Timbales (or pailas criollas) are shallow single-headed drums with metal casing, invented in Cuba. They are shallower in shape than single-headed tom-toms, and usually much higher tuned. The player (known as a timbalero) uses a variety of stick strokes, rim shots, and rolls on the skins to produce a wide range of percussive expression during solos and at transitional sections of music, and usually plays the shells of the drum or auxiliary percussion such as a cowbell or cymbal to keep time at other parts of the song.
The shells are referred to as cáscara (the Spanish word for shell) which is also the name of a rhythmic pattern common in salsa music that is played on the shells of the timbales to keep time. The shells are usually made of metal but some manufacturers offer shells made of maple and other woods. The heads are light and tuned fairly high for their size.
Timbales is also the French word for timpani, thus the French refer to Cuban timbales as timbales latines. In fact, timbales (as the term is now used) were first used in the early 20th century charangas as a replacement for the standard timpani (kettle drums) used in the older form of Cuban orchestras known as típicas.
Traditionally, a pair of timbales is mounted on a stand and played while standing. They are played with timbale sticks, which are straight sticks with no shoulder or head. The head diameters usually range from 12″ (30 cm) to 16″ (40 cm) with a pair normally differing in size by one inch (3 cm). As with the bongos, the smaller drum is the macho (male) and the larger the hembra (female), with the macho providing the sharper, attacking sounds.
Manufacturers have recently produced small timbales (usually called “timbalitos” or “mini timbales”) with diameters of 6″ (15 cm), 8″ (20 cm), or 10″ (25 cm); usually they are sold as pairs and are mostly suitable for kit drummers.
Drummer John Dolmayan of System of a Down is known for using two (6″ and 8″) mini timbales on his kit. Also, Bud Gaugh of Sublime and Long Beach Dub Allstars used a single, high pitched timbale on his drumkit to the left of his snare during his years with those bands. Bud used his timbale usually for accents and transitions, especially in the more reggae-influenced songs, but it is used exclusively in place of the snare on the song “Waiting for My Ruca” from 40 oz. to Freedom and Stand By Your Van. He has not used the timbale in his recent bands Eyes Adrift and Del Mar, possibly due to the lack of reggae influence in those bands. The Ohio University Marching 110's drum line features three sets of timbales in the place of quads or quints. They are one of the very few marching bands in the country to still employ timbales in their drum line. They also employ three sets of dual tom toms to play the lower lines that a quad or quint would cover.
A small, fairly heavy salsa-type cymbal, cowbell, or wood block may be mounted slightly above and between the two timbales a little further from the player. Older players consider it bad taste to use both a cymbal and a cowbell, but younger players have abandoned this tradition, even incorporating timbales into larger percussion sets including drum kits. There can be as many as five different kinds of accessories on a timbale set.
Skilled players strike the heads, rims, and shells in rapid succession to produce lively Latin rhythms.
Due to the timbalero Tito Puente (among others), it is now acceptable for a player – especially a band leader – to use more than two timbales, and a great timbale solo is quite a spectacle. Puente was frequently be seen on concerts, posters, and album covers with seven or eight timbales in one set, often strapped to him rather than on a stand.
A recent offshoot of the Washington DC funk genre of Go-Go known as the “Bounce Beat” features Timbales as a predominant instrument.
The term timbal or timbales (pl.) has been used in Cuba for two quite different types of drum. In the first place, it was first used to describe the kettle drums used in the wind orchestras known as orquestas típicas. These were the same general type of drum used in military bands, perhaps slung either side of a horse, and in classical orchestras. These were, and are, played with sticks which have softish round heads.
The orquestas típicas were gradually replaced early in the 20th century by charangas. The general idea of the charanga was to replace the wind instruments with violins and flute to bring a brighter, lighter tone to the band. The typani were replaced by pailas criollas, which were originally designed to be used by street bands. They were taken over by the early charangas; their original name was used in Cuba, but over time the simpler term timbal has been taken over to describe the pailes. Pailas are always hit with straight batons that have no additional head. Hits are made on the top and on the metal sides. There is often a second set of even smaller drums, timbalitos, which produce an even higher note when struck. In a modern band the timbalero may also have a trap kit to switch to for certain numbers.
Thus the term timbales is ambiguous when referring to bands playing the danzón in the 1900–1930 period. If one does not have a photograph it is difficult to know which type of drum was used by the band.
Timbales can be heard in:
Other countless Latin genres feature the timbales, as they are constantly being incorporated into new styles of music.