From DRUM! Magazine’s September 2017 Issue | By Andy Ziker

One of the perks of teaching young students is that I get to stay abreast of current radio pop. Though not necessarily my favorite genre to listen to, it’s hard to question the production quality and songwriting acumen of many of these songs. Pop, a genre always desperately searching for that fresh sound, has recently seen an influx in Latin rhythms. If you’ve heard any Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Pink, Taylor Swift, One Direction, Coldplay, Maroon 5, and Foo Fighters lately, instead of rock and hip-hop beats dominating the rhythmic backbone, artists are now leaning towards Latin.

This has not only affected drum parts, but also the rhythms used by harmonic and melodic instruments (including vocals). In some case, the once almighty backbeat (snare on beats 2 and 4) has completely disappeared, replaced by assorted Latin syncopation. While this might seem contrary to the idea of giving the masses an easily felt pulse to make them snap their fingers, clave is just as easy for listeners to digest, as it has now become completely entrenched into our culture. Skeptical? Find a nearby three-year-old, play them a 3:2 clave, and have them clap it back. You’ll discover that clave will be easier for them for them to comprehend than 2 and 4.

Please note that in this article, the term Latin is an ambiguous, catch-all expression reflecting a number of rich musical traditions, including Spanish and Portuguese-speaking areas of the world — also including Caribbean — drawing upon African tribal music. This term is in no way meant to be culturally insensitive.

Pop music tends to cycle through grooves (such as the twist beat immortalized in the late ’50s and early ’60s). A songwriter/composer takes an innovative approach to an existing pattern, the beat enthralls fans (and in the past became associated with a dance craze), and then it turns into an established formula happily replicated by savvy artists and record companies. Throughout the years, people have gravitated towards cycles of Latin-influenced pop, including music by Xavier Cugat, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Bo Diddley, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, The Grateful Dead, Talking Heads, and many others.

Latin rhythms are inherently infectious, lift our mood, and make us want to get up and dance. You can layer these rhythms on top of each other and they always seem to sound great in any combination. Latin jazz drumming giant Dafnis Prieto backs this up in his book World Of Rhythmic Possibilities, when he talks about students accidentally layering the clave on the wrong side of the cascara: “This didn’t sound as jarring as I would have imagined. In fact, I can even say that is started sounding very interesting to my ears.”

Traditional Latin music is often played by groups of percussionists playing a variety of instruments. Each member of these ensembles takes a critical role in producing a full sound. However, the versatility of the drum kit allows one musician to reproduce these disparate parts, but often fails to capture the organic vibe of people working together. Therefore, keep in mind that the following examples under each category have at least one degree of separation from their authentic-sounding neighbors (except for the songo), and won’t necessarily fit in an authentic Latin setting. Each pattern reflects what has been played in the past, but will hopefully provide you with new ways to add Latin to your pop.

As you begin to master these exercises, take it one step further and make them your own. This is always an important piece in the creative puzzle. Also, to get the most out of these grooves — and the unique feels associated with each — do a little research: Enter the category titles into a Google search, read corresponding Wikipedia articles, and follow up with YouTube visits.

It’s time to dig in. Clear away some time each day. You might find some of these patterns to be challenging, but don’t get frustrated. Use your metronome to determine baseline tempos, and gradually speed them up. String short groupings of notes together — or even one note at a time — until you have the whole pattern down. Remember, when you practice something for the first time, it rarely sounds like a finished product. And when you someday use one of these ideas to create a big radio hit, remember the little people!

3:2 Son Clave


When it comes to clave, 3:2 refers to three notes (the three side) emphasized in the front half of the measure and two (the two side) in the last half (Exs. 1 and 4). It can also be conceived as a two-bar phrase: three notes in the first measure and two in the second measure (Exs. 2 and 3). Son alludes to the exact position of these notes: In an eighth-note flow over two bars the son rhythm is 1, (2) &, 4, 2, 3.

In Ex. 1, the clave is played by the bass drum in a funk context. The bass drum and snare overlap on beat 4, an example of how Latin rhythms allow for easy layering. In Ex. 2, the snare plays the clave, the bass drum fills in the remaining eighths, and the ride plays continuously. The bass drum again plays the son clave in Ex. 3, but this time as part of a half-time shuffle. In Ex. 4, the left foot plays the clave underneath a driving tribal groove.

