The Art of Cuing a Salsa Band – The Spontaneous Arranger

From Arranging for Salsa Bands – The Doctor Big Ears Essays
by Paul Lyons (Available as an eBook)

In most every Latin band that I have worked with, I am called upon to call the musical shots – cue the band. Why this is, I don’t know. Sometimes I write a lot of the material, but other times I have not. During the course of my travels and freelance experiences, I have picked up a few tips as well as preferences.

Emblematic Symbols
1. Standard Four Bar Cue: I use a four bar cue starting with my index finger. The second cue is the most important second bar cue – three bars before the entrance. I give this with the index and pinkie finger of my right hand. If I sense uncertainty among players far away from me, this usually clears up the intent. I use the pinkie finger, as this is the most emphatic way to make two fingers visible. One could use the peace symbol for two, but then everyone would mellow out too much. This music is about drive and hitting things! Geeze! These guys walk around with sticks in their pockets!

2. Mambo Cue: When cuing mambos (a section of the song), I give the standard four bar cue. It is important to cue the instruments who start the mambo. Visual contact can be a great benefit here. If the piano and bass start the mambo with a unison line, they need to get the cue. The horns will figure it out. If the horns start the mambo – cue them. Often a singer cuing a mambo looks at the horns with his cue for the mambo when the mambo starts with the piano and bass. The horn players then sort of shrug shoulders and look at the piano player who is often lost staring at the floor or trying to play a one handed montuno so that he can get a sip of his beer. This is incorrect procedure. One always cues by looking at whoever is about to play.

In essence, cues must be forward looking and have a basic understanding of the arrangement and what is coming next.

3. Moña Cue: For moñas, often an ad lib second mambo, one cues it with the fingers to the forehead. Someone, recently gave me their linguistic via cultural take on the reason for this gesture, but I forgot what it was, perhaps due to the late hour or maybe the slurred and mumbled delivery of this theorist. I always interpreted the fingers to the forehead as “think – come up with a line you idiot!” Good bands make up there moñas. Dull ones play the one on the record and never take chances creating their own.

4. Piano Solo Cue: When cuing a piano solo, I wiggle my fingers like a pianist playing the keys. I continue with the standard four bar cue. The most often used break leading into the piano solo is two eighth notes (beats four and four and) on the last bar of the cue.

Marcos Diaz ready to begin his solo after a fantastic “piano solo cue.”

This is often the one chord but depends on the chord changes and musical context. This is a standard musical gesture in Latin music.

5. Percussion Solo Cue: When cuing a percussion solo, I usually just point to the person taking the solo. The standard percussion break is the “five to one” break. This commences on the fourth bar of the cue.

Carl Perazzo and Edgardo Cambon waiting for a “percussion solo” cue at “El Rio” in San Francisco.

This is a standard musical gesture in this music

6. Ending Cue: The universal ending to a song is the closed fist held in plain view. One should hold this cue for only this purpose. The closed fist should never make it into the repertoire of other cues. There are few thing as disconcerting and dangerous as ending a song prematurely.


Here rests Dr. Big Ears’ 1964 bug. He used it as a getaway car after throwing a premature “ending cue” on a gig in Phoenix. Big Ears ended up hiding out for four months in Baja, Mexico .

These are the emblematic cues reviewed.

1. Standard Four Bar Cue
2. Mambo Cue
3. Moña Cue
4. Piano Solo Cue
5. Percussion Solo Cue
6. Ending Cue

Other Thoughts on “Cuology”
One has to have an artistic conception of the music and musical phrase in the first place in order to cue well. In essence, one only needs to listen, know who the players are and use common sense.

Many players see the clave in terms of longer units. A good percussionist will “sing” on the instrument to the point where his musical phrase will dictate the cue. It has been my experience that this sense of phasing is often in eight bar phrases. Having said this, it is important to respect this phasing during a solo and cue accordingly so as to not cut off the musical thought. Listening is the key here.

One can also tailor the music to the mood in the room – the size of the crowd. Piano solos tend to be mellower than trombone solos. (This however is not the case if you had Eddie Palmieri and Urbie Green in the same band.) One must keep in mind players strengths and weaknesses and bring out the strengths. This may sound stupid, but unlistening musicians can be oblivious to a player who isn’t in the mood to stretch out or is exhausted.

In rooms where visibility is bad, the standard four bar cue can be replaced with a loud whistle. I have used this often. It is important to practice this shrieking whistle beforehand far from persons of the opposite sex. One is never certain what loud sounds have on people’s nervous systems. However around retired percussionists you will probably have no problems.

Tom Bertetta, and his patented listening method for the “shrieking whistle cue” in clubs with bad visibility.

Finally, it is important to watch great musicians who cue and see them at this craft. It is good to pick up little tricks, especially ones that pertain to your instrument. Cuing from the piano has always seemed problematic to me – bass even more so. Chucho Valdez and Tito Puente come to mind first off as great leaders and great musicians at cuing. There are many more out there for sure.

Good cuing allows for flexibility beyond rehearsing. It enables a band to stay fresh with material indefinitely. It allows anyone to solo on any song and a group to never play the song the same way twice. In its purest form, it is spontaneous arranging.