Mexican and Latin American Songs are a blend of traditional culture and the influences brought by the Spanish during colloquial times.
Modern Mexican music is the evolution of indigenous sounds combined with virtually all the European and Eastern instruments brought into Mexico.
The world is already familiar with iconic Mexican songs like Oye cómo va, La cucaracha, La Bamba and Bésame mucho, but few are aware of the actual recipe – the tools used to create these beautiful and colorful songs.
We’re talking about traditional Mexican instruments which give that special zing to authentic Mexican music.
10 Popular Mexican Musical Instruments You Should Know
We believe that having a knowledge of these musical instruments and their history is essential to understanding and enjoying Mexican music fully and truly.
Be it any traditional style from Mariachi, Banda, Ranchera, or even modern Mexican genres, the following Mexican Instruments are behind all the music.
1. Guitarrón Mexicano (Big Mexican Guitar)
The Guitarrón is a large-bodied six-string acoustic bass with a convex back, much larger than a typical acoustic classical guitar.
It was originally derived from a Spanish instrument bajo de uña, which is a fingernail-plucked bass.
The sound produced is deep and loud due to the big size of the instrument.
Its powerful bass and distinctive timbre is the backbone of the Mariachi style, and it also eventually replaced the harp for the rhythmic bass lines.
Here is the Guitarrón in action.
Unlike a classical guitar, the Guitarrón is tuned to A1-D2-G2-C3-E2-A2, so the pitch is not necessarily rising as you move along the strings.
It also requires more strength on both hands to play as compared to a guitar. The Guitarrón was also the inspiration for the development of the first modern acoustic bass guitar.
2. Arpa Jarocha (Mexican Harp)
The Arpa Jarocha hails from Veracruz, Mexico and is the successor to the Spanish Harp from the 16th century.
Although people suggest it was originally meant to be smaller, it eventually carved out to be this large wooden instrument with a flat soundboard, a resonator and up to 36 nylon strings.
The peculiar feature for the Arpa Jarocha is that it has the sound holes located at the back of the soundboard rather than the front.
While playing the harp, the player uses one hand to play bass lines and the other hand to play arpeggiated melodies. As it’s larger than a baroque harp, you play it while standing up.
The Arpa Jarocha was traditionally popular in the conjunto jarocho and sones jarochos styles, but quickly gained worldwide popularity.
However, it was eventually replaced by the Guitarrón and Violin in the Mariachi ensemble and is not as common as it once used to be.
3. Mexican Vihuela
Mexican Vihuela is different from the Spanish Vihuela, which has 5 or 6 doubled strings. Traditional Mexican Vihuela has 5 strings tuned to A-D-G-B-E with the A, D, and G strings tuned an octave higher than a guitar.
The vihuela resembles Guitarrón in the visual department with a deep body and convex back, but in a smaller footprint.
Due to its high-pitched sound, it was implemented in the Mariachi ensemble to complement the guitar. It’s usually strummed or picked using fingers, but using a finger-pick gives it a clearer and brighter sound.
Violins are prominent instruments in a wide variety of genres and styles ranging from Western classical to jazz, folk, country.
It was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards and was quickly adopted by the Mariachi ensemble. It was initially played together with the guitar and harp during religious events and in the church.
Tuned in E-A-D-G, the Violin became a key instrument for melodic lines owing to its ability to produce extended full-bow notes as well as aggressive pizzicatos, grace notes and finger glissandos.
Large Mariachi groups could have up to 8 violin players in their ensemble.
Belonging to the group of brass-family, the trumpet is one of the fundamental Mexican instruments in Mariachi and Banda music, with at least one or two players in a typical band.
Alongside the violin, the trumpet is used to play the melodic lines. It’s also very popular in orchestras, jazz, swing and pop music, which is a result of its instantly recognizable sound and the nature of its tone.
Marímbula (or Marimbol) is a Caribbean musical instrument and is slightly different from a Marimba.
While the Marimba consists of wooden bars that are struck with mallets, the Marímbula is a wooden box with a number of metal strips and a sound hole, and the strips are plucked with fingers.
The Marímbula originated in Cuba, but has been popular throughout Africa, America, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
The instrument has since been developed into different regional variants – marimba, marimbol, marímbola, calimba etc.
7. Bajo Sexto
Bajo Sexto is a Mexican Instrument very similar to guitar, with 12 strings arranged in six double courses. Bajo Quinto is the same but with 10 strings instead.
It’s played both using fingers or a pick as you do on a guitar. Bajo Sextos are traditionally tuned in E-A-D-G-C-F, all-fourths tuning but one octave lower than the guitar. While the lower three courses are tuned in octaves, the upper three courses are tuned in unison.
The Accordion is believed to have been invented in Berlin, Germany. When the Germans migrated to Latin America, they brought influences of the polka music and the accordion was introduced to the Mexicans.
It’s an aerophone-type instrument that is played by pressing and releasing the bellows while pressing the keys.
Norteño, the Regional music of northern Mexico heavily utilizes the accordion. Besides that, it’s widely popular in classical music, folk, jazz and pop music as well.
9. Mexican Salterio
The Salterio is a string instrument that consists of a wooden trapezoidal box. This box houses five bridges that seat around 90 (salterio requinto) or 100 (salterio tenor) stretched metal strings. The player plucks these strings using a metal pick on the index finger of each hand.
10. Requinto Guitar
The requinto guitar is a smaller version of the classical or flamenco guitar, with a scale length of about 52-54 cm. It was developed in Spain in the 16th century and later adopted by Mexican musicians.
It is tuned a fourth higher than a standard guitar, to A2-D3-G3-C4-E4-A4, giving it a bright and crisp sound. It often has a cutout on the upper bout to allow access to the higher frets.
The requinto guitar is used for improvisation and melody in various styles of Mexican music, such as son jarocho, pasillo, bolero, and trio romántico.
Mexican music could not be complete without the diverse variety of percussion instruments. Some of the popular Mexican percussion instruments are Cantaro, Tamborita calentana, Ayoyotes, Cajón, Pandero jarocho (Tambourine) and many more.
Percussion is such a significant aspect of Folk and regional Mexican music, and is a perfect example of how a simple concept can go a long way.
Learning about Mexican Instruments, or any new musical instruments for that matter, is an alley to understand the diverse culture and heritage.
We just discussed some of the most famous Mexican musical instruments that have given their regional music its authenticity and lively character we all know today.
There are many more unexplored ones that have influenced Mexican music in one way or another. If you think you know one that would be a valuable addition to this list, drop us a comment in the comment box below!