Claves are percussion instruments that are an essential part of most Latin American music. You’ll hear their sounds in salsa music, and in traditional dance music like Rumba and Mambo. Varieties of the instrument exist throughout much of Latin America, Cuba, and in the US where they may be used in a nontraditional manner in popular modern music. They’re also a great teaching tool for children since they have no notes, and can help kids focus on learning rhythms and rhythmic patterns.
The typical set of claves is made of wood, though occasionally you’ll them in fiberglass or plastic. Essentially, they are a set of two sticks, one held in the palm, and the other held in the opposite hand. Sound is produced by striking the stick held in the palm, which may be called the “male” clave with the stick held in the other hand. The striking stick may be referred to as the female clave. There isn't a standard size, though typically you’ll find most claves are about 8 inches (20.32 cm) long and about an inch (2.52 cm) thick. Most often, claves are rounded, dowel shapes with evenly cut ends.
There are many similar instruments throughout the world. In parts of Asia you may see percussion instruments similar to claves, and Spanish music also has some striking stick types of percussion. It is perhaps one of the most basic of music types, percussion made with wooden sticks. However, many claim that claves specifically are the creation of the Cubans, where the mixed cultures of Spanish, African and American aboriginal tribes blend together. Rhythms of the claves sound distinctly African, but the sticks themselves may predate exploration of the New World.
It shouldn’t be assumed that playing this percussion instrument is equivalent to banging two sticks together for effect. Mastery in the instrument takes time. Players not only play in certain rhythmic patterns but learn how to modulate sound based on where the male clave is struck. Ability to strike with different force, speed, and in different areas of the held clave is an exceptional skill.
Though mastery of this percussion instrument is something that takes considerable practice, the relatively inexpensive instrument is a great introduction to music for children. You can find student instruments for less than $20 US Dollars (USD). For those who prefer a more expert tone, these instruments now come in a lot of different varieties. Some musicians prefer a specific wood type like rosewood, and others like the sound and the durability of fiberglass. For greater tone and resonance, some claves are hollowed.