country has different traditional musical instruments that represent its culture. These include:

  • Percussion instruments, such as the clave, güiro and drums
  • Samba music instruments – including the apito and agogô
  • Stringed instruments – for example the Spanish guitar and the cavaquinho

agogo musicians playling latin percussion agogo percussion instrument

Musicians playing the agogô via

Latin percussion instruments 

The percussion instruments used in Latin music come in all shapes and sizes. The size of a cigar, the clave still packs a percussive punch. It’s a hand-held wooden block and you strike two together to make a sound.

The pandeiro, which is popular in Brazilian music, especially samba and capoeira, looks a bit like a tambourine. A versatile instrument, you can not only tune it to your liking, but a musician can always play it either using their fingers or the whole palm.

Another hand-held instrument is the güiro – similar to a washboard, it’s held in one hand and scraped using a stick to create a rattling sound, or it can be struck using a stick.

The reco reco - also called the raspador, caracaxá or querequexé - is also a simple Latin percussion instrument, commonly used to create salsa and cumbia rhythms. It’s a Brazilian native and consists of a hollow piece of gourd with transversal lines carved on it, played with a wooden stick, though modern versions are made of a metallic cylinder with springs attached, and played with a metal stick – this results in a much louder sound.  

Originating in Cuba, the conga is a single-headed drum that’s usually in a set of two – with each tuned to a specific pitch.

pandeira instrument latin percussive instruments flickr

The Pandeira via

Samba music instruments

An essential part of a samba band, and also a feature of merengue and mambo, is the timbale – a drum that’s played in pairs like the conga, but is shallower and has a high-pitched tone, especially if played by striking a stick on its metal casing.

A samba band leader uses an apito (a whistle) to signal breaks and calls, with metal drums - repinique (or the Reps) – leading introductions. These are played with one hand and a wooden stick. Large bass drums known as surdo hold the beat, and are joined by snare drums, shakers and agogô (double metal cow bells).

Latin and Spanish guitars and stringed instruments

Latin America is home to hundreds of stringed instruments – used for every kind of style and genre.

The Spanish guitar is perhaps the most well-known of the Latin American instruments – it uses nylon or gut strings, as opposed to the metal strings that feature on modern acoustic and electric guitars. The flamenco guitar’s body is thinner than a classical guitar and the strings are closer to the frets, meaning that a player can play faster – capturing that essential frenetic flamenco tempo.

spanish guitar flickr

Spanish Guitar via

One of the more unusual guitars used in Latin music is the guitarron. A key part of a mariachi band, this acoustic bass is the rhythmic backbone of the music. A jumbo, rounded body with a convex back helps to emphasise the lower bass frequencies, while its six strings are a unique combination of three made of nylon and three made of steel, bronze or copper.

The viola is a name that’s used for a variety of Latin instruments, with the Brazilian viola being the most popular. A little smaller than a classical guitar, it’s a ten-string instrument with a number of tuning options.

Both the ukulele and the cavaquinho developed from a Portuguese instrument known as the machete, which was popular with sailors and explorers. Its sound varies from a light, ukulele-esque sound to a richer, warmer sound that brings to mind a guitar. In Brazil, the cavaquinho is used for samba and choro music.

Creating an authentic Latin American sound

Composer Dave James’ album Quirky and Cheeky Latin was inspired by the great Latin American big bands of the ’50s and ’60s. Cuban bandleader Perez Prado composed quirky and infectious music that’s still popular today and the original recordings, like ‘Mambo No. 5’ and ‘Guaglione’, have been used on many TV ads. The mambo rhythm originated from Cuba and is still a dancefloor favourite.

dave james composer audio network latin percussion instruments studio

Dave used his late father’s 1945 Buescher tenor sax to compose the feel-good vintage Latin American tracks with Keith Beauvais and Mike Craig. His view is that, ‘The unique sound of a vintage instrument really helps to add authenticity to the production and has imparted a very different tone to that achieved by modern tenors. The ivory mouthpiece (it was the only one my Dad had) certainly has a colourful sound, but it’s all part of attaining an authentic retro vibe.’

Brass

Dave explains that, ‘the typical style for brass arrangements of the time was that of a “call and response”, where the sax section would play a melody or riff and the trumpets and trombones would answer with a response riff, often panned hard left or right to enhance the stereo effect. There would also often be a baritone sax interjecting with its unique foghorn-like timbre, which added a quirky and often comical effect to the arrangement.’

Passion

‘Although we didn’t have the luxury of a 20-piece brass section used by the big bands of the time, these five tracks have been recorded using four highly talented local brass players, all of whom share a passion for vintage Latin music which really shines through on the recordings.’

Adding the final touch

‘After many weeks spent carefully mixing and editing the sections, a vintage room plate reverb imparted an authentic ambiance to the track and helps the instruments to sound as full and vibrant as possible.’

Listen to all the tracks on Quirky and Cheeky Latin now for more Latin music inspiration.

For more Brazilian music, check out rising star Sarah Roston’s EP, Eu Incomodo. For an overview of Latin American music, explore the Latin America playlist.


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