Learn the Basics of Playing Cuban Rhythms on Guitar

Learn a couple cuban rhythm patterns; clave, montuno, and son

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.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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