There is a plaza in Mexico City called Plaza Garibaldi where mariachi groups stand on the sidewalks (as they have done since the 1920s), waiting for someone to hire them to play at a special occasion.
Some groups even perform serenades right there in the plaza. They are usually already dressed in full charro gear and equipped with their instrument in hand, sometimes playing a portion of a song to grab the attention of potential clients.
A mariachi’s instrument is a part of who they are.
They have the ability to make beautiful sound come from instruments that aren’t as popular in other music genres.
The classic mariachi instruments are violin, guitarron, vihuela, trumpet, and guitar. The harp is also an instrument that few mariachi groups still use, but not as common as when earlier mariachis used to play it.
In this article you will learn some background on these instruments and how they have made their mark in mariachi music.
The violin shares the softness of the mariachi band. Usually there is more than one violinist in the group.
This four-string musical instrument has been around for centuries. But And while the violin is not the most distinctive instrument of mariachi music, it plays a very intricate part to the performance.
The violin offers a precious soprano sound as the bow is ran across its strings. It is a sound that can easily express intensity and sereneness – and at times mariachis can carry out both… all in one song piece.
One of the largest instruments in a mariachi group is the guitarron. It is a very large acoustic bass.
For an instrument of this size, a strap is definitely needed to keep it in its guitar playing position. It takes quite a bit of hand strength to control the thick strings of the guitarron.
This instrument is known as the heart of the mariachi band (and coincidently) the sound is similar to a heartbeat in the background.
The bass is the binding foundation of the music created by the mariachi band and without it, it is not the same.
So if the guitarron player cannot make a gig, then the only response should be to cancel altogether.
And that is why, without a guitarron there is no mariachi band.
The first mariachi groups were string ensembles — the guitar was part of that ensemble.
It has made its way through various musical genres but it has always been part of mariachi music.
The guitar is very versatile and appropriate for such a variety of different mariachi music styles like the bolero, or something more up-tempo like the huapango.
The vihuela looks similar to the guitar. It is a five-string instrument (as opposed to the guitar of six strings), which makes it maintain an added high pitch.
It has a deep back like the guitarron, but is much smaller in size.
The vihuela is usually equipped with a short strap that keeps he instrument up high on the chest. This instrument actually existed before the violin.
In the 17th century the vihuela was sometimes played with a bow in which the shape would later take on the resemblance of a violin. It is not a coincidence that these instrument’s names are similar.
By the 19th century, both the guitarron and the vihuela were necessities in order to be considered a mariachi group.
Of all these instruments, the trumpet was the newest addition to the traditional mariachi band. It was officially included in the 1930’s.
The trumpet is also the strongest and loudest instrument of the group.
Its entrance to mariachi music was through jazz and classical music. Usually two trumpets are part of the group and they play harmoniously to add animation to the music.
The trumpet is prominent for revealing a sharp, crisp sound that stands out from the rest of the musicians.
The harp was a lead instrument with the earlier mariachis, before its music became popular.
As mariachi music spread throughout central Mexico the harp was replaced by the guitarron. However, some groups kept it as part of their show for visual appeal.
For example, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan still use it during their performances.
The harp did not offer the variety of notes that the guitarron could and this was a major downfall to groups that were keeping up with the times.
Today, the harp is known as a luxury instrument because of it sophisticated look and sound.
Many famous musicians started their career playing their instrument at Plaza Garibaldi many years ago.
Each member of those mariachi bands played an essential part to the success of the band they were a part of.
Though many years have passed, mariachi bands continue to gather in this plaza inspiring others to follow in their footsteps and making people smile as they play all their favorite songs.
Each of these instruments: violin, guitarron, guitar, vihuela, trumpet and harp — plays an important role and shares an even more important part of the mariachi heritage with every song they play.
So much so, that once you hear and see a mariachi play, you realize that they are embracing a piece of musical history.
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