Timbales are metal-encased shallow single-headed drums. They have a shallower sound than the single-headed tom-toms. During solos and transitional sections of music, the player (known as a timbalero) employs a variety of stick strokes, rim shots, and rolls to generate a wide spectrum of percussive expression. And he generally keeps time with the shells (or supplementary percussion – such as a cowbell or cymbal).  

The Origin

In the late 1800s, the Timbales or Timbal, also known as “Paila” and “Paila Criolla,” evolved in Cuba. They came down from European Timpani, or kettle drums, imported by Italian opera companies. During colonial times, they accompanied the wind groups and the military parade bands. The “Paila Criolla” originated as a lighter, more portable alternative to the huge, heavy kettle drums. It also made it ideal for marching and parading. These early timbales were constructed out of iron or copper pots found in many of the island’s sugar cane mills. Drums constructed of these materials became more accessible and affordable, leading them to gain popularity quickly. As Cuban performers traveled to and from the United States in the early twentieth century, the timbales were influenced by the drum set and moved from being made of materials found in sugarcane factories to the metal shells we see today.

Cuban recordings of the Charanga orchestras strongly impacted the percussionists and innovators in the emerging New York Latin music scene of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. As well as those of “conjuntos” by such performers as Arsenio Rodriguez (whose ensemble did not contain timbales). Percussionists like Tito Puente and Manny Oquendo built on the foundations put down by the timbaleros in Cuba, creating new rhythms and methods to complement the mambo, boogaloo, and other Latin dance “crazes” of the period. With groups like Santana, the timbales got the limelight. They turned into larger forms of music such as Latin rock. They became a standard in the American Funk and R&B genres, owing to bands like Earth Wind & Fire, bringing the timbales’ sound to a global audience. 

How to play?

Timbales are usually struck with wooden sticks on the heads and shells. Whereas, bare hands are also useful sometimes. During solos and transitional sections of music, the player (known as a timbalero) uses a variety of stick strokes, rim shots, and rolls to produce a wide range of percussive expressions. He usually plays the shells to keep time in other parts of the song.

Abanico, baqueteo (from danzón), mambo, and chachachá are all common stroke patterns as well. Timbales range in size from 33 centimeters (13 in) to 35 centimeters (14 in) in diameter (macho drum) (hembra drum). Originally fashioned of calfskin, the heads are now available in plastic. They have a steel rim for better capacity and longevity. Metal shells are the most common, but wooden shells are also available. Timbalitos, or smaller timbales, are useful for larger drum kits.