What Instruments Are Used in Latin American Music?

Updated April 17, 2017

Latin American music is incredibly varied. It originates from a number of countries and the melding of different cultures, including European, Native American and African. The different types of Latin American music use different instruments but there are some commonalities among them.

Rumba Instruments from Cuba

Rumba is probably the most popular music to come out of Cuba and has since spread to other parts of the world as the quintessential Latin music. In rumba, several instruments are used.

The claves (pronounced clah-vay) are two short hardwood sticks that are banged together, and play an interlocking rhythmic pattern with palitos, which are longer hard sticks that beat against the side of a drum.

There are usually two conga drums of two different pitches that also play in the interlocking rhythms (polyrhythms). A conga is a tall drum played with the hands while standing up.

With most rumba music there is also a vocalist singing over the intricate rhythms about any number of topics from love to neighbourhood events.

Muscial Instruments in Puerto Rican Music

The traditional music to come out of Puerto Rico is known as Jibaro and it is a type of Creole music created by Jibaro farmers. The primary instrument in Jibaro music is the cuatro, which is a stringed instrument similar to a guitar but with only five strings. As with any Latin music, it is highly percussive and the instruments to accompany the cuatro are the guiro, which is a grooved cylindrical piece of wood that is scraped rhythmically with a stick. The other percussion instruments are the maracas. These are a type of rattle or shaker, traditionally made from a gourd and filled with beans, seeds, or pellets to produce the shaking sound. Today, shakers are also made from wood.

Mariachi Instruments from Mexico

Mexico is famous for its Mariachi bands, which include 6 to 8 members each playing the instruments that give Mariachi its flavour. Some of the instruments are typical European instruments: violins, trumpets, guitar and harp. The harp is slightly smaller than a European model and is often called a Mexican Folk Harp. The unique Mexican instrument in the ensemble is the guitarro. The guitarro is a stringed instrument similar to a guitar but much larger, which despite being a stringed instrument is strummed in a rhythmic way to create a percussive-sounding rhythm in the band.

Instruments Used in Salsa Music

Salsa may be the most well-known type of Latin American music. It began in New York with a melding of Puerto Rican, U.S., and Cuban cultures. The instruments are similar to those used in Rumba and Jibaro music. Salsa bands typically have two to four horn players, a piano player, a bass player, a conga and a bongo player and a timbale player. Singers in the band may also play maracas, guiro (as described in section 2), and cowbell.

Bongo drums are similar to congas but they are much smaller and are a pair of drums joined together and played with the hands. A timbale is a small drum kit consisting of two drums, played with drumsticks and a cowbell.

Instruments Used in Merengue Music

Merengue music hails from Dominican Republic and is a popular dance music. A Merengue band consists of a guitar or the cuatro used in Jibaro music from Puerto Rico, a guira scraper, a Tambora drum and a marimba.

A Tambora drum is a double-headed drum that is played with a drum stick held in either hand. It is not too conjoined drums but rather a drum that has a head on the top and bottom, and held sideways both heads can be played simultaneously.

A marimba used in Merengue music is not like xylophone popular in Central American and Mexico, it is instead a wooden box with plucked metal keys.

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About the Author

Frances Hall is a librarian and writing and women's and gender studies instructor. Hall has written for Her Active Life and Queercents and has been blogging since 2004. Hall holds a Master of Arts in library science from Dominican University and a Master of Arts in English/literature with a focus on feminist writing pedagogy, as well as a graduate certificate in women's and gender studies.