Guitarrón means 'big guitar' (the suffix '-ón' meaning 'big' in Spanish). With a shape referring to a big guitar, the instrument has some specific morphological aspects. The very large, domed soundbox obliges the musician to tilt the instrument upwards so that he can embrace it and reach the six strings with his right arm. The neck is short and has no frets. The strings are plucked with the pulp of the fingers of the right hand, and, because there are no frets on the neck, have a fairly high action. A great deal of force in the left hand is therefore necessary to shorten them. These distinct acoustical features provide the guitarrón with a sound that is both powerful and richly coloured.

The guitarrón appeared in Mexico in the 17th century. At that time, several musical instruments of European origin became widely used in Central and South America. Subsequently, local makers produced instruments inspired by European instruments but integrating typical Latin American characteristics. This is the case of the guitarrón. Despite their similarity, it is not certain that the guitarrón derives directly from the guitar. It may have originated from another instrument introduced by the Spaniards in the 16th century, the bajo de uña, or 'mute bass'.

The guitarrón plays a central role in the Mariachi ensemble (video), supporting it with its bass notes. Mariachi orchestras, developed in the 19th century in the Mexican province of Jalisco, are the result of the syncretism between pre-Colombian, European and African music. During the 20th century, this musical genre left the countryside and gradually became urbanized. Nowadays, it is so popular that it is often perceived as an image, representing the whole Mexico.

In the Mariachi orchestra, the guitarrón provides the bass line, the rhythmic pattern and the harmony. Its low timbre counterbalances the bright sound of the brass instruments. Together with the harp and the guitar he forms the rhythm section of the ensemble, called las armonias, while the violin and brass instruments play the melody. Nowadays, the guitarrón tends to replace the harp, as it is easier to transport.

The musician often plays in parallel octaves, which is facilitated by the tuning of the instrument. The strings do not progress in a linear fashion from the lowest to the highest. The upper string is lowered by an octave, sounding only one octave higher than the lowest string.

The guitarrón gives Mariachi ensembles their typical sound. It is said that if the guitarrón is missing, there can be no performance!



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