Mariachi guitar is very special,” Eunice Aparicio says. She should know—she’s been playing mariachi music for 17 years. Aparicio is the guitarrón player in the Latin Grammy-nominated all-female mariachi band Flor de Toloache. But for several years she’s studied mariachi guitar with teachers from across Mexico, where the tradition is largely learned by ear. “I love mariachi music, it’s in my blood, in my everyday life. I listen to mariachi all the time,” she says.
Aparicio encourages new students to strive for the full sound essential to mariachi music, but remain comfortable, paying close attention to their body. “You have to find what fits you.” Speaking at the D’Addario string factory in Farmingdale, NY—where she and band member Shae Fiol were testing new strings for vihuela and guitarrón—Aparicio shared her tips for beginning mariachi guitar.
Study the Sones
A son is a musical form in mariachi music, and each has specific rhythm patterns, chord progressions, and accents. Regions have distinct son styles. Knowing the elements comprising each type is your mariachi bread and butter, as some classic mariachi songs change son style several times throughout. “There are a lot of syncopations and different rhythms to accent certain beats that you would need in a specific son,” Aparicio says. “Know your chords and know your time signatures and know your mánicos, your rhythm patterns. And after that it all becomes sort of second nature.” Learn to listen to the other instruments; at some points the guitar plays in sync with the violin, at others you’re playing redobles—an ornamentation consisting of two down strums and one up strum, repeated in one measure—with the vihuela and guitarrón as part of the rhythmic armonías section.
She says beginners can learn a Son Michoacán. These have a more accessible up-and-down pattern, and only an occasional mánico, which is a more complex hand-strumming pattern combining down strokes, upstrokes, and ornamentations on the offbeat. “That’s the only thing that might be able to throw off a beginning guitar player.” From there, Aparicio also recommends tackling the iconic Son Jaliscience, from the western state of Jalisco, where mariachi originated. There’s an alternating rhythmic pattern. “Some measures are in 3/4 and some are in 6/8,” she says, adding that one specific mánico gives it the impression of a super-fast polka.
Studying a Son Jaliscience is also handy for acquainting oneself with common chord progressions in mariachi music, as its pattern goes from the root chord to the fourth to the fifth and back again, a pattern that many mariachi tunes follow.
It’s Fast, But Not Too Fast
“Sometimes you want to go super fast and all of a sudden it doesn’t sound like a guitar anymore, it sounds like a bunch of steel rods hitting each other. You don’t want that. You want to be able to hear the chord,” Aparicio says. She adds that new students identify mariachi with energy and speed, and often want to tackle things immediately. Hold back: The mánicos should be studied slowly, with an ear toward distinct articulation. The strumming should be delicate in touch so that you don’t distort the notes, but not weak in sound.
“Always try to be innovative with the rhythmic patterns but at the same time not to lose that technique, that color, even, of the guitar,” Aparicio says.
Choose Gear That Invites a Full Sound
Aparicio suggests that you opt for a wider guitar pick. “If you get the smaller, regular guitar pick, the sound that the guitar’s going to produce when you strum is not the one you want for mariachi. For mariachi you want a full, aggressive, thick sound, and a bigger pick makes that happen, whereas a smaller pick makes it sound puny and not what a Son Huasteca requires.”
She adds the type of strap is preferential. “I have a teacher who says it’s okay to have an over-the-shoulder strap on your guitar, but if you go see Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, which is like the mariachi group, the guitar player uses a mixed strap, which goes around his neck and then falls down his chest and then wraps around under the guitar from under the body.” Aparicio says to experiment and see what’s most comfortable for you. “If you feel yourself tensing up, that you can’t get those redobles, maybe you need to lower your guitar. Maybe you need to move it more to the right or more to the left.”
Aparicio says most mariachi guitarists use either a flamenco guitar or a classical guitar, with nylon strings. Those who prefer a classical guitar like the full sound of the bigger body.
Focus on Your Wrist
“One of the things that I strongly suggest to new guitar players is to work on their wrists for right hand, because a lot of people just want to play with their arm,” Aparicio says, pointing to her forearm. “They think that if they use the whole arm the sound is going to be louder and it’s going to be a greater sound. You’re actually going to hurt yourself and the sound is going to be horrible because it’s going to be so distorted.”
The strumming hand, with fingers outstretched, should not be parallel with the instrument, but at a right angle to the strings. This allows for easier movement and optimal speed, plus a full tone. Aparicio suggests “hand exercises that work the wrist, maybe strumming up and down, down and up, down up, down up, just working the wrist. Be sure to watch yourself in the mirror to make sure you’re not using the whole arm.”
Think of the Sign of the Cross
Mariachi guitarists shouldn’t hold the pick with the tops of the fingers. “You can actually get cramps. Your forearm gets tense and it will limit wrist movement. If it’s a fast son and you’re holding the pick real tight, you won’t have the agility that your wrist needs to have clean mánicos.”
She advocates a relaxed hold. “The way my teacher suggested I memorize it is to remember how to do ‘the son, the father, and the holy spirit.’ It’s that same cross,” Aparicio says, gently touching her right thumb to the side of her pointer finger to demonstrate. “The same movement of going down and up makes the pick stay in the same position at the end of the strum.” A primary exercise would be to pick a strum pattern and practice going up and down, focusing on having the right pick hold.
Above all, appreciate the versatility of the guitar in this genre. “The guitar can do so many things. If you’re doing a slow 4/4 ranchera where the singer is just belting her voice and everybody in the audience is crying and drinking, and the guitar comes in with four to eight bars of a melodic line, people go crazy,” Aparicio says. “The guitar can bring the ranchera to life.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.