South of the Border

Mambo on the Drum Set

by John Rae

The Mambo, along with its close relative the Son Montuno, makes up a significant share of the music played at Latin dances. It is too bad that the Mambo is not played more often at American dance jobs. It is certainly one of the most interesting of the Latin beats.The drum set approach falls into two categories: Playing without a conga drummer which is “where it’s at” for most drummers—and playing with a conga drummer.

In my last column (Apr. ’81) I gave examples of three mambo beats:

A. Slow (76 to 92 mm)

B. Med. (84 to 110 mm)

C. Fast (104 to 138 mm)
South of the Border 1

There are other beats considered ‘autentico’ but for our purposes these three are sufficient.

Taking the Slow beat as an example, let’s begin to build the complete beat on the set.

The right hand is played on either a cowbell, ride cymbal, closed hi-hat or on the side of the floor tom. This is the primary part of the beat and should be heard clearly and articulately.

The left hand plays a cross-stick “click” on the snare drum on “2”, and two eighth notes on the small tom-tom on “4 and.” On the second bar, the tom-tom is only played on “4.” (see fig. 2)

There is an important reason for all this attention to detail. The two eighth notes in the first bar duplicate the conga accents at that point of the beat, and the fourth beat of the second bar is where the timbale open accent is played.

The bass drum has an important role in the mambo beat also. Probably the most important thing the bass drum does is not playing too much!

The bass drum plays in the second bar only, (see fig. 2) The figure matches what the bass player should be playing and is also the rhythm of bar two of the “clave.”

Never, never play a samba/bossa nova bass drum on a mambo.

With the hi-hat doing its usual thing on “2 and 4,” here now is the complete drum set beat:

South of the Border 2

The other mambo beats are played the same way, except that the left hand plays on both bars.


South of the Border 3

Please notice that there are no accents written for these beats. When we do add accents it is to add excitement or to emphasize the beat.

If the melody starts out strongly with horns or at a high volume level—use accents. If someone else in the band adds another percussion instrument to the rhythm section (cowbell, maracas, cabassa, guiro)—use accents. When you back up a timbales, conga or bongo solo—use accents!

However, if the melody has a lyrical feeling, or when playing behind the vocal or piano solo—play the beats without accents.

These are my personal recommendations. You should use your own discretion. Just remember that adding accents changes the character and emphasis.

Now here is where the accents are played:

South of the Border 4

Another aspect of Latin drumming is the use of “paila double.” This is the term used when the timbale player plays both sticks on the sides of the timbales. This sound can be used with several different Latin beats. For our purposes we can easily adapt “paila double” to the drum set.

The faster of our three mambos lends itself best to this beat. On the set it can be played with sticks (1) on the closed hi-hat or (2) on the sides of the tom-toms. Another variation is to play this beat with brushes on the snare drum.

Here is the beat:

South of the Border 5

In general “paila double” should be used behind vocals, piano solos or other quiet sections.

There are no accents indicated in this beat. There is a natural tendency to accentuate the right hand, the primary part of the beat. Adding accents would give a lopsided effect to the beat.

The bass drum part is very important.

It is either:

South of the Border 6

The choice of which bass drum pattern to use should be determined by the bass player’s beat.

As important as “how” the mambo is played, is “when” and “where” a particular beat is utilized. The following is a very condensed Latin arrangement showing the function of the drum set. [see below]The idea behind all of this is twofold. First of all, learn the possibilities, and second, utilize them with good musical judgment.There is the possibility that you will be playing with a conga drummer. When this happens an adjustment of the “where” part is necessary.My friend, six-year-road-buddy and teacher Armando Peraza suggested this alternative.

While playing the ride cymbal patterns with the right hand, play the same patterns simultaneously with the left hand on the snare drum, snares on. Behind the conga solo you can play right hand cowbell with accents, and the regular left hand. As the solo progresses you can go to the ride cymbals with the same left hand beat. The for a gigantic, flag waving finish try adding the cowbell with the left hand playing the same ride cymbal beat.

The basic rule is to play as little tom-tom as possible when the conga is also playing a “time” pattern.

Next time I’ll discuss “reverse” Mambo beats and Son Montuno.

South of the Border 7