Arpa de Mariachi
by Sergio Alonso, Mariachi Los Camperos  
Read on the Alonso Arpa de Mariachi developed by Sergio Alonso now for sale!

Rural Context.

During the nineteenth century, the term “mariachi,” among other things, was given to the 3 to 4-piece secular music groups native to the western states of Jalisco, Colima Nayarit, Michoacan, and Guerrero (Sheehy 1999:44). Although instrumentation varied among these groups, the most typical consisted of a harp, 1 or 2 violins, and one of several guitar-type instruments, such as the vihuela, guitarra de golpe, or jarana (Sheehy 1999:45). Central to mariachi repertoire was the regional variant of the most representative folk music genre of Mexico: the son (pronounced soun). The son de mariachi was but one of several (son) co-traditions that existed throughout central, eastern, and western Mexico that was used (as it is today) in accompanying song and dance during festive social gatherings.

The harp was key in the performance of the son, in that its versatility allowed the harpist to play as a soloist, in a duet (accompanied by a vihuela), or in a group. The primary role of the harp, whether in a solo or group context, was to provide bass lines by pulling octaves with the left hand. With the right hand, the harpist executed melodic lines or provided simple harmonic accompaniment. The harp helped establish the visual and acoustic aesthetic of the small ensemble, with its characteristic “booming” bass and its aggressive treble attacks.

In its traditional cultural context, the mariachi harp thrived because it was suited for the type of musical group in which it existed. Sones (soun-es) consisted of only the tonic, subdominant, and dominant seventh chords in one or two major keys. The harp however, despite being diatonic could play a full range of notes without encountering the difficulties of complex harmonies and modulation (Morales 1996:para. 4). The harp could be easily heard over the entire group, since the mariachi was made up of only several string instruments. Its size, weight, and awkward bulkiness probably posed less of a burden on the rural harpist who did not have to transport his instrument long distances, as opposed to the highly mobile urban musicians. Consequently, the musical and non-musical circumstances surrounding the rural mariachi culture allowed for the creation of a strong harp tradition in western Mexico.  

Structural Characteristics

There is no absolute standard in the construction of folk harps of western Mexico. Regional, local, and even individual preferences among harp makers allow for slight variations in size, shape, and materials used. These differences are so significant that depending on the geographical area, harps will differ in name. It is also known as Arpa Planeca, Arpa Abajeno, or Arpa Grande, as it is called in Michoacan (Morales 1996:para. 2). Nonetheless, there are several characterizing features that distinguish harps from other types of Latin American folk harps, the two most important being that they are centrally located in the state of Jalisco, and that they are integral components of the mariachi ensembles. It is because of these commonalties that they are collectively known as Jalisco or mariachi harps.

The mariachi harp is a 36-string diatonic harp, constructed primarily of cedar and tacote (Senecio albonervius, a balsa-like wood native to western Mexico), which is used in constructing the soundboard only. The sounbdbox consists of seven completely closed panels of cedar, five of which are joined to make-up the very large “belly,” and two are fused to make the “barn door” base which also acts as the legs that form part of it (Harding 1973:9). The tacote soundboard typically exhibits a lengthwise grain with four soundholes of decreasing diameter running up the length of the harp, two on each side of the string plane. The general shape of the soundbox is deep and wide at the base and short in length, more so than Mexico’s most popular folk harp, the arpa jarocha or Veracruz harp.

In comparing the two Mexican harp variants, the jarocho harps is also constructed of panels glued together, although it is common to find harps made from a single sheet of plywood molded to make the soundbox. Unlike the mariachi harp, the soundholes of the jarocho harp are commonly found on the backside and two separate legs are attached to the base to support the harp. While the jarocho harp usually has the same number of strings as the mariachi harp, they tend to be at a higher tension, producing loud and projecting treble sound. Also, the neck is constructed with bridge pins on the left side and its curvature tends to be more arched than the mariachi harp (Harding 1973:10).

The neck of the mariachi harp has a very unpronounced curvature, almost being a straight bar, which is sometimes decorated with a cockscomb on the topside. While the tuning pegs were once primarily made of wood, it is today common to find aluminum pegs. One of the more interesting details of the mariachi harp is that it has no bridge pins; the strings run directly from the soundboard up the left side of the neck and into to the tuning pegs. Although gut strings were formerly used, nylon strings are more common today.

Urban Context

The mariachi’s entry into the national and international spotlight resulted in a drastic transformation in its music-culture. Adapting to the demands of mainstream Mexico, the mariachi was forced to sacrifice many of the characteristics related to its original cultural context, in order to make it more appealing to the general public. As Jonathan Clark states,

Many of the rural characteristics originally associated with the mariachi music were lost or modified as it became urbanized and acquired increasing levels of sophistication. However, these very changes enabled the mariachi to become more than an obscure regional folk genre and to secure a prominent place within the context of Mexican and world music (Clark 1992:6-7).

The arpa de mariachi was one of the many characteristics that the mariachi sacrificed in order for it to achieve its widespread acceptance. Transformations within the mariachi culture during its urbanization, popularization, and commercialization made it increasingly difficult for the harp to survive. While many musical as well as non-musical factors contributed to the harp’s disappearance, the most critical stemmed from its structural design and its inability to adapt to an ever-changing music genre. Size, diatonic tuning, and limited dynamics were critical in bringing about its gradual exclusion from the tradition, which in its attempts to dominate the Mexican musical scene, was not sensitive to the special requirements of a diatonic instrument.

By 1900, the guitarron largely due to its chromatic capabilities began to replace the harp as the primary bass instrument. As the mariachi increasingly became polytonal, it needed a bass instrument that could efficiently and effectively modulate, transpose, and execute chromatic bass lines; a requirement that the diatonic harp could not do. Also, as the mariachi became very mobile, the lightweight guitarron became even more appealing than the bulkier and heavier harp because it was much easier for musicians to transport (Fogelquist 1975:90). The harp’s limited volume, projection, and resonance, primarily in the middle and treble ranges, also posed serious problems. When additional violins and trumpets were added to the standard ensemble, the harp was all but drowned out by the other instrumentalists.

The technical and stylistic development of the harp that ensued was in direct response to the musical demands of the urban mariachi. Essentially, the harpist developed techniques in order to cope with the drawbacks of performing polytonal music within a large ensemble. The harp’s light treble strings could not register over the more dynamic violin and trumpet sections, so it became almost exclusively a bass and harmonic accompaniment instrument, and only occasionally used the upper register for melodic flourishes and glissandos. In performing notes outside of the harp’s diatonic tuning, the harpists took advantage of the instrument’s lack of bridge pins and developed a unique method of executing sharp notes within the bass range: they used their right thumb to press down on a particular bass string at the neck, producing a sharpened semitone when pulling that string with the left hand. While this technique was essential in achieving the harp’s primary function, bass lines, it further limited the harpist’s ability to utilize the middle and upper strings. The development of the mariachi harp tradition as a whole was greatly hindered by these technical and performance challenges. While other instrumentalists excelled in developing new and complex techniques for the highly sophisticated music, the harpists were forced to resort to compensatory strategies that only allowed them to hold secondary roles in the mariachi.

The mariachi culture as a whole became perhaps the most significant factor in pushing the harp out of usage due to these performance and structural issues. The instrument had little place among musicians who generally viewed it as an unessential component of the mariachi, especially when considering the economics involved. It is plausible to expect a great deal of reluctance among group members in sharing their earnings with an additional instrumentalist who would probably burden their group more than contribute to it. For example, the harpist could not fit his large instrument into the group automobile, could not maneuver easily among clients and tight spaces in cantinas, would have difficulty maintaining intonation, could not play in various keys, would be overpowered by the other musicians, and lastly the group would likely already have a bass player anyway! Instead of enduring the great hardships involved in playing harp in the mariachi, many harpists learned other instruments, performed as soloists, or turned to other types of Mexican folk harp music, such as the conjunto jarocho of Veracruz and the conjunto de arpa grande of Michoacan.

Today, the mariachi’s most versatile instrument is played with the least versatility. Playing “second fiddle” to the rest of the ensemble, the mariachi harp has not enjoyed the level of technical development as the other mariachi instruments, or that of other Latin American harp traditions. This can be attributed to its structural and performance limitations, and mariachi culture itself, which generally excluded the harp from its evolutionary process. The mariachi harp has merely come to exist as an added luxury among the few groups who still utilize it. While it does appear to be making a comeback among some of the most recognized mariachis in the world, it has a long way to go before reaching the type of acceptance and prosperity it once enjoyed and now so desperately deserves.
Sergio “Checo” Alonso
Researcher, performer, and teacher of Mexican and Latin American folk music, Checo is the harpist for one of the most prestigious mariachi ensembles in the world: Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano. He teaches multicultural music at San Fernando High School, in San Fernando, CA, and serves as the city’s Cultural Arts Commissioner. Checo received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Ethnomusicology from UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture in 1999 and is currently completing a Masters degree in education. Contact Checo at


Clark, Jonathan. 1992. Mexico's Pioneer Mariachis vol. 3. Mariachi Vargas De Tecalitlan. Descriptive notes to Arhoolie Folklyric CD 7015.

Fogelquist, Mark. Rhythm and Form in the Contemporary Son Jalisciense. Master's thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1975.

Harding, Timothy. 1973. The Folk Harp in Mexico, with Emphasis on Veracruz. Folk Harp Journal 3 (pp. 7-12).

Morales, Juan. 1996. The Mariachi Harp. Retrieved April 2, 2003, from

Sheehy, Daniel. 1999. Popular Mexican Musical Traditions: The Mariachi of West Mexico and the Conjunto Jarocho of Veracruz. In J. M. Schechter (Ed.), Music in Latin American Culture: Regional Traditions (pp. 34-79). New York: Shirmer Books.

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