From the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM PERLMUTTER

The clave is the rhythmic foundation of Cuban music (read a Letter from Cuba accompanying feature here). The most common clave types are the 3-2 and the 2-3, alternating between three and two strikes in each bar. These patterns are often played on the claves, a pair of short wooden dowels. To get a feel for the clave, tap your foot in steady quarters and drum the rhythms on the soundboard of your guitar.


This is an example of a montuno, or basic rhythmic pattern heard in much Cuban music, arranged for fingerstyle guitar. In learning this highly syncopated figure, it might be helpful to think of the music in terms of vertical snapshots rather than rhythmically independent lines: pinch strings 2 and 5 on beat 1, strings 3 and 6 on the “and” of beat 2, and so on. Practice the music slowly until you can play it on autopilot, then try transferring the pattern to other chords. 


Son—a hybrid of Spanish guitar and African rhythms—is a style of central importance to Cuban music. After you’ve mastered this classic son pattern based on a stock chord progression, I–V (Am–E7) in the key of A minor, transpose it to other keys and progressions as well.


Here’s a typical pattern played on a tres—a small guitar with three string courses, tuned G C E or A D FG—arranged for standard six-string guitar. Note the extensive use of syncopation. If the rhythms seem tricky, then subdivide, or count the music in eighth notes instead of quarters. Also note that the pattern outlines a I–ii (C–Dm) progression in the key of C major.


This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.