What Are The Differences Between Clave & Wood Blocks?

Upon hearing the term “wood block”, some might immediately associate it with the claves, yet these are actually very distinct percussion instruments.

What are the differences between claves and wood blocks? The differences between claves and wood blocks are:

  • The wood block is a drum, while the clave is not.
  • The clave is handheld. The wood block could be played in hand or elsewhere.
  • The wood block has a slightly wider dynamic range and deeper tone than the clave.
  • The wood block is utilized in more genres than the clave.

In this article, we will compare the clave and the wood block, focusing on the differences we briefly described.

But, before we move on, let's attempt to follow both instruments' historical tracks.

The Background Of Claves And Wood Blocks

It's often stated that percussion instruments were some of the oldest in existence. Notwithstanding, many of the instruments we see and hear today are the product of hundreds, if not thousands of years of development, while some came into existence just a few hundred years prior.

Now, we'll do a brief review of both the clave's and the wood block's backgrounds, beginning with the eldest of these two.

The Background Of The Wood Block

Admittedly, little is known or disclosed about how the wood block was imported to the West, but it is often stated that it's a descendant of the “wooden fish”, a type of woodblock devised in East Asia for Buddhist temple services.

Various legends surround the existence of the wooden fish, but one of them relates that a Buddhist monk was sentenced to incarnate as a fish with a tree growing from his back, causing him excruciating pain.

An old monk then took pity on him and recited some prayers to free him from his cursed state, causing him to die and reincarnate into a better life. Next, the monk carved the dead tree into the shape of a fish and hung it on the temple wall as a lesson to other monks that they should not break their Buddhist vows.

These folk tales do little to uncover whether the modern wood block development is directly related to the wooden fish. It may be the case that the wood block's appearance in Western culture can be likened to the parallel development of many other tools across many cultures and peoples, such as the knife or the lever.

For the record, wooden fishes and modern Western wood blocks coexist to this day.

The Background Of The Clave

Claves seem pretty straightforward, and one would think that these were the oldest instruments in existence, considering that they're essentially a pair of sticks.

However, the current claves were a product of a more recent development that was accidental for all intents and purposes.

The claves' history traces back to Colonial Cuba. The Spanish used to make their ships in Seville using trees from nearby forests. When the tree population in the surrounding areas lowered to critical levels, Cuba was chosen for this purpose.

Enslaved Africans, who were deprived of their ceremonial drums at that time, were used as shipwrights. Desiring to preserve their religious traditions, they would find crates and other objects to play music.

One of them picked up two pieces of discarded hardwood pegs from the workshop and struck them together, creating a sound that would impress his peers. This prompted the enslaved people to craft cylindrical sticks that they could use for their rhythm section.

These claves would create rhythmic patterns that would become staples in many Afro-Caribbean genres such as salsa, guaguancó, merengue, danzón, and many others.

The Similarities Between Clave And Wood Blocks

Percussion instruments are bound to share one or more traits because they are members of the same instrument family. Nevertheless, claves and wood blocks have many other features in common.

Similarities can be boiled down to the following:

  • Both instruments are traditionally made of a kind of exotic hardwood, such as teak, rosewood, ebony, etc.
  • Both claves and wood blocks can be utilized in Latin music.
  • They both have a hollowed body for better acoustics.
  • They are both idiophone instruments (more on this later).
  • Both instruments create a distinctive wooden sound that varies in tone and resonance.

The Differences Between Clave And Wood Blocks

Now, we'll go over the differences between both instruments using the list given at the beginning of this article.

Difference 1: Class

The first difference has to do with how both instruments are approached.

The wood block is classified as a type of drum called a “slit drum”. In theory, these types of drums are not membranophones, which is what normally characterizes any other drum type. Instead, slit drums are essentially idiophones with a sound opening for resonance.

On the other hand, claves are wooden sticks of roughly the same size that are struck against one another. The way they're operated is different from how drums are known to operate so, in this regard, they stray from this classification.

Difference 2: Handling

Both instruments are portable, meaning they can be played while held in hand. However, the default mode in which they're played is different.

In the case of the claves, they're conceived primarily to be struck while held in hand, with different results depending on how the grabbing hand is shaped.

Woodblocks, owing to their shape, can be handheld, laid on a flat surface, or mounted on stands or a clamp fixed to a bass drum on drum sets.

Additionally, wood blocks of various sizes can be arranged in rows and columns to create simple melodies, though the pitches attained with wood blocks are still quite limited when compared with full-fledged pitched instruments.

Difference 3: Tone

Wood blocks and claves, being made of hardwood, produce very similar timbres or sound qualities, characterized by punchy dry staccatos.

Furthermore, both are idiophone instruments, as stated many times throughout this writing.

Idiophones are percussion instruments that don't rely on strings or any sort of membrane to create sounds. Rather, they're dependent upon the vibration of their own build material.

Nonetheless, in light of their distinctive shapes, the tone they produce differs slightly.

Conventional wood blocks are relatively compact boxes with a “slit” or resonating hole on one side. This profile gives the instrument acoustic properties that allow it to render deeper and louder sounds.

The dynamic range is also wider in the wood block, allowing for more sonic possibilities depending on which spot of the striking surface is being beaten.

On the flip side, the claves are typically smaller hollow wooden sticks with cylindrical bodies. This specific form factor creates the conditions for a sharper and higher-pitched beat. Apart from muting abilities, the claves are more limited in their tonal range.

However, some wood block variants are closer to claves in format, though they're usually utilized in less professional settings.

For example, double-tone wood blocks (or T-bar wood blocks) are essentially handheld wood blocks consisting of a pair of cylindrical tubes that deliver, as the name implies, two different tones, depending on the side you choose to play. These wood blocks are reminiscent of agogo bells and are utilized in a wide array of Caribbean bands.

Difference 4: Genres

Wood blocks and claves are utilized in very diverging musical contexts due, in great part, to their different origins.

Claves hardly went beyond their intended use, and while modern Afro-Caribbean rhythms are not, properly speaking, religious in nature, these genres directly stem from the same African worship and praise services in which these claves were played. This would explain why they were mostly relegated to these types of music.

In spite of this, claves have managed to be included in sporadic rock tracks, more famously in the Beatles' “And I Love Her” and The Who's “Magic Bus”. Rock and jazz drummers may emulate the general clave sound by striking drumsticks together, though this could be seen as accidental rather than deliberate.

In the case of wood blocks, while their inclusion in Western drum sets is a subject shrouded in mystery, it's undeniable that this event catapulted the instrument's moderate popularity in various genres that quickly went viral, such as Dixieland and ragtime music. In these latter settings, the wood block is oftentimes referred to as a “tap box” or “clog box”.

The wood block has also appeared in Western concert music and, more recently, Latin music thanks to its insertion in timbales, a very prominent Afro-Cuban drum set.

However, the fact that wood blocks appear in more musical genres does not necessarily indicate that it's the more popular percussion instrument out of the two.

Consider how prevalent and influential Afro-Caribbean music has become in European, Anglo-Saxon, and even Asian countries, and couple this with the starring role that the clave has had in these musical circles. With this in mind, it may be safe to say that the clave matches the wood block in popularity or even surpasses it to a degree. However, measurements of this effect may produce varying results.

Read How Clave Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Wood Blocks Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

Recent Posts