How to Play Salsa on a Guitar

Written by david ferris
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How to Play Salsa on a Guitar
One key element of salsa guitar is the clave. (playing the guitar image by egirldesign from

Salsa is a popular style of Latin music and dance, and the guitar figures heavily in it. Salsa is also associated with numerous subgenres such as mambo, son, son-montuno, montuno, cha-cha, and Latin jazz. Becoming adept at salsa guitar involves learning and internalising the distinct rhythms, melodies, and chord progressions that give the music its flavour and sound. Start with understanding the basic rhythm, then learn simple musical phrases, then practice salsa chord changes and build on your knowledge until you become more fluid.

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  1. 1

    Learn the "clave," or riff, which is the rhythmic structure around which salsa is based. Start with the 2-3 mambo clave, which has the following pattern: one TWO THREE four, ONE two AND three FOUR, where the capitalised letters signify a stressed beat. Count in your head or tap your foot to help internalise this rhythm.

  2. 2

    Learn basic "montunos," simple two-bar phrases which are the building blocks of salsa. Begin by practicing a simple montuno in A minor. If counting in your head, the rhythm would sound out "1, 2, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and 1, 2 and, 3 and, 4, 4 and," and so on. Then practice the same montuno but add a new chord. Start with the E major chord and change to A minor at the end of the phrase (on the beat "four and.")

  3. 3

    Start playing four chords in the 2-3 clave rhythm. The chord progression is as follows: A minor, D minor, E major, and D minor. Practice until you can change chords fluidly and maintain a tight rhythm.

  4. 4

    Arpeggiate the chords with the same rhythm. Play the arpeggios of the chords, switching on the same beats. Practice until you can do it fluidly. It might help to play along to salsa recordings. Play the same apreggios with major chords; for example, A major, whose chord progression is A major, D major, E major, D major.

  5. 5

    Expand your montuno repertory. For example, you can try a G-F montuno, made famous by Ray Barreto. The chords change on "one" and "four and." Listen closely to and study salsa songs, and try to play along. Learn the "boogaloo," another salsa motif, whose chord structure is Eb, Ab, Bb, Ab.

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