Want to develop true authenticity in almost any style of music? Stop focusing on the WHAT and instead focus on the WHY.

I once spent 6 months studying with legendary percussionist Michael Spiro (check him out, he’s played with everybody). Though we barely played any drum set, he was able to transform my drum set playing completely when it came to playing Afro-Cuban music. How was this possible?

We focused on two critical percussion instruments: Timbales and Congas. We dove into the history of these instruments, the essential rhythms typically played on these instruments, and most importantly, covered the “rules” of Afro-cuban music.

A quick primer here: Just as we feel the backbeat on 2+4 in most American pop music, Afro-Cuban music is felt in what’s called “clave,” which is a deep topic that requires a separate article. However, just as you’d never clap your hands on 1+3 in American pop music, you’d also never want to do something called “crossing the clave” in Afro-Cuban music).

Once you know the WHY, the WHAT becomes much more apparent.

Prior to studying with Spiro, I had basically approached playing Latin styles with a “WHAT" mentality. In other words, I had memorized a few basic patterns when I was younger (as many of us do) and would simply pull them out when a latin tune was called.

However, when I spent dedicated time to studying congas and timbales, I finally understood WHY I was playing those drum set grooves in the first place.

In other words: once you understand what the rules (commonalities) of a given style are, only then can you know how to break them (aka: playing something other than memorized patterns).

To give you a specific example, I knew that when I played with the right hand on the shell of the floor tom (or hi-hat), I was really mimicking a timbalero getting that same sound on the side of a timbale. When I played the toms during a cha cha groove, I realized it was really in order to mimic the sound of a conga player. You get the idea.

My point is that if we view the drum set with a “beginner’s eye” (imagining what it was like to see something for the very first time again), we realize that the drum set itself is simply an arrangement of various percussion instruments. As drummers, we often forget that our instrument, in relation to all other instruments, is relatively young, and was designed as a way for one person to fill the role of what used to require several percussionists.


On top of practicing drum set, devote some time to learning how to play other percussion instruments. Counter-intuitively, this time away from the drum set will actually improve your kit playing exponentially (for the reasons explained above).

Seek out an expert, take lessons, and soak up as much knowledge that you can about other percussion instruments. It will deepen your groove and provide valuable knowledge/perspective that you can then directly apply to the drum set. As a working drummer, you’ll find that this knowledge comes in handy more often than you’d think.

Here’s a quick, at-a-glance look at some of the immediate benefits of studying various percussion instruments.

CONGAS: Learn how different key sound sources are made. Mimic these sounds on the drum set. Latin grooves on the kit will start sounding more appropriate. If playing with a percussionist down the road, you’ll learn how to not get in the way of his/her playing, and instead start playing more complimentary.
TIMBALES: Many transferrable skills to the drum set here. First, you’ll learn essential rhythms used in Salsa music. You’ll develop an understanding of clave, and the “rules” of Salsa music (not crossing the clave, soloing in clave, etc.).
AUXILIARY CLASSICAL PERCUSSION: You’ll develop touch/sensitivity not often emphasized in drum set playing. You’ll develop a deeper understanding of phrasing and dynamics. Musical theater work will often require that you mimic percussion parts on the drum kit.
TIMPANI : Pitch awareness, develops ear training skills.
XYLO, VIBES, or MARIMBA: Basic melodic/harmonic knowledge that will allow you to speak the language with your fellow musicians and will also put your own playing in perspective (what role am I playing on the drum set?)


How can we apply this concept beyond the drums and into the rest of our lives?



Thanks to Richie Garcia for offering his 3 words of advice (ALSO PLAY PERCUSSION) and for inspiring me to write this week's article!

Richie Gajate-Garcia is a drummer, percussionist, clinician and educator.  He has traveled the world and recorded with many renowned artists.  His nickname is "El Pulpo" (which means the octopus in Spanish) a nickname given to him for his unique independence and ability to play multiple percussion instruments simultaneously.

Richie was voted to be one of the top Latin percussionists by his peers in the Modern Drummer Reader's Poll and one of the top Rock percussionists in DRUM! Magazine by its readers this year.

Gajete, who is Puerto Rican, grew up on the island with friends of his father which included Tito Puente and Armando Peraza and an appreciation for salsa and a love for Latin percussion.  Gajete obtained his bachelor's degree in Music Education from the Conservatory of Music in Chicago, as well as his teaching credentials.  

Richie Gajate-Garcia is a drummer, percussionist, clinician and educator.  has accompanied artists such as Phil Collins, Sting, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Diana Ross, Hiroshima, Patti Labelle, Amy Grant, Brooks and Dunn, Luis Miguel, John Denver, Art Garfunkel and many, many more.

He has recorded on soundtracks to films such as "The Italian Job", "Maid in Manhattan" with Jennifer Lopez, "I-Spy" with Eddie Murphy and the classic "The Mummy Returns" with the London Symphony.  He is the percussionist of choice for the Disney studios and has played on many of the Disney Animated films such as; Kronk's New Groove, Emperor's New Groove, Brother Bear, Robots.

Richie has toured the world as a top clinician for Latin Percussion Inc. and Sabian Cymbals Ltd. HE has two instructional videos produced by LP and distributed by Warner Bros. entitled "Close-Up on Congas" and "Close-Up on Bongos and Timbales" from the Adventures in Rhythm series.

He is an author and has three instructional books on the market published by Warner Bros.  Publication entitled "Play Timbales Now", "Play Congas Now" and "Play Bongos and Hand Percussion Now".  Richie is also a contributing author to DRUM! Magazine.

Richie has three solo projects out.  His "Entre Amigos" c.d. celebrates his Latin roots and showcases Richie and his musician friends.  This c.d. is a celebration of Richie's life.

His c.d. "Mis Tres Hijos" is an instrumental work of art, which showcases his ability to master the finesse of graceful percussion.

His third CD Reggaeson con tumbao with R & T, Richie and Thania.  Reggaeson con tumbao is a  hybred of today's popular style Reaggaeton.

Steve SuchComment