Piano Montunos – The Complete Guide
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If you’ve ever heard a live salsa band perform, then you know that Afro-Cuban piano technique is both demanding and exhilarating. In today’s Quick Tip, Piano Montunos—The Complete Guide, Jonny shares the essential skills you need to be able to play authentic Latin jazz with confidence. You’ll learn essential rhythms and arranging techniques for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
In Afro-Cuban music, the word montuno has more than one meaning. First, it refers to a syncopated, two-measure pattern frequently played by the pianist in a salsa band. In addition, montuno also refers to a specific section in the form of a typical salsa arrangement. For example, the montuno section usually follows the bridge, contains a high amount of energy and features vocal or instrumental solos. Today’s lesson will focus on the first meaning described above—the piano montuno.
A piano montuno is a distinctive, highly syncopated accompaniment pattern found in Cuban music. Piano montunos are based on a repeated rhythm that lasts for two measures. The most common montuno rhythm is shown below.
The Montuno Rhythm
Salsa pianists uses a variety of arranging techniques to create all sorts of interesting montuno accompaniment patterns from this rhythm. Here is an example of a simple montuno that features both hands with octave doubling.
Sample Piano Montuno
You may have noticed in the demonstration video above that there is not a discernible difference in the length of the notes that occur on the upbeats, even though some are written as eighth notes while others are quarter notes. In fact, piano montunos are usually played with a legato sound (a musical term meaning “smooth” or “connected”) regardless of whether or not the notation uses eighth rests to express the syncopation.
Keep in mind, the montuno rhythmic figures shown above are representative only. In fact, before we go much deeper into piano montunos, we must first examine a more basic Afro-Cuban rhythm—the clave.
A popular sales approach in the retail clothing industry involves a concept called layering. This basically means that the retailer doesn’t just want to sell you a pair of pants. Instead, they want to sell you an entire outfit—the pants, the top, the belt, the shoes, the socks, the jacket, the necklace, the bracelet, the scarf and the sunglasses! For this reason, you rarely see a mannequin wearing just pants.
Similarly, a prominent feature of Afro-Cuban music involves rhythmic layering. In fact, in Afro-Cuban music, the pianist is really an extension of the percussion section. Other common percussion instruments include conga drums, bongos and timbales. In addition, there are various cowbells, woodblocks, shakers and cymbals. In fact, each percussion instrument typically plays its own, unique rhythmic pattern, creating a polyrhythmic effect. These polyrhythms are layered together to form a sort of “musical outfit.” Underneath all these layers, however, there is something very much like a mannequin providing the necessary structure and support…the clave.
The Spanish word clave (pronounced “KLAH vay”) is translated in English as “key” or “code.” In either case, it implies a sense of unlocking or decrypting. And that’s exactly how the clave rhythm functions in Afro-Cuban music. The clave provides the rhythmic architecture for the entire ensemble and serves as the primary lens for understanding how all the parts fit together. The claves (note: plural) are also the name of the stick-like instrument made from rosewood, walnut or fiberglass that plays the clave rhythm.
Let’s take a moment now to examine the most common clave rhythm, called the son clave. However, we’ll need to examine the son clave in two forms. That’s because all clave rhythms contain two-measures, which can be reversed.
First, we’ll look at the 2:3 son clave because piano montunos are frequently based on this framework. This numeric designation simply means that the first measure contains 2 notes and the second measure contains 3 notes. Sometimes, you’ll hear a 2:3 clave called a “reverse clave.”
Now let’s examine the 3:2 son clave, in which the measure with 3 notes comes first. The 3:2 clave orientation is sometimes called a “forward clave.”
How does the clave relate to the piano montuno?
Perhaps you’ve been following along so far and wondering, “What the point?” Well, here it comes. When you play a piano montuno, it’s imperative that you align your montuno pattern to the song’s underlying clave pattern, whether 2:3 or 3:2! If you get it backwards, you’ll be on the wrong side of the clave, a condition that’s described as cruzado (“crossed” in Spanish).
Remember, we started today’s lesson by looking at the “most common” montuno rhythm? Well, it’s important that you can relate this montuno rhythm to its underlying clave, which is a 2:3 clave. The example below shows a typical piano montuno that aligns with a 2:3 son clave for the chord progression Cm→G.
Even though piano montunos are often based on the 2:3 clave, you may occasionally need to play a montuno that aligns with a 3:2 clave. These montuno patterns are more rhythmically challenging to execute because they begin with upbeats. Furthermore, converting a 2:3 montuno into a 3:2 montuno is not as simple as swapping the order of the measures. That’s because only the rhythmic pattern is swapped, not the chord progression. For example, here’s a piano montuno based on a 3:2 clave for the same chord progression, Cm→G.
Did you hear how the montuno lines up with the clave in both examples? The ability to hear this alignment while playing will help you “lock-in” the syncopation of the montuno. In time, you’ll also begin to hear how the montuno pattern lines up with the conga pattern and the bass line.
In the next section, you’ll learn some of the most common arranging techniques that salsa pianists use to construct montuno accompaniment patterns. All of the remaining montunos in today’s lesson are based on the 2:3 son clave.
Today’s lesson is packed with amazing piano montuno techniques for all playing levels. If you’re a PWJ member, be sure to download the PDF lesson sheet as well as the 4 backing tracks that are included with this lesson. These resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also use our Smart Sheet Music to easily change the key of this lesson with a single click.
In this section, we’ll look at two of the most common ways that Latin jazz pianists break up their chords into a montuno pattern. Jonny calls the first technique “outer-inner,” which is exactly how this pattern is arranged. If you’re dealing with a triad, you first have to double one note so that you have a 4-note voicing with the same note on top and bottom. Then, simply play the montuno rhythm while alternating between the outer and inner chord tones.
