Introduction to Claves

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Claves (pronounced CLAH-vays) are a deceptively simple percussion instrument (or an idiophone in musicological lingo) that are found in traditional and contemporary musical genres all around the world. Simply put, the claves are two sticks which are "clacked" together to make a sound. Historically, claves were made out of hardwood, such as rosewood, ebony, and grenadilla. Modern versions are often made out of synthetic materials such as fiberglass or even hard plastics.

The word "clave" comes from the Spanish (via Cuba, in this case) word for "key," as the claves are used to play what's called a "key pattern," a percussion line that essentially acts as a "keystone" for the overall rhythm pattern of the music, linking the whole sound together. This key pattern is an essential ingredient in Cuban son, as well as a number of other genres of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian music.

How to Play the Claves

Though the claves are not a complicated instrument in terms of physicality, learning the key patterns requires a percussion master's touch, and serious musicians study the instrument and its patterns as intently (and for as long) as they'd study any other instrument. That said, the claves are also quite easy to make simple rhythm patterns with, and therefore make a great starter instrument for young children (which is why you'll see them, or other rhythm stick variants, in nearly every elementary or early childhood music classroom in the Western world) as well as for adults who are interested in participating in a drum circle or other percussive jam session.

To play the claves, you can simply hold one in each hand and strike them together, or you can play them in a more traditional Cuban style, where you cup one flat against the palm of your left hand, which is held still, and strike it with your right hand. Experiment with holding the sticks more or less tightly, "choking up" and holding them higher and lower, and letting them resonate for longer or shorter periods of time. There's a surprising amount of tonality that can be pulled from these simple instruments; after you've experimented a bit, you'll realize how complicated the job of the claves-player really is!

Examples of Music Including Claves

Try Cachao: Master Sessions Volume 1 or Aurelio - Laru Beya for releases that feature a lot of clave action.