Mexican music comes in many rich and diverse varieties, from ranchera and mariachi to ballads and rock. Each category and genre of Mexican music has it’s own unique sound, performance style, and group of Mexican instruments that make it unique. There are a number of popular Mexican songs that have achieved widespread appeal, and yet, there is so much more to Mexican music than meets the eye.
If you love the spicy latin sounds of Carlos Santana, the mournful beauty of a heartfelt romantic ballad sung by Selena or the cheerful excitement of a Mariachi band, then you’ll want to learn more about the Mexican instruments that make these special genres of music so lively and enjoyable. Of course, a large majority of the music that comes out of Mexico is sung in Spanish. To really enjoy some of your favorite sounds, you can look into learning some basic Spanish fundamentals so that you can understand the lyrics.
The Guitarron mexicano probably sounds a lot like another instrument with which you are likely already familiar; the guitar. In fact, its name translates to “Mexican guitar”! In many ways, it is very similar, in that it is a plucked stringed instrument that looks an awful lot like its name suggests but in fact it is quite different from the guitar that you are likely most acquainted with. For one thing is is quite a great deal larger–about 2 times as large as a guitar–and resembles a bass more than a guitar. It is also fretless with a short neck and a convex back. If you have ever seen a live Mariachi band then you have seen a guitarrón mexicano. There are usually 2 of them alongside the smaller vihuela, which we will discuss next.
The vihuela is a much smaller instrument, and has five strings where its larger cousin, the guitarrón mexicano, has six. It, too has a convex back, and looks an awful lot like the instrument from which it is likely derived: the lute. It actually shares a name with the Spanish vihuela, but the two instruments are not very alike. Rather, the Mexican vihuela is more related to the Spanish timple than it’s namesake. It is in fact quite similar to the guitarron mexicano, except that it is fretted along the neck and has a much higher pitch when it is plucked or strummed.
Bajo Quinto/Bajo Sexto
These two bass instruments are very similar to one another, but are entirely unique in the stringed instrument family. The bajo quinto has no less than 10 strings tuned in double courses (strung very closely side by side), while the bajo sexto has a whopping 12 strings tuned in double courses. Despite the fact that both instruments originate in the south of Mexico, they are primarily found in Norteño music. The name literally means “northern”, and is sometimes as referred to as “Tex-Mex” because of its prevalence along Mexico’s northern border, near Texas.
The arpa jarocha is another familiar instrument with a twist-this time on the baroque harp. It looks very similar to the traditional or anglo-style harp, in that it has 36 strings and is played while standing, but it started out as a smaller seated harp. This harp is unique in that there were many harps in existence throughout central America before the Spanish introduced the baroque harp to the region, but the people of Veracruz reinterpreted the instrument to make it a completely new instrument. It is primarily used in group music, most notably contunjo jarocho or jarochos sones music, a type of folk music that is played as an ensemble with the harp as the main melody and other Mexican instruments like the jarana guitar and the requinto. Many enthusiasts of jarochos sones describe it as a mix between Spanish and African beats and melodies.
Flauta de Tres Hoyos
This instrument’s name translates into “three-holed flute” and that pretty much describes it perfectly! It is very similar to what you might call a penny whistle, except that it has, shockingly enough, just three holes. It is small and mighty-the purpose of its diminutive size is to allow the flautist to play another instrument like a bell or percussion instrument in their other hand. This type of instrument is also referred to as a tabor pipe or simply a tabor.
The ocarina is an instrument that is common to lots of instrument groups across the globe-not just Mexican instruments. It is a funny little thing, and many people describe its shape as almost submarine-like. Of course, it would be impossible for the submarine to be its inspiration, considering that the ocarina is well over 12,000 years old! Mexican ocarinas and other Mexican instruments like it are typically folk instruments from mesoamerican cultures and are sometimes shaped into birds, turtles, or totems as a reflection of that. They are often used in old world Mexican folk music ensembles.
The trumpet is a staple instrument in Mexican jazz and Mariachi ensembles, but it wasn’t always this way! In fact, it wasn’t until the 1950s that two well known mariachi musicians, Silvestre Vargas and Rubén Fuentes introduced the instrument to the sound Mariachi sound, called son. They drew their inspiration from the Jazz music craze that was sweeping the nation and from the distinctive cuban sound that utilized the trumpet. The trumpet itself is a well established instrument. It’s been around for a long time and has been through a whole bunch of incarnations from the coronet to the bugle. It is a very popular instrument for people to want to pick up, and it’s easy to see why. Learning to play the trumpet is a great way to open up all kinds of musical avenues for yourself, whether you’d like to use it as one of many Mexican instruments, try out the big band sound, or go for something a little more orchestral.
The accordion is another instrument that you will find in Mexican musical genres. Does that surprise you? After all, anyone who as ever heard the accordion in some good old fashioned oom-pah-pah polka tunes is sure to agree that there isn’t a whole lot of latin spice to the instrument. So how did we come to count it among the other Mexican instruments listed here? Well, it’s instrumental in both norteño and tejano music. As you recall, the former is often referred to as Tex-Mex for its popularity along the Texas-Mexican border. The latter is actually a word that means Texas. This is important because one of the first German settlements founded by German immigrants was in Texas, and they brought the accordion with them. Once you know that, it isn’t hard to see how it was adopted by the nearby Mexican musicians.
The Marimba is a lot like a xylophone, and like the arpa jarocha it was born in Veracruz. It was traditionally made of wooden bars with resonators (these resemble inverted pipes like you would find on a pipe organ) attached to them, and was likely derived from the xylophone, which was likely introduced to Mexico in the 16th or 17th centuries. The mayans made resonators out of gourds, according to the records we have of that time. When they are struck with a mallet they make a lovely, smooth ringing sound. Nowadays, many marimbas are made of metal and not wood, but they are just as instrumental to jarochos sones as the arpa that we discussed before.
The friction drum, which is a membranous percussion instrument that is alternatively called an arcusa or tigrera, is a simple drum covered with a taut membrane that is then swept or stricken with the fingers, a stick, the palms of one’s hand, a reed, or even a brush. When the membrane is wetted or pressed, the sound will also change in tone or pitch. Percussion instruments are universal. You will find them everywhere from Mexico to Uganda to Japan, and learning some basic drum techniques could take you quite literally around the whole world!
Now you know a lot more about the Mexican instruments that are used in both Mexican music and lots of other great musical traditions and flavors. The only thing left for you to do is to try your hand at playing one or more of these instruments out for yourself! A great place to start is to learn music fundamentals-the building blocks of any musician’s skill building efforts. Perhaps you will want to head in the direction of something a little more experimental and see how you can integrate your marimba playing techniques into electronic music production, using a software program like the popular Logic Pro. There are so many possibilities that are just waiting to be discovered! The best part about making music is that you have such a wide range of creative options. What will you do with your new knowledge?