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 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 used in Afro-Cuban orchestras.
Traditionally, a pair of timbales is mounted on a stand and played while standing. They may be played with drumsticks, or more traditionally with timbale sticks which are straight sticks with no shoulder or head. The head diameters usually range from 12″ to 16″ with a pair normally differing in size by one inch. 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″, 8″, or 10″; 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.
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 great 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 can 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.
Rigo Tovar, Mexican cumbia superstar, is another notable timbalero. His mastery of the timbales can be heard on several of his songs, most notably his hit single, "Matamoros Querido".
A recent offshoot of the Washington DC funk genre of Go-Go known as the “Bounce Beat” features Timbales as a predominant instrument.
Other countless Latin genres feature the timbales, as they are constantly being incorporated into new styles of music.