Timbales (or tymbales) are shallow cylindrical single-headed drums, similar to single-headed tom-toms. The shells are made of metal. The heads are light and tuned fairly high for their size. A musician who plays the timbales is called a timbalero. Timbales is also the French word for timpani, thus the French refer to Afro-Cuban timbales as timbales latines. In fact, timbales were invented in the early 20th century as a more portable replacement for the standard timpani that were being used in Afro-Cuban orchestras.

Traditionally a pair of timbales is mounted on a stand and played standing, using light conventional drumsticks. The head diameters range from 12" to 16", with a pair normally differing in size by one inch exactly. A small, fairly heavy "salsa" type cymbal or a cowbell may optionally be mounted between the two timbales, slightly above them and a little further from the player.

Older players considered it bad taste even to use botha cymbal and a cowbell, but some younger players have abandoned this tradition, and timbales are sometimes incorporated into larger percussion sets including drum kits.

Skilled players strike the heads, rims, and shells in rapid succession to produce lively latin rhythms. (Perhaps it is wise to include a note of caution here: Music shops may be understandably reluctant to let a browsing customer play the shells of timbales they have for sale!)

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