The main percussion instruments to begin with are the maracas, güiro and clave. Other common instruments are shakers, chékere (shékere), the metal güira, tambourines and cowbells, but we'll focus on the first three.
The güiro is a single large gourd scored with horizontal grooves on one side, and holes cut into the other so that it can be held. A small-diameter rod, also held horizontally, is run over the grooves to produce a ratcheting sound. The güiro is a rare percussion instrument because of its analogue nature, where one does not need to listen to two successive beats in order to determine tempo. Apart from the gourd version which is notoriously fragile, güiros are also available in plastic, fibreglass and wood. I find the Meinl wood güiro a good compromise between warmth of tone and robustness.
Clave are at their simplest, a pair of turned hardwood rods which are struck together. They are matched as sexed pairs, one higher in pitch than the other. Some fancier sets involve a hollowed out hembra with a cavity carved out the centre to help form the resonating chamber. My personal favourite is simply a pair of short rods made of rosewood and coated in a strong hard varnish.
Brands to investigate as a starting point are Latin Percussion, Meinl, and Toca.
What to play
Maracas: there are two patterns; the first is a simple even pattern alternating every quarter note (suitable for boleros and modern salsa); and the second is a syncopated, flowing ride pattern (usually suited to more traditional son forms).
Güiro: there are two patterns; the first is a slower pattern with emphasis on the downbeats (suitable for up to mid-tempo songs like chachachá); the second has an emphasis on the eighth-note pick-up before the downbeat and the downbeat itself (suitable for uptempo music).
son clave, then rumba clave. Bombó stability
is the most important issue in playing clave effectively (link
to relevant tutorial).
Latin-American Percussion: Rhythms And Rhythm Instruments From Cuba And Brazil by Birger Sulsbrück. (External link)
Salsa Guidebook For Piano & Ensemble by Rebeca Mauleón. (External link)
Play Bongos & Hand Percussion Now: The Basics & Beyond, Book & 2-CD Package by Richie Gajate Garcia. (External link)
The Studio Percussionist, Volume 1 - DVD by Luis Conte. An inspiring insight into the role of a studio percussionist, featuring an eclectic mix of instruments. (External link)
Additional resources are available on www.descarga.com under Instructional -> Afro-Latin Percussion (External link)
& Merengue Society