It’s important to note that clave patterns are reversible. In other words, grooves using clave can start on the two or three side with equal effectiveness. (3:2 then becomes 2:3.) Since each of the styles used in this article are based in some way on clave, experiment with flipping these around (start in the second measure or second half of the first measure) and find out how it feels/sounds to you.

3:2 Rumba Clave


The only difference between son and rumba is where the third note on the three side of the clave is positioned. A short pause or stutter (one eighth-note, if the clave is notated over two measures) produces a surprising impact. Ex. 5 is an alternating sixteenth-note funk beat with the rumba clave played by the bass drum. A closed hi-hat plays the clave in Ex. 6, while three levels of snare dynamics give the groove some shape. Ex. 6 is similar to Ex. 3, while in Ex. 7 the clave is orchestrated over a number of sound sources: open hi-hat/bass drum, snare accent, and open hi-hat/snare.

Holes In The Clave


Clave is a skeletal outline that helps musicians play parts together. Is it acceptable to take away a note or two of that clave, but keep the remainder the same? Yes, because our imaginations are able to compensate for any missing notes. Exs. 9–11 use either son or rumba clave. See if you can discover the locations of the missing notes.

The Three Side


Each of following examples uses the three side of the son clave over and over again. In Ex. 12, the bass drum performs the clave, the snare hits beat 2, and ghosted snares provide patches of sixteenth flow. Swiss triplets are played as consecutive sixteenth-notes between high and floor tom, while the bass drum and hi-hat chick pound out four on the floor (Ex. 13). The bass drum fills between three-side accents played by hi-hat and snare (Ex. 14). In Ex. 15, the bell of the ride plays the three side, until we break away from the pattern starting on 3 of the second measure. Next, try creating some beats using the three side of the rumba clave.

Brazilian Clave


The term Brazilian clave is a bit of a misnomer, since Brazilian percussionists don’t really consider this rhythm as all-encompassing, but rather just one of the many patterns in their toolkit. Similar to a son clave with the last note (the fifth note) pushed over one spot, it has become the most recognizable clave in the world, having spread from Rio all the way to India.

In Ex. 16, the right hand follows the Brazilian clave and creates a melody using high, middle, and floor toms, while the remaining notes are filled in by the left hand on the snare. Ex. 17 is a reggae pattern with the clave superimposed over it, which can be played with swung or straight eighths. Using a LRR sticking between the snare and ride cymbal and trailing bass drum (the bass drum hits immediately after the snare) gives this groove a New Orleans second-line feel, and can also be played straight, swung, or slightly swung (Ex. 18). In Ex. 19, the right hand moves from ride cymbal to floor tom, the left hand plays the clave on rim-click, and the bass drum plays a typical samba ostinato.

Make Up Your Own


For a piece of music to have a Latin feel, you don’t necessarily have to stick with authentic patterns that have evolved over centuries. After all, rules are made to be broken, aren’t they? By changing things up a little bit, you can come up with some fascinating creations. The bass drum in Ex. 20 plays a combination of rumba and Brazilian clave. Ex. 21 is most easily played open-handed with the left hand on the hi-hat and right hand traveling between the toms and the snare. Starting on the & of 1, this series of on- and off-beat hits produces a nicely balanced clave. The snare accent pattern in Ex. 22 is displaced by one sixteenth and outlines three-note groupings, except the four-note grouping starting on beat 2.



Spanish for “shell, husk,” cascara refers to the syncopated rhythm played by timbale players on the side of the drum shell. This rhythm — a big part of salsa music — is designed to meld perfectly with son or rumba clave. In Ex. 23, the cascara is played on a cowbell, although any sound source would do, while the rest of the kit plays straightforward rock/funk. The hi-hat plays the cascara in Ex. 24, while the snare and bass drum complete the sixteenth flow. Ex. 25 is a variation on the cascara, fashioned as a linear funk groove.

Bo Diddley Beat


Ironically, this groove is credited to the guitarist Bo Diddley and not a drummer (check the self-titled song from 1955). The groove is really a 3:2 son clave, but most probably was an extension of the hambone tradition from the 19th century. Slaves from the Kingdom Of Kongo came up with the dance — which uses stomping, clapping, and patting — after traditional African percussion instruments were banned due to fear of slaves hiding secret codes in the drumming. This is a reminder about how African music has had an impact on so much of the musical traditions of today, including Latin.

