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Understanding The Clave
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by Gabriel Rodriguez 2001

The clave is a rhythmic pattern serving as the base or root for different afro-latin music.

The clave is played most frequently using a rudimentary instrument identified also as the clave.  It consists of two pieces of wooden sticks of about 5 inches in length and 3/4 inches in diameter.  Clave is played simply by beating each piece against the other.

Talking about the clave as a rhythm, there are two basic modes of the clave:

a.   the "SON"  clave 3-2.  Here is an example:

b.  the "RHUMBA" clave 3-2.  Here is an example:




Each of these claves have two forms: the 3-2 form, and the 2-3 form   Here are the 2-3 examples:

                         SON CLAVE 2-3


                       RHUMBA CLAVE 2-3


There are also other clave rhythms like 6/8 and the odd meter, but for this lesson lets keep only with the claves discussed initially.

There is not a strict rule as to where and when to apply the various claves.  This decision is made by the arranger in coordination with the rhythmic section of the band.  Usually the melody determines which clave to play, although many compositions may use any of the clave just by changing the rhythm of the melody a little.

Although the clave determines the pattern type or groove to be played by the rhythm section, latin musicians never perform "thinking" on the clave.  They intimately "feel it" and can play it over any pattern or rhythm concept.

This is only a basic and brief summary of the clave concept.  The following exercises will help you understand and feel the clave.

     a.  Exercise #1:  Select various recordings in the latin genre.  Try to
identify the clave (generally speaking, the clave is being played by the
percusion instruments).  Hear and analyze carefully the melody as well as
what the different instruments are playing in relation to the clave.  Also
play the clave yourself with the recording.

    b.  Exercise #2:  This exercise will help you feel very deep inside the
clave and to practice some basic rhytmical patterns over it.  Practice using
a metronome in slow speed until you master the exercise, then, speed up the
metronome until you have full control of the clave at any speed.  The
metronome must be beating at the whites (see sample below).


Use the different claves in this exercise - rhumba and son in both 2-3 and
3-2.  Play the clave with your foot and play the bass using  rhythmical
figures in any note.


If you need further assistance or guidance about this lesson feel free to contact me at  I will personally answer your questions.

My most recent CD "the beginning" (Pina Music 1999) presents the most various latin rhythms you can find in a single recording. You can buy it Online.

Gabriel Rodriguez

can be reached at


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