Salsa is a unique style of Latin music that doesn’t have a definite origin. While styles like the mambo and samba come from Cuba, Salsa rhythms are influenced by American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban musical styles.
When playing salsa beats on a drum kit, the main aim is to recreate the different rhythmic parts that get played by different percussionists. Most Latin beats are like this, and it makes them tricky to play.
Once you can play them, you’ll feel incredibly accomplished. So, here’s a list of ten salsa drum beats to work on. The first few will set the bar, while the rest will build on the foundations that we start with.
Salsa Drum Beat 1
In this first groove, we’re just going to work on the common salsa ostinato that we play with our feet.
An ostinato is a repeating pattern that you play in every bar, so you need to practice this beat enough for your feet to go on autopilot. Once you can do that, you can move onto the next group of grooves.
For this groove, you’re just going to keep time by playing quarter notes on the ride cymbal. You’ll then play the hi-hat pedal on beats 2 and 4, along with the bass drum on the “and” of 2 and the downbeat of beat 4.
Salsa Drum Beat 2
Once you’ve established that common ostinato pattern with your feet, you can start adding some rhythms with your left hand.
A lot of salsa drum beats are based around a clave rhythmic pattern. In this example, you’re going to play a 2/3 clave with your left hand on the snare drum. You’ll play it as cross-sticks, as that’s arguably a more popular sound in Latin drumming than regular snare strokes.
In the first bar, you’re going to play cross-sticks on beats 2 and 3. In the second bar, you’re going to play cross-sticks on beat 1, the “and” of beat 2, and on beat 4.
Salsa Drum Beat 3
This third groove is going to be the final end variation of the previous two grooves we looked at. This is your classic salsa drum beat, meaning it’s what most musicians think of when they want you to play a salsa groove.
You’re going to keep your foot and left hand patterns the same, but you’re going to change the rhythms that you play on the ride cymbal.
Instead of playing straight quarter notes, you’re going to play syncopated rhythms that create another looping ostinato pattern.
Work on this really slowly, and try to isolate the ride pattern so that you can ingrain it in your muscle memory.
Salsa Drum Beat 4
We’re now going to build further onto what we played in the last groove, so make sure to have it nailed before moving on.
In this variation of a salsa groove, you’re going to stop playing the 2/3 clave with your left hand. You’re going to rather add a backbeat rhythm to make the groove sound a bit more square.
In both bars, you’ll play a cross-stick on beat 2. You’ll then play a rack tom on beat 4 of the first bar and a floor tom on beat 4 of the second.
This will all happen while your feet and right hand play the same repeating patterns.
Salsa Drum Beat 5
This groove is heavily mambo-inspired. If you can play a mambo groove comfortably, you should be able to play this one fairly easily.
Most of the groove is the same as Salsa Drum Beat 4. However, you’re going to add an extra rack tom in the first bar and an extra floor tom in the second.
Playing these consecutive notes can feel a bit tricky while keeping all the other rhythms going, so make sure to work on this groove very slowly at first. Once you start speeding it up, your muscle memory should help you along the way.
Salsa Drum Beat 6
Now, we’re going to make the salsa beat sound a lot more driving. It’s a common technique in Latin drumming to play cross-sticks as quarter notes throughout every bar. Drummers will typically do this when they’re building up to a certain song part, as it creates a nice bit of suspense.
While you keep those quarter note cross-sticks going, you’re going to move your right hand to the bell of the ride cymbal.
You’ll get a shorter and more distinct sound from the bell, which perfectly complements the driving feel that we’re aiming for here.
Salsa Drum Beat 7
This drum beat is arguably one of the trickiest ones on this entire list. You’re going to keep your right hand playing the classic salsa pattern on the bell. You’re also going to keep your feet playing the standard ostinato.
The tricky part is playing all the rhythms with your left hand while keeping those ostinato rhythms repeating.
In the first bar, you’re going to three cross-sticks at different points and then follow them with two consecutive floor tom strokes at the end of the bar.
In the second bar, you’re going to push those cross-sticks forward by a beat, making the first two land on the offbeats. You’ll then resolve the syncopation by playing a cross-stick on beat 3 and ending off the bar on the floor tom like you did in the first bar.
Salsa Drum Beat 8
We’re going to simplify things again for this new groove. The beauty of Latin drumming is that you can learn several different patterns and then play them in various orders to create new beats.
For this example, we’re going to flip the bars around and play the standard ride cymbal pattern backwards.
It may feel tricky after playing the original pattern a lot, but you should get the hang of it quite quickly.
You’ll then play the same foot ostinato that you’ve been playing this whole time.
Salsa Drum Beat 9
You’re going to add the 2/3 clave pattern back in here, leading you to get the opposite of what you played in Salsa Beat 3.
If you really want to test yourself, you should try playing both grooves four times each and then switch between them. That will show how much mastery you have over playing salsa rhythms. Not easy!
Salsa Drum Beat 10
This last groove is a simple variation of the reversed salsa idea we’ve been looking at. You’re going to play one cross-stick and one tom in each bar, making the entire beat sound quite open.
While the most impressive parts of Latin grooves are when they sound very busy, it’s nice to let music breathe now and then, and you can do that by playing spacious drum beats like this one.
Tips for Learning Salsa Drum Beats
Work On Limb Independence
The most vital part of learning salsa grooves is having good limb control when drumming. If you can’t play rhythms independently between your limbs, you’ll likely struggle to learn how to play a salsa drum beat.
So, work on your limb independence with simpler exercises first. A good example is to play alternating eighth notes between your right and left feet, and then play rudiments on the snare drum while you keep that pattern going.
Learn Other Latin Style Drum Beats
Latin beats have a ripple effect on your drumming when you start learning how to play all of them. It may seem like the hardest thing in the world when learning how to play a bossa nova. But once you’re comfortable playing it, it’ll be a bit easier to learn how to play a mambo.
It’ll then be easier to play a salsa. So, I highly recommend learning how to play various Latin-style drum beats. Your drumming will improve dramatically once you do.
Read While You Play
My final piece of advice is to read these drum beats as you play them. There’s a lot going on in a salsa groove, making it easy to get lost.
While your right hand may easily go into autopilot mode, your left foot could fall behind.
The best way to learn grooves that require a heavy amount of independence is to read the notation slowly as you play them.
When you do this, you can visualize which hands need to play things at the same time and which legs need to wait for a rest.
The more you do this, the more your body will catch onto what you’re doing, and that’s when the muscle memory will start being developed.
Salsa drum beats are incredibly fun to play, especially when you play them at various tempos. While bossa novas are meant to be slow and samba beats are meant to be quick, salsa beats can be played at a wide range of tempos.
Keep that in mind when working on these grooves, as it would be best to practice them in as many tempos as you possibly can. It will get you even more comfortable when playing them.