How to play salsa guitar

photo by Les Haines

You can call it salsa guitar or playing montunos or trying to sound like a tres. There are plenty of styles of latin music that more or less fall under the salsa umbrella. Mambo, son, son-montuno, montuno, cha-cha, songo, timba, latin jazz are some that are fairly well known. (At least enough so that I know about them) Salsa guitar is cool because it helps you look at how the guitar can be played, especially if you are used to playing in more strumming of chordal styles. Plus you get to play salsa!  Please note, that while I have some experience with the style, I am certainly by far not an expert!  So please check out the lesson but please also continue you search for other sources of knowledge.

One way to start is try to play what either a tres or cuatro is playing or to try an imitate part of what the piano is doing. The basic riff (montuno) would be something like what you hear on La Bamba, but unless you are playing La Bamba, you don’t want the montuno to sound like La Bamba!

We’ll get back to playing a few montunos. First learn about some of the basic rhythms that you should be able to hear. Once you hear it, you will be able to fit what you are playing into what the rest of the band is playing.


Learning about the clave, the tumbao, the cascara, the bell and güiro.

Before or simultaneous to learning a few starter riffs to play on guitar (depending on who you talk to, called montunos or tumbaos…), there are a bunch different interlocking rhythms, that really make salsa what it is. If you learn the different rhythms you can hear better where you fit in plus understand the accents, and also get a better feel for everything.


Clave or “the key”, is the rhythmic framework that the rest of the beats relate to. (You can practice with the clave by getting my clave project for beatcraft) For the moment, learn the 2-3 son clave. It goes like this:

The count is one TWO THREE four ONE two AND three FOUR.

We will come to the clave. For now, just tap the beat with your foot and the clave with your hand. It sounds something  like Ba ba baa ba ba. More or less!! Once you start feeling the clave, the music will swing harder.

If you want to learn more about the roots of the mambo clave, please check out this page about the Short Bell, Long Bell, and Universal Break, where you’ll learn about the 6/8 short and long bell, the 4/4 rumba clave and the 6/8 clave, as well as how the 4/4 clave relates to the 6/8 clave.  Note: they count the 4/4 rhythms in half-time, whereas this lesson counts with eighth notes, not sixteenth notes.  So here we’d count 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. There they would count 1+,2+,3+,4+.


Tumbao can have different meanings but here we are talking about the bass part that was adapted from the tumbao drum part in more traditional styles of afrocuban music. Whatever the bass player is playing would be considered the tumbao but the classic tumbao bass line rhythm that most people think of is to play on 2+ and 4 or every measure, plus sometimes mentioning the 1 on the 2 side of the clave. (The orange highlights signify the tumbao in the diagram below)

Cascara/campana/bell patterns

Cascara means shell and the patterns are usually played on the shell of the timbales.  You could also play them with a bell. There are few different patterns that are traditionally played with the bell. They relate to the clave. The purple x’s in the diagram below are the cascara pattern.

You can read an in depth discussion on bell patterns at Wikipedia.  It starts with bell patterns in 6/8 but eventually gets to the bell patterns in 4 in Cuban music.  Remember that they are counting 1,2,3,4 whereas we are counting 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. In other words in cut time versus 4/4.  Note: they count the 4/4 rhythms in half-time, whereas this lesson counts with eighth notes, not sixteenth notes.  So here we’d count 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. There they would count 1+,2+,3+,4+.

Here’s a video where you can see the cascara and the son clave being played together.


Learning to dance salsa

Half the fun and beauty of salsa is the dance. Dancing helps your time! I’m pretty sure all those folks in the salsa community can dance. Look at Los Van Van! You can count dancing as practice time too! Pick a slower song and just groove on the basic step. You can sing and play the different parts like the clave, the cascara, and the tumbao if you want more of a challenge. Don’t give up too soon. And don’t give up on the basic mambo too soon either. Like the needle said to the record : it’s all about the groove. And remember to make sure your feet are hitting the floor in time to the music.

Montuno patterns for guitar

Video lesson of montuno section

One chord montuno

So we will start with a montuno in just A minor. You can pick any note from the chord but play with the following rhythm.

So follow the rhythm of the tao sign in green. The count is 1, 2 2+, 3+, 4+, 1+, 2+, 3+, 4 4+. The numbers above are the two bar count. The red numbers are the clave (2/3 mambo).

The rhythm is more important than the actual notes. Simple montunos are 2 bar phrases.

Here’s some ideas to get you started. Please remember to try variations and different patterns. These are just ideas.

Playing 2 chords

With a 2-3 clave play E major and then change to A minor on the 4+.

Here’s a video where I play E major to a minor:

Playing 4 chords

If you are playing in a 2-3 clave, you play the A minor chord on the 1, the D minor on the 2+, the E major on the 4+, and the D minor again on the 2+ of the second bar.

Here’s a short video where I play a little with these four chords:

Arpeggiating the chords with the same rhythm

So now that you can play those four chords in time, play the arpeggios of the chords but switch on the same beats, the 1, the 2+, the 4+ and the 2+. It may sound complicated but it is pretty straight forward once you start feeling the groove.

Get some recordings to play along with and also get beatcraft programmed a clave and some of the other patterns so you can practice.

Do the same thing for major chords

Now do the same thing with a major I-IV-V-IV. Let’s do A major. So A-D-E-D. All major chords. Get the timing. Then arpeggiate.

Lot’s more possibilities

As you can hear there is so much more you can do. But being able to play a major groove and a minor groove are good places to start out.

Some montunos to check out online

El Carretero

It goes from E to A minor. The E is on the 1 and the A minor is on the 4+.

Acid Ray Barreto

I love Ray Barreto! This goes from G to F. Try figure out the bass lick. It’s like Carretero in that it the chords switch on the 1 and 4+. The bass and guiro start, then you hear the 2-3 mambo clave, then trumpet! You can basically play the piano montuno. It comes in later (4:00). Learn the bass part, then listen again play the piano montuno back over the song. The bass notes go G-B-G-F-C-A-F. Tap the clave. Try to play all the percussion parts. Play the conga solo on your guitar!

Deeper Shade of Soul

This is boogaloo! The chords are Eb, Ab, Bb, Ab. This isn’t really salsa salsa but you can dance to it and it’s clave driven and it’s sort of like a typical montuno.

Recommended reading

Check out these books (with CDs) if you get the chance. They contain a lot of usefully and amazing information.  I know that they certainly have helped me a lot (except for the tres cubano book, which I have not read but would like too).

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Salsa Guitar
Learn the basics of what people call salsa guitar
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