Mexico has a rich history of varied musical tradition, which still lives on to this day.
The music of Mexico incorporates a vast many genres and performance styles, but perhaps most vital in shaping the country’s sound is the blending of traditional folk music with the European styles introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century.
Some of the most popular genres of Mexican music that feature instruments on this list are:
Many of the instruments that were fundamental in shaping the sound of traditional music are still used today, and those that aren’t still retain their place as important cultural artifacts of Mexico’s history.
Let’s take a look at 12 of the most important Mexican instruments used in both traditional and modern music.
Table of Contents
The guitarrón is essentially a very large acoustic guitar. It is a six-stringer, has a convex back, and has a deep, bassy sound. This sound can be traced back to the instrument’s heritage in the bajo de uña, a finger-plucked bass of Spanish origin.
It’s tuned to A – D – G – C – E – A, with three strings made of nylon and three of steel. It’s known for being challenging to play. A large amount of strength is required in both hands to master its high-action strings and fretless neck.
The guitarrón is a popular instrument across many styles of Mexican music and features prominently in mariachi bands. It also went on to inspire the first iterations of the acoustic bass guitar.
The Mexican vihuela is a small instrument descended from the lute. There is a Spanish version, with 6 strings, which is often plucked.
The Mexican vihuela is a 5-stringed instrument tuned similarly to a guitar: A – D – G – B – E. The main difference, however, is the A, D, and G strings are tuned an octave higher. This, along with the nylon string, gives the vihuela its distinctive light and airy sound.
Like the guitarrón, it has a deep body with a curved back but is much smaller in overall size.
When played in a mariachi band, the vihuela is strummed and takes on a more rhythmic role rather than melodic. Many vihuela players allow the fingernails on their strumming hand to grow long to accentuate the sound when strumming, but plectrums are often used instead.
Mexican Harps – Jalisco and Jarocha
Originally the go-to bass instrument for mariachi bands before it was replaced by the guitarrón, the harp has a long-standing history in traditional Mexican music.
The Mexican harp has many different variations depending on where it hails from, including size, shape, materials used, and playing style.
Long seen as the quintessential Mexican folk harp, the Jalisco harp grew to be known as ‘the’ mariachi harp, partly because mariachi music itself is said to have originated in the state of Jalisco, but that is disputed, and there is unlikely to be one ‘true home’ of mariachi.
The main difference between a Jalisco harp and other Mexican folk harps is the shape of the soundboard, which is deep and wide at the base, and relatively short in length overall.
The neck of the mariachi or Jalisco harp is usually uncurved, almost straight in some models.
Unique from other harps from around Mexico, and indeed the rest of the world, in that it has holes in the back of the soundboard as opposed to the front, the Jarocha harp is generally accepted to be the most common iteration of the Mexican harp.
Most of its features are to be found on harps hailing from other areas of the country, apart from the Jalisco harp, which is unique in its soundboard design.
It consists of 36 strings, which were originally made of animal guts, and are now made of wrapped or wound monofilament nylon.
The neck is usually more curved on the Jarocha harp compared to the Jalisco, and the strings are often tuned to a higher tension, creating a more striking and dominating sound.
Both harps are played while standing, and before they were replaced by the guitarrón, would play the bass and melodic parts in mariachi bands.
Although the violin is, of course, not of Mexican origin, it was introduced to the country by the Spanish in the 16th century, and was quickly adopted into the cultural backdrop of the country, later going on to feature heavily in mariachi groups when the popularity of the genre exploded.
Tuned to E – A – D – G, the violin quickly assumed the melodic role in mariachi groups, and some outfits would even have up to 8 violinists at one time.
Acoustic Guitars – Bajo Sexto & Requinto
Mariachi groups, being mostly composed of stringed instruments, feature guitars and guitar-like instruments. Here’s a couple of the most popular varieties.
The bajo sexto is similar to a standard guitar, only it is a little larger and has 12 strings, strung in 6 pairs close together, like the western 12-string guitar. The Bajo Quinto is similar, only with 10 strings arranged into 5 pairs.
They are traditionally tuned to E – A – D – G – C – F, one octave lower than a standard guitar.
Bajo sextos are popular in both mariachi and norteño groups.
A requinto guitar is a slightly smaller version of a standard guitar and sounds like a standard guitar capoed at the fifth fret, so: A – D – G – C – E – A.
Requintos made in Mexico have a deeper body than a classical guitar, measuring in at around 110mm as opposed to 105mm. For comparison, requintos made in Spain and elsewhere are generally the same depth as guitars.
They are played in mariachi groups and feature heavily in trío romántico groups.
The trumpet, again, is not an instrument of Mexican origin, but it does feature prominently in two enormously popular styles that do originate in the country: Mariachi and Banda music.
The trumpet, along with other members of the brass family such as the sousaphone (known as a tuba in Mexico), trombone, and tenor horn, plays a major part in Banda music, which features a majority of brass and woodwind instruments, along with some percussion.
Originally brought over to Mexico by German settlers, the accordion has come to represent a major sound in norteño music. The style draws heavily on the 2/4 time signature, which is often heard in polka music.
The accordion is known worldwide, and while it is not a traditional Mexican in any real sense, its sound has become so synonymous with norteño music that it definitely deserves a place on this list.
Percussion – Cajon De Tapeo, Cantaro & Guiro
Finally, we’ll take a brief look at some of the many wonderful percussion instruments with their origins in traditional Mexican music.
Percussion is used sparingly across many Mexican genres and can feature sporadically from one style to the next. It is not, however, often found in Mariachi groups, where the beat is kept by the rhythm section: the guitarrón and vihuela.
Cajon De Tapeo
The cajon de tapeo is basically a hollow box with a hole cut into one side for resonance. It is played while sat on and hit with the hands and sometimes a stick to produce syncopated rhythms.
The cantaro is actually a jug, played like a percussion instrument by being struck on the sides and on the open mouth of the vessel with the hands. They are made of clay and sometimes can be filled with quantities of water to produce differing sounds, pitches, and tones.
Used in traditional folk music, the cantaro is rarely featured in any modern Mexican songs.
The guiro is a hollowed-out gourd with one open end. One side of the gourd has grooves cut into it, which are then played with a scraper known as a pua. The instrument can be scraped, struck, or a combination of both to produce complex syncopated rhythms and a unique sound.
Obviously, there are many traditional Mexican instruments that have had a lasting impact on the country’s cultural growth and output. Many of these instruments are still used today, most popularly in groups that still play the style that put Mexico on the musical map.
Mariachi, banda, and norteño music are massive genres within their own right, let alone just in Mexico, and their popularity continues to spread.