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What are Claves?

Claves are a simple yet profound percussion instrument, consisting of two wooden sticks that produce a bright, resonant sound when struck together. Rooted in Afro-Cuban music, they are the heartbeat of Latin rhythms, guiding musicians with their steady pulse. Curious about how these sticks shape entire musical genres? Discover the world of rhythm they unlock in our deep dive into claves.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Claves are percussion instruments that are an essential part of most Latin American music. You’ll hear their sounds in salsa music, and in traditional dance music like Rumba and Mambo. Varieties of the instrument exist throughout much of Latin America, Cuba, and in the US where they may be used in a nontraditional manner in popular modern music. They’re also a great teaching tool for children since they have no notes, and can help kids focus on learning rhythms and rhythmic patterns.

The typical set of claves is made of wood, though occasionally you’ll them in fiberglass or plastic. Essentially, they are a set of two sticks, one held in the palm, and the other held in the opposite hand. Sound is produced by striking the stick held in the palm, which may be called the “male” clave with the stick held in the other hand. The striking stick may be referred to as the female clave. There isn't a standard size, though typically you’ll find most claves are about 8 inches (20.32 cm) long and about an inch (2.52 cm) thick. Most often, claves are rounded, dowel shapes with evenly cut ends.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

There are many similar instruments throughout the world. In parts of Asia you may see percussion instruments similar to claves, and Spanish music also has some striking stick types of percussion. It is perhaps one of the most basic of music types, percussion made with wooden sticks. However, many claim that claves specifically are the creation of the Cubans, where the mixed cultures of Spanish, African and American aboriginal tribes blend together. Rhythms of the claves sound distinctly African, but the sticks themselves may predate exploration of the New World.

It shouldn’t be assumed that playing this percussion instrument is equivalent to banging two sticks together for effect. Mastery in the instrument takes time. Players not only play in certain rhythmic patterns but learn how to modulate sound based on where the male clave is struck. Ability to strike with different force, speed, and in different areas of the held clave is an exceptional skill.

Though mastery of this percussion instrument is something that takes considerable practice, the relatively inexpensive instrument is a great introduction to music for children. You can find student instruments for less than $20 US Dollars (USD). For those who prefer a more expert tone, these instruments now come in a lot of different varieties. Some musicians prefer a specific wood type like rosewood, and others like the sound and the durability of fiberglass. For greater tone and resonance, some claves are hollowed.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are claves in music?

Claves are a percussion instrument, consisting of two sticks traditionally made from hardwood, such as rosewood, ebony, or grenadilla. They produce a bright, penetrating sound when struck together and are fundamental in Afro-Cuban music. Claves serve as the rhythmic foundation, providing a standard pattern or "clave rhythm" that other instruments follow, creating the syncopated grooves characteristic of Latin music genres.

How do you play claves?

To play claves, one stick is held stationary, called the 'female,' resting against the palm with fingers wrapped around it, allowing it to resonate. The other stick, known as the 'male,' is struck against it. The player creates a variety of rhythms, most commonly the "clave rhythm," which is a five-note pattern spread over two measures in either a 3-2 or 2-3 clave sequence, depending on which measure contains three notes.

What is the history behind claves?

Claves have their roots in African music and were integral to the development of Afro-Cuban music genres such as son, rumba, and salsa. They were originally used as a time-keeping device and have evolved into a key instrument within the rhythm section of Latin ensembles. The clave rhythm itself is thought to have originated from African bell patterns, which were adapted into the wooden sticks now known as claves.

Can claves be used in music genres other than Latin?

Yes, while claves are a staple in Latin music, their distinctive sound and rhythmic patterns have been incorporated into various other music genres. Jazz musicians, for instance, have utilized claves in Afro-Cuban jazz and Latin jazz fusion. Additionally, contemporary pop, rock, and world music artists sometimes include clave rhythms to add a syncopated or world music feel to their compositions.

Are there different types of claves?

There are indeed different types of claves, varying in size, wood type, and pitch. Traditional Cuban claves are typically made from dense hardwoods and are about 8 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. However, modern claves can be found in various materials, including fiberglass and synthetic options, which offer different sound qualities and durability. The choice of material affects the timbre and resonance, allowing musicians to select claves that best suit their sound preferences.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent MusicalExpert contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent MusicalExpert contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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