Since most guitarists capable of strumming an open chord could quickly start making music with one of the plucked stringed instruments from a mariachi group, this seems like a great time to introduce the ensemble’s stringed members. For good measure, I also included a few relatives from other styles, which, while not purely mariachi, are so closely related that any curious guitarist should give them a strum.
In some ways, mariachi is like bluegrass, in that both genres are almost defined by their instrumentation. The popular definition of bluegrass now covers just about any rural-sounding string-band music, but in its truest form it’s usually played on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, and upright bass. Likewise, a mariachi group specifically calls for a violin, trumpet, vihuela, guitarrón, and sometimes a guitar, harp, and flute.
A typical modern version of one of these instruments has guitar-like additions not found on its traditional counterpart, including a truss rod, inlaid frets instead of tie-on nylon frets, and strap buttons on the neck heel and endpin. This latter development is especially helpful for students who might not remember that the traditional strap, which hooks into the soundhole and wraps under the instrument, requires the player to hold it in place.
While learning new strums, rhythms, and techniques are part of playing these instruments, at its core, mariachi music is about making music as a group, not about solo stars. As Nati Cano, the late leader and vihuela player of the Grammy-winning Mariachi los Camperos said in an interview with Smithsonian Folkways, “Being a good musician doesn’t do it. If you don’t sing and play, you’re not a complete mariachi. When we sing mariachi, we become part of the group, ‘we’ become ‘one.’”
With a mini-guitarrón-looking body and high tuning, the Mexican vihuela has a sharp and quick attack, perfect for those rapid triplet strums in a mariachi group. While the pitches and intervals of vihuela (vee-whey-lah) tuning (A D G B E) will make many of your familiar guitar chord shapes work, the tuning can be a mind-bender for guitarists. The lower three strings are tuned an octave higher than a guitar. Paired with the vihuela’s voluminous turtle-shell-shaped back, this creates a unique sound that sits somewhere between that of a ukulele and of a nylon-string guitar when strummed with fingernails and, occasionally, a fingerpick on the index finger.
The conversation starter of the group, the guitarrón is a large six-string and the bass member of the ensemble. It’s played with the enormous body facing at an upward angle—a position aided by the large arched back—and by using the picking hand’s thumb and index fingers to pull the strings straight out from the fretless fingerboard, instead of across. The guitarrón (gee-tar-RHON; roll the r’s if you can) is often played using octaves on the six strings (three steel and three nylon) to negotiate beat 1 of each measure with melodic walking lines to the next chord’s root. And it’s common guitarrónista technique to finger notes with the fretting hand’s thumb.
Though not officially a mariachi instrument, the five-string, double-course bajo quinto (literally “fifth bass”) is a powerhouse of a guitar, and the centerpiece of norteño and Tex-Mex conjunto music. Often highly ornamented with large pickguards and rope-style binding, the bajo quinto (bah-ho keen-toe) is a modernized version of the bajo sexto, but does away with the low E-string pair, leaving you with a 10-string tuned aA dD GG CC FF (in perfect fourths) that can cover rhythmic and melodic duties, not just in the Tejano music of Lydia Mendoza or Santiago Jimenez, but anyplace where you might want the sound and the floorboard-rattling power of a baritone 12-string. With an altered tuning, you’ll need to modify your standard guitar grips (see left) to fit the mighty quinto, but once you hear the sound, you’ll be thankful you met the bajo quinto.
The requinto is tuned like a guitar capoed at the fifth fret and is often used to play passages between vocal phrases and melodic solos. Outside of mariachi, the requinto (ray-keen-toe) is a great way for any guitarist to explore new sounds. With its higher tuning, its sound is bright and lively, great for groups that already have a guitar voice but need something special to sweeten the sound.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.