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Online Akustik Travels

Guitars from Central & South America: From Mexico To Cuba

by Claude Samard Polikar

Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadors came to the Americas with their European musical traditions. Their colonisation followed by the arrival of slaves from Africa, brought about a situation in which different cultures and musical styles from Africa, Europe and India were mixed, giving birth to a new musical genre, filled with cosmopolitan and hazardous rhythms, harmonies and melodies.

Central America, is as it says, a central geographical area. It thus became a place where various styles such as Rumbas, Mazurkas, African rhythms, were freely associated until they reached a point of fusion. Here is an example of this propogation mode that the Carribeans are quite familiar with : amongst the African slaves that lived in these parts, there were some slaves known as "talents" (or so they were named by their owners at the time), musicians who were identified as "gifted" and who were consequently sold or traded for more money amongst owners in the different Carribean colonies, from New Orleans all the way to Trinidad. With their performances, they naturally spread and influenced musical trends wherever they travelled or were taken to, and contributed a great deal to establish what soon became the Music from the New World. In order to play these Latin-American musics, guitars were definately the easiest and most convenient choice of all instruments. Guitar duos and trios are still very much part of the Porto-Rican and Mexican musical traditions. (Check out the other stars from the 50s and 60s, not just Maria Elena!).

Instrument makers and musicians had to create or adapt their instruments based on those brought from Spain and Portugal, to be able to play these popular and festive styles along with the violins, percussions, voices, accordions... Inexpensive, easy to alter or carry around, Latin guitars are suitable to play in accompaniement, bass lines or solos in any register: huge Mexican Sextos, 12 string mixes with bass, or even Cuban Tres to 3 double strings, a sort of mini 12-string. American instrument makers slowly became aware of the Bajo Sexto trend along with the boarder Tex-Mex culture. Fender was the first to create the "Bajo Sexto" Telecatser model, a six string electric barytone model.
mariachi trio
For your information, I have added details on the register and tunings for these "tropical" guitars. (When the double strings are an octave apart, I used capitals and lower cases).
  • BAJO SEXTO = A hybrid instrument originating from the North of Mexico, a mix between a bass and a 12-string. Associated with the button assordion played by groups like "Conjuto" on both sides of the Tex-Mex border.
  • Telecaster Bajo Sexto 6-strings tuned E (022/032/042/052/062/072) or A for enhanced precision (016p/026p/036/046/056/066)
  • CAVAQUINHO/REQUINTO = DGBD, DGBE. A cousin of the Ukulele, it has its origin in Portugal and is also part of the lute family. 4 strings, in Brazil can alternatively be replaced with the 4-string banjo-mandolin (like the one played by Kali in the West Indies).
  • CUATRO = Played in many countries from Columbia to the Caribbean islands. Depending on their stringing they can be considered as part of the guitar or mandolin families. The Cuatro (4 in Spanish) was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors, when the guitar had only 4 strings. The 4-string Venezuelan Cuatro tuning is reentrant, like the Ukulele: A3D4F#4B3, the B is tuned an octave lower than the F#. The Puerto Rican Cuatro has 10 strings in 5 courses: BbEeAADDGG, 10 strings (5x2) (as it's name does not say). This Porto Rican national instrument is also played in Cuba. The body is often shaped a bit like a violin but most Cuatros are shaped like a small classical Spanish guitar.
  • GUITARRONE = EADGBE, 6-string acoustic bass, a typical Mariachi instrument.
  • TIPLE = CEAD, from 4 to 12 strings, it's the Cuban, Mexican or Colombian chord. Played for over 500 years, it's name stands for "high pitch". One of the most unique instruments to have tripled strings (At least an E and an A for a 10-string)
  • AaDdDF#f#F#BB (or AA), the Tiple chord's american version with 10 strings. Martin still manufactures a few.
  • TRES = FfddAa, GgccEe, GgbbEe. 6 strings (3x2). A typical Cuban instrument, mostly used for the "Son", from which the Salsa has originated. In a recording, can often be mistaken for a 12-string. The Tres can easily be made from a small classical guitar.
  • TRICORDIA = GGGDDDAAAEEE , a 12-string mandolin (4x3) played in Mexico.
  • VIHUELA = 5 strings, looks like a miniature guitarrone, but beware of the 3 bass strings which are actually an ocatve higher = ADGBE, strings 5 and 6 are therefore one tone under the first two.

  • Even if more Andean and South American it's difficult to not mention 2 instruments that are close cousins of the Vihuela:
  • CHARANGO = The body is made with a shell from the back of a dried armadillo or out of wood, and a large neck supports 10 strings (5 pairs) typically tuned GCEAE
  • RONROCO = a kind of baritone charango, a crossroad between guitar and charango in fact, that has recently gained popularity thanks to Gustavo Santaolalla, the great Argentinian film composer (The Last Of Us, Brokeback Mountain...) who made an extended use of the ronroco in his soundtracks. There are Bolivian, Chilean and Argentinian tunings: 5 pairs of strings tuned D4G4B3E4B4 (Santaolalla tuning). Now, this instrument is used and played all over the world.
mexican guitar
The West Indies' "Washé", originally from the Washboard in New Orleans.
The most characteristic rhythmic guitar played in biguine music, using the fingers. As for the right hand, there seems to be as many Washés as there are guitarists in the West Indies. I would naturally be quite wary of this transcription. The best way to learn is to listen to the locals, with or without the occasional "ti punch" and can only recommend you listen to the expert West Indies pickers: Francisco, Jacob from Kassav on electric but also Gerard LaViny and Yvon Rosillette on acoustic you can hear on Ralph Thamar albums.