Around The World

Traditional Percussion on Drumset

Part 1: Congas

by Arturo Stable

My goal with this set of articles is to share a few traditional percussion rhythms and techniques that can be applied to the drumset. This first installment is dedicated to the tumbadora, aka conga drum. We will explore variations of the Afro-Cuban rhythms pilón, batunbatá, 6/8 guiro, and changui. Let the fun begin!


Cuban singer Pacho Alonso popularized this style in the late ’60s with songs such as “Rico Pilón” and “El Upa Upa,” which were written in collaboration with composer Enrique Bonne. This style is a combination of dance steps, rhythms, and lyrics. For the purpose of this article we will focus on the conga rhythm, although we strongly recommend that you check out the melodic and dance aspects of the style as well.

The pilón conga pattern has a very important timbale counterpart, which we will explain in an upcoming article on timbales. When transporting the pilón to the drumset, you have the choice of adapting either the conga part or the timbale part. Here we’ll look at the conga rhythm, which is traditionally played as follows:


Here’s one way to apply that pattern to the drumset.



This is a variation that the famous batá group Irakere developed in the late ’70s. The powerful sound of the rhythm was created by the great conguero El Niño Alfonso and master percussionist Oscar Valdés, both of whom have been major influences.

Here’s the conga part.


Here’s the batá part.


Here’s one way to apply those rhythms to the drumset.


6/8 Guiro Variations

Guiro, not to be confused with the instrument, refers to a Cuban spiritual celebration to commemorate things such as the birthday of a Yoruba spirit. (These spirits are known as orishas.) The songs are performed with chekeres (gourd shakers), a bell, and a conga. Each instrument plays around with a few base patterns.

Here’s one variation for conga.


Here’s a second variation.


Now here are two ways to apply those patterns to the drumset.




This style originated in the region of Guantanamo in the southeast of Cuba. It developed long before its more famous cousin, the Cuban son. Originally performed by maracas, tres guitar, marimbula, and bongo, the changui rhythm has been incorporated over the past thirty years by many larger dance orchestras, such as Elio Revé’s band and Los Van Van.

Here’s a changui variation for two congas.


Here’s one way to apply that to the drumset.


In the next article, which is dedicated to bongos, we’ll dig further into the changui, as well as a few other styles.

Cuban-born percussionist Arturo Stable has performed with Dave Samuels, Esperanza Spalding, Paquito D’Rivera, David Sánchez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Miguel Zenón, and the Caribbean Jazz Project. For more info, visit