Although the Mexican vihuela has the same name as the historic Spanish plucked string instrument, the two are distinct. The Mexican vihuela has five strings and a vaulted (curved) back. The Mexican vihuela is tuned similarly to the guitar. The difference is that the Vihuela is tuned an octave higher than a guitar thus giving it a tenor sound or a higher pitch. The gauge of the strings and the order in which they are applied is important in producing a soft sound or a punchy bold sound when the instrument is strummed (the strum is called a mánico, and also references rhythmic patterns). The implementation of the vihuela to a mariachi is to give a duet of sorts with the Spanish guitar, one having a low tuning while the vihuela has the higher tuning to complement each other. The optimal spot to strum this instrument is between the sound hole and the point where the fret board or neck meets the body of the instrument. It is strummed with all of the fingernail tips to produce a rich, full and clear sound of the chords being played. A finger pick (la púa) on the pointer finger and or the second and third fingers, gives it a brighter and clearer sound when strummed. Many vihuela players have longer than normal fingernails on their strumming hand to facilitate their playing technique and to also get a clear crystal sound.
Mariachi is perhaps the best known Mexican folk music tradition, especially outside of Mexico. The term “Mariachi” refers to a traditional Mexican music ensemble, although it can also be used to describe the musicians themselves. Mariachi music originally comes from Jalisco, a state in Southwestern Mexico. From there, the mariachi tradition spread to the surrounding areas in Central and Western Mexico.
Mariachi music is typically lively, bright and vibrant folk music- with a western sound. Mariachi groups play mostly traditional Mexican arrangements, many of which include a romantic theme. In addition to the instruments, mariach musicians (“Mariachis” or “Mariacheros”) usually sing in accompaniment to the music.
The characteristic mariachi sound is a harmony of several musical instruments. Mariachi ensembles normally consist of three or more violins, one or two trumpets and various guitars. Every mariachi band needs at least three guitars since each of the mariachi guitars has its own distinctive tone.
The guitars used in mariachi music are the “vihuela”, the “guitarron” and the acoustic guitar. A vihuela is a small, high-pitched Mexican guitar with five strings and a ‘vaulted’ back. The vihuela produces the lively rhythmic vibrancy of mariachi. A guitarron is a deep-voiced acoustic bass guitar. The guitarron serves as the bass of the group, since the mariachi ensemble has no drums or other percussion. Like a vihuela, the guitarron has a curved, convex back, but this instrument is much larger – almost the size of a cello. In addition to these two special Mexican guitars, each mariachi band has a more typical acoustic guitar as well. The classical guitars used for mariachi, however, are usually Mexican-made “Requinto guitars” or the “guitarra de golpe”.
When you see a mariachi band performing, take a closer peek at the guitars the Mariacheros use. You will be sure to find some fine mariachi guitars like the vihuela, the guitarron and the acoustic guitar.
Mariachi is a style of music and musical group performance that dates back to at least the 18th century, evolving over time in the countryside of various regions of western Mexico. It has a distinctive instrumentation, musical genre, performance and singing styles, and clothing. The music originated in the center-west of Mexico. Most claims for its origin lie in the state of Jalisco but neighboring states of Colima, Nayarit, and Michoacán have also claimed it. However, by the late 19th century, the music was firmly centered in Jalisco. Most legends put the origin of the modern mariachi in the town of Cocula, Jalisco.
The development of modern mariachi comes from the modification of the music. By the end of the nineteenth century, the European art music tradition was firmly transplanted to Mexico, with opera, salon music, waltzes, and more written and performed both by Europeans and Mexicans in the country. One variety was the salon orchestras called orquestas típicas that performed in more rural settings, notably in charro outfits. This use of the charro outfit was repeated with urban mariachi in the 1920s.
The Charro outfit was also used in the national Orquestra Típica Mexicana (Mexican Typical Orchestra), organized in 1884 and toured the United States and Mexico as part of a presentation of nationalism for the Mexican president Porfirio Diaz.
After the Mexican Revolution, many haciendas had to let workers go, including mariachis. Groups began to wander and play for a fee, which obliged them to incorporate other music into their repertoires, including waltzes and polkas. It also required them to play in public venues. From the late 19th century to the 1930s, Mariachi groups were semi-professional.
In the early 20th century, U.S., record companies began actively recording rural music in other parts of the world. One of these as a recording called Cuarteto Coculense by Columbia, Edison and Victor in 1908 and 1909, recognized as the “first” mariachi recordings.
Mariachi music has always been linked with the Charro culture. After the Revolution, the Charreada became a national sport in Mexico and rings were constructed specifically for them, followed by professional charro associations. With the breakup of the large haciendas, charros were no longer economically necessary but were used as a cultural ideal, especially by the film industry in the mid-20th century. The first charro movies date from the 1920s, but the first to sing mariachi was Tito Guízar in Allá en el Rancho Grande in 1936. The character was played by Jorge Negrete in films such as ¡Ay, Jalisco... no te rajes! and ¡Así se quiere en Jalisco! The main characters used his ability to sing mariachi as a way to show strength, virility, and aesthetic beauty. Its use in film also made the music popular and a symbol of ethnic pride for Mexican Americans in the United States.