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Title: El Rey: Tito Puente and his Latin Ensemble--El rey del timbal; Tito Puente, timbales. Label: Concord Picante. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CCD-4250. Track: 9.

Contextual Associations

The two individual drums that comprise this set of timbales are single-head membranophones with cylindrical bodies. (The two cowbells and the plastic woodblock mounted above the drums will be dealt with in separate entries.) Timbales are strongly associated with Latin American, in general, and Caribbean, in particular, dance music, and wherever these traditions have spread timbales will likely be found. It is part of a battery of idiophones and membranophones that provide the distinctive rhythmic patterns underlying Latin American dances. It is also used as an auxiliary percussion instrument called for rarely in orchestral works but more frequently in contemporary solo mixed-percussion and percussion ensemble works.


The cylindrical tubular shells of the pictured timbales are made of thin sheets of bronze alloy. While the two drums vary slightly in diameter (but have the same depth), they are otherwise identical in design. Equally spaced around the circumference of and securely fashioned to the shell are six inverted L-shaped metal braces. Each drum’s synthetic membrane is stretched over a metal flesh hoop with a diameter slightly greater than that of the shell it will cover. Each head is placed over its respective rim opening, followed by a heavy metal ring collar (or counterhoop) of the same diameter as the flesh hoop. These collars each have six ‘bumps’ equally spaced around their outside face, and in each bump there is a vertically drilled shaft. The six collar bumps are aligned with the six braces, and one of each is connected to the other by a carriage bolt serving as a tension-rod. A nut is screwed onto the threaded end of each bolt underneath the protruding end of the brace. It is with this above-described mechanism, and with the use of a tuning wrench, that the amount and evenness of tension on each drum’s membrane can be controlled.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The drums are side-mounted onto a metal stand that holds them stationary and horizontal with their heads facing upwards. The player stands facing the drums (the player would be on the near side of the pictured drums facing away from the camera) with the larger drum to their left. The two drums are tuned relatively high and low to one another. Relatively thin stick beaters are used to strike the head, collar (rim shots), and shell of each drum, and to strike any idiophones (usually a couple of cowbells and a woodblock, as pictured) that are mounted on a vertical post above the plane of the drumheads. The drumheads, which are put under a lot of tension, give off a penetrating, almost metallic sound rich in overtones that is integrated by the performer with idiophonic sounds produced on the drums themselves (the rim and shell) and on ancillary bells and woodblocks. Driving ostinatos are produced on the timbales and on other instruments in the Latin American dance band percussion battery that contribute to the rhythmic identity of specific dances.


Consulted sources were not enlightening in regard to the history of the timbales, but it seems likely that a melding of European and African sensibilities were at play in its evolution. The actual physical design of the modern timbales is clearly related to European side drums that were introduced to Latin America as part of the colonial enterprise. But the way in which timbales--not only their membranes, but their shells as well--are played suggests African roots.

Bibliographic Citations

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “Timbales.” NGDMI v.3: 585.

Brindle, Reginald Smith. 1991. Contemporary Percussion. London: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.

Montagu, Jeremy. 2002. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: Caribbean

Formation: cosmopolitan (Latin-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.211.2 membranophone--set of single-skin cylindrical drums with single membranes and open ends

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: pair of drums

Shell design: tubular - cylindrical

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: counterhoop, lapped over framed membrane hoop, connected by lacing or tension rods to brackets attached to shell

Membrane tension control: rotating screw rods or bolts

Sounding for membranophone: striking with two handheld beaters

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


14 and 15 in. diameters (l. and r.) 6.5 in. depth

Primary Materials

metal - sheet
membrane - synthetic


Latin Percussion


LP 257

Entry Author

Roger Vetter