Similar to the beat played on the original Bo Diddley hit, accented sixteenths delineate the clave in Ex. 26, as off-beat hi-hat chicks create nice contrast. In Ex. 27, the accent pattern is fortified with bass drum, and a power flam is added on beat 4 in the first measure. (Check out “Desire” by U2.) The pattern is then re-orchestrated to hi-hat and snare in Ex. 28.



An authentic samba such as “Acontece Que Eu Sou Baiano” by Dorival Caymmi inspires both relaxation and excitement. The flow of the eighths or sixteenths has a unique sounding lope that can be acquired only though listening or experience (look on YouTube for “Caixa Patterns On Samba”). By learning more about how the individual parts/instruments fit together in a samba percussion section you can be better prepared to fuse these feelings into pop. In Ex. 29, the open and closed hi-hat and ghosted snare simulate the feeling of the small, handheld drums with jingles, the pandeiro, and the Brazilian snare, the caixa. The typical samba bass pattern shown here is a simplification of what the surdo plays. Ex. 30 uses a variation on the surdo pattern and borrows aspects of the partido alto style. (For more on that style, check out “Roda de Samba — Na Palma da Mão DVD — Partido Alto” on YouTube.) Ex. 31 combines samba with a half-funk feel, while in Ex. 32, the floor tom and high tom play the partido alto.



Also known as Afro-Cuban 6/8 or 12/8, the nanigo is expressed easily on the drum kit through a basic rudiment: the double paradiddle. By distributing the rudiment on two surfaces, the groove comes to life. In Ex. 33, the right hand is placed on the ride and the left on the snare. An open hi-hat on beat 4 gives the groove a refreshing pause every two bars. The double paradiddle is played between floor tom/high tom and snare in Ex. 34, while four-on-the-floor bass drum stomps quarters. The cross rhythms between the hands and feet accentuate a 3:2 polyrhythm.



An Afro-Caribbean music originating in Trinidad and Tobago, calypso is designed to get audiences to move. Ex. 35 includes simultaneous hi-hat and bass quarters, but hi-hat eighths or sixteenths are also commonly played. In Ex. 36, the bass drum hits 1, (1) ah, 3, and (3) ah, hi-hat accenting produces a multi-dimensional effect, and the addition of toms at the end of measure two spices things up. Notice that the three side of the clave is stressed throughout.

Gadd Mozambique


Steve Gadd took the bell pattern from the New York-style mozambique (not to be confused with the Cuban variety), and created his own infectious groove, which he used on Paul Simon’s “Late In The Evening.” The two grooves in Exs. 37 and 38 are transcribed from a Gadd drum clinic. Look up “Steve Gadd — Mozambique — Clinic Los Angeles” on YouTube to check it out.



The merengue immediately catches our attention because of the prominent four-note (five notes if you count the beat 1 of the following measure) sixteenth-note lick that occurs on beat 4. Ex. 39 is a more traditional sounding merengue, while in Ex. 40 the rhythmic skeleton is fused with funk.



Songo was invented by Los Van Van in the 1970s, and was the first Cuban style to incorporate funk along with the drum kit. Because it’s mostly played in a linear fashion, songo is especially suited for re-orchestrations around the kit and composites with other types of grooves. The open hi-hat in the second measure of Ex. 41 results in a slight variation from the more common pattern found in the first measure. Ex. 42 combines a songo vibe with backbeat funk, while Ex. 43 uses a songo pattern to generate a tribal groove using toms.



The cha-cha-cha is one of those patterns that sounds the best with the full compliment of Afro-Cuban percussion instruments, but nevertheless influenced the four-on-the-snare Motown beat of the ’60s as well as grooves played by Santana, Chicago, and many more. The patterns in Exs. 44 and 45 are approximations of the full rhythm section sound, but are still valuable when it comes to laying it down on the kit.

Rumba (Dance Version)


Not to be confused with the more complex, syncopated Cuban rumba, this pattern first came into prominence in the 1920s big band scene, and from then on became a big part of the ballroom dancing phenomena. Recently this groove has found a home in blues and Americana music. In Ex. 46, most of the action takes place on the snare (diddles, rim-clicks, and rimshots), while in Ex. 47 the lead hand moves to the ride cymbal.

Wait, There’s More?

The material in this article barely scratches the surface of what is possible when applying Latin concepts to pop music. There are thousands of other possible patterns to choose from. Enjoy the process of discovery.