Another common arranging technique that professional pianists use to construct montuno patterns is to “fill in” a few eighth notes with arpeggiated chord tones. In the example below, notice that we haven’t really modified the montuno pattern. It’s more like we “stayed in the lines” while coloring. In other words, the micro rhythm is different, but the macro rhythm is the same.
Now, let’s look at an example in which we actually will modify the montuno rhythm slightly. In a true performance situation, all of the musicians in the rhythm section will include some degree of ad-lib as compared to the conventional salsa rhythms. One common approach is to accentuate beats 3 and 4 in the second measure. Even though this is an ad-lib, it actually brings beat 4 in the second measure into sync with the clave.
So far, we’ve only been dealing with the right hand. In the next section, we’ll explore Afro-Cuban patterns that include the left hand.
Earlier, we saw how understanding the clave can help you to lock-in your montuno as a pianist. Similarly, understanding the Afro-Cuban bass line, known as the tumbao (pronounced “tomb BOUW”), will further help your groove. In fact, the word tumbao has a range of meanings associated with body movement that conveys a sense of confidence, style, sensuality, groove, swing or swag.
Unlike the clave pattern and the montuno pattern, the tumbao rhythm repeats after just 1 measure. A typical tumboa bass line accentuates the “and of 2” and beat 4. Therefore, it is strongly aligned with the “three-side” of the son clave. Initially, the bass will play on beat 1 to begin the tumbao. However, afterward, beat 4 is tied across the bar line such that beat 1 is rarely played, except on ad-libs.
Now, let’s try playing the tumboa bass line in the left hand on piano.
Montuno Bass Line on Piano
Great job! Now, if you’re playing with a bass player, you won’t need to physically play the tumbao on piano, but it sure helps if you can feel it. However, if you’re playing without a bass player, then adding the tumbao is the best way to get an authentic salsa groove.
Are you ready to put your hands together? If so, then you’ll love the next section.
In this section, we’ll look at three different approaches for combining the hands when playing a montuno. We’ll explore these techniques sequentially, from simplest to most complex, which also corresponds to their relative level of difficulty.
The simplest and easiest way to play a piano montuno is to play the same thing in both hands. In common language, we might describe this approach as hands “in unison,” although technically the hands are an octave apart. Let’s take a listen below.
If you want to vary the sound of your montuno and create some cool colors, then you can play a harmonized pattern. Typically, harmonized patterns involve contrary motion. However, you can also explore parallel motion with 6th or 10th intervals to create some harmony.
As we mentioned earlier, a third approach is that you can combine a montuno pattern in the right hand with a tumbao pattern in the left hand.
As you can hear, this sounds fantastic! If you’re enjoying today’s lesson, then be sure to explore our learning tracks on Latin jazz piano:
In the final section of today’s Quick Tip, we’ll explore Jonny’s 6 Piano Montunos from Beginner to Pro!
As we come to the final section of today’s lesson, there’s some good news and bad news. First, let’s get the bad news over with. It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to take a particular montuno pattern that you find in a Latin jazz textbook or even in this Quick Tip and cram it into a salsa song. That’s because no two songs are exactly the same. Inevitably, the chord changes won’t line up.
But wait…there’s some really good news! If you practice a variety of montuno patterns over various chord progressions, then you’ll be much better prepared to create your own piano montuno patterns for any song! That’s what this section is all about! So let’s dig in. Here, you’ll find piano montunos for every level:
Each montuno in this section contains a demonstration video with the included backing track. Afterward, each example is repeated at a significantly slower tempo.
First, let’s play some less complicated montuno patterns. The example below uses both hands to cut through the band with parallel octaves.
As you can hear, “simple” still sounds incredible!
Next, we’ve have a montuno pattern that prominently features a chord extension for a hip, modern sound. Instead of sticking to just the notes of Cm, this pattern uses Cm(add2).
Nice job! Now let’s check out some intermediate level piano montunos.
Did you notice that the beginner montunos above were arranged for one chord only? If you’re an intermediate player, then you’ll want to get some experience playing montunos that change chords. The montunos in this section go back-and-forth from a minor tonic chord to its dominant chord (ⅰ→Ⅴ)
Our first intermediate piano montuno incorporates chromatic neighbor motion (G↗A♭↘G) over both Cm and G. The tension created by this chromatic note gives this montuno an “edgy” sound.
Our next montuno is similar, except that it also includes some arpeggiated notes. Check it out below.
Nice job. Now, let’s take it up a notch with some advanced piano montunos!
The advanced piano montunos in this section cover chord progressions that are substantially longer than anything we’ve looked at so far. The backing tracks for this section also move at a much faster pace!
Montuno #5 below uses a common ⅵ→Ⅳ→Ⅰ→Ⅴ chord progression. This progression occurs in countless pop and contemporary tunes. In fact, Jonny’s solo piano arrangement of “Despacito” features this exact montuno.
Our final montuno contains the familiar sound of The Sentimental Progression with its “wandering 7th.” The “wandering 7th” (or sometimes the “traveling 7th”) describes inner voice movement over a prolonged minor chord by lowered the root by a half-step several times. You can hear Jonny play this montuno on his popular Latin piano cover version of Britney Spears’ mega-hit “Baby One More Time.”
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Piano Montunos—The Complete Guide. With the skills, concepts and techniques that you’ve learned in today’s lesson, you’re sure to experience joy at the piano in a whole new way. For some of you, you may even be ready for a Latin jazz piano gig!
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following resources:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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