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Guide to Timbales: 5 Tips for Buying Timbales

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 29, 2020 • 3 min read

Percussion instruments add depth and rhythm to melodic lines, and timbales—a pair of Cuban drums that are similar to timpani—bring a Latin percussion sound to an ensemble.



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What Are Timbales?

Timbales (or pailas) are a set of relatively shallow drums that are similar to timpani; the word timbales itself if Spanish for timpani, also known as kettledrums. Timbales always come as a pair and are different sizes—typically one is 13 inches and the other is 14 inches. There are also timbalitos, or mini timbales, which are smaller (between six to 10 inches). Additionally, deep shell timbales can be up to 16 inches in depth. With a crisp, resonant sound, timbales add texture to songs in the Latin music tradition and beyond, including salsa, reggae, Afro-Cuban, mambo, and jazz.

What Are Timbales?

3 Parts of Timbales Drums

A timbale set looks similar to the tom-toms on a standard drum kit, but they are shallower, usually tuned significantly higher, and offer three distinct areas of play:

  1. Head: The top of the drum. This area will create the most resonant sound.
  2. Rim: The edge of the drum, where the head meets the body. This area offers a piercing sound.
  3. Cáscara: The side of the drum, where, depending on the material used to make the drum shell, you can create a hard and crisp metallic or wooden sound.
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4 Techniques for Playing Timbales

Though you use sticks to play the timbales, the strikes are conceptually similar to the congas:

  1. Open: Strike near the center of the drumhead.
  2. Muffled: Press down on the head with one stick while striking with the other.
  3. Rim shot: Simultaneously strike the rim and the edge of the head with one stick.
  4. Side stick: With one stick laid across the head, “click” the stick against the rim.

With your metronome going, spend some time getting to know the different parts of the timbales and the different ways of striking them to create sound. Experiment with dynamics and tempo. Work on keeping time, and try out a few of your rudiments. When you’re ready, try playing rhythm patterns of various difficulties.

5 Tips for Buying a Timbales Set

High-quality timbales don't need to be expensive, nor are they hard to come by. Below are tips to buying your first set of timbales.

  1. Make sure the timbales are the right size. The drums should be either 13 and 14 inches (standard), or 14 and 15 inches (also common). The bigger they are, the louder they’ll be.
  2. Choose the material carefully. Timbales are made of either brass, stainless steel, bronze, chrome, or wood. The material of the drum shell affects the sound. Brass timbales are generally warmer sounding, steel timbales sound sharper, and bronze timbales are in between. Wood is harder to find and to work with.
  3. Select the right drumheads. Calfskin heads will give you the most authentic sound. Plastic heads can create a ringing effect, but there are quality synthetics on the market that improve upon this.
  4. Approach used timbales with caution. Make sure a working stand is included. Carefully check the shells for cracks, rust, or holes, and prioritize new heads. Also ask for extras, like cowbells.
  5. Consider buying additional instruments. The two different-size drums and the timbale stand they come on are essential, but you’ll likely want timbale sticks (thinner than drumsticks), a cowbell, and a clave block as well. Clave blocks are typically made of plastic and create a dry, bright sound. You can also add cymbals, wood blocks, or tambourine to your timbales drum set, and some percussionists go as far as to incorporate a snare, kick drum, and even bongos.


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