Latinx heritage month celebrates the impact of Hispanic culture worldwide. Although the origins of some of the Latinx musical influences are the results of Spanish colonization, the month also acknowledges and celebrates shared identities translated into new cultural expressions. What was Spain’s primary contribution to Latin music? Bringing the idea of stringed instruments across the ocean with early versions of the Spanish guitar later developed into a whole new range of instruments and sounds.
The Spanish Guitar
Around the 15th century, Europeans were already excited about the guitar. Its most popular form had four courses of strings in pairs tuned to Gg CC EE AA, which was inspired by Arabic instruments like the Lute and the Viol. The next century brought a new sound with a fifth course of strings included by Spanish luthiers (guitar makers), and from that moment, they became known as Spanish guitars.
Spanish guitars were an instrument of the people. Every public gathering or national dance featured a musician strumming songs on a guitar decorated with elaborate designs and patterns.
If 10 strings divided into 5 courses sounds good, imagine adding one more course to it? Now you have a 12-stringed guitar later replaced by the six-stringed setup we now know. Nowadays, the term “Spanish guitar” can be interchangeable with "classical guitar" and is not necessarily connected only to guitars made in Spain.
Paco de Lucia and Andres Segovia - the guitar virtuosos
If playing the guitar is your superpower, wouldn't you be interested in constantly improving your instrument? For Paco de Lucia, the answer is definitely yes. Often Spanish guitarists worked alongside luthiers to enhance their guitar’s sound quality and effects, and de Lucia was no different. A virtuoso flamenco guitar player, Paco de Lucia (born Francisco Sanchez Gomez) introduced Jazz influences to the flamenco style, feeding the Latin Jazz fusion of 1970.
Coming from a family of musicians, de Lucia started playing early. At 14, he had already recorded his first album, which was the beginning of a prolific career. De Lucia was the first Flamenco guitar player to achieve international recognition, opening the doors for many other talented musicians.
While de Lucia was growing a global flamenco audience, Andres Segovia, another Spanish guitar virtuoso was leaving his mark on the classical guitar world. Segovia is considered one of the greatest guitarists in music history. A key figure in elevating the guitar’s status, he was well regarded for his guitar transcriptions of existing classical works (including several by Bach) and his collaboration with prominent composers.
Segovia also developed what seemed like an outrageous new picking method for the time. While most guitars debated using fingertips vs. fingernails for plucking the strings, Segovia decided to use both, creating a wider range of timbres to his already unique style. Soon, the technique initially frowned upon by the purists was recognized as an innovation and became a new tradition for generations to follow.
The Cuban Guitar - Tres cubano
You might not have heard about the Tres Cubano before, but it's likely you know its sound. "Tres" means three in Spanish, which relates to the instrument's 3 pairs of double strings, each tuned to the same pitch. The Tres Cubano has no straightforward origin story, but it's believed to be inspired by a 10-string Spanish guitar called Bandola. The long trip from Spain to Cuba was tough on the instrument strings, and no easy strings replacements were available. As the desire to make music always rings louder than its adversities, especially on such a long trip, the 10-string instrument soon became a 6-string one.
The Tres Cubano first appeared in Sierra Maestra Mountains - in the Eastern Cuba region - around the mid to late 18th century. Other Caribbean countries, such as the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, have similar guitars to the Tres Cubano (but different in tuning and resonator shape).
While the standard tuning for a typical acoustic guitar follows the E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, and E4, the tuning for the Tres Cubano is: G4-G3 - C4-C4 - E4-E4. This gives it a higher pitch, making it a great rhythm instrument with melodic lines. Chords are seldom "strummed" in the Tres Cubano.
If you still can't picture how the Tres Cubano differs from a guitar, let's hand it over to the specialists. According to Dr. Olavo Alen Rodriguez at the Centro Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC), in Havana, Cuba "The major difference is in the playing of the instrument. The Cuban tres is a plucked string instrument played like a drum. You almost never play chords with a Cuban Tres. You can do it, but that is not the traditional way to play it."
The sound of Havana - Buena Vista Social Club
It's impossible to talk about the Tres Cubano without mentioning the Cuban Son, a music style created in eastern Cuba that mixes African musical traditions with those from Spain. The Son Cubano is their own expression of what Cuban music is. The style also received influences from other Latin genres, such as guaracha, bolero, and mambo, which were also common in the clubs of Havana.
If you want a taste of Cuban music, we recommend exploring the Buena Vista Social Club music project. The name comes from a famous club in Havanna where musicians would play for crowds willing to dance to son cubano before Fidel's Castro revolution. When Castro took over Cuba in 1959, many immigrants fled to the United States, bringing their sound to North America.
Decades later, in 1996, the American guitarist Ry Coder was invited to Havanna by producer Nick Gold for a project uniting African musicians from Mali with Cuban artists. However, a visa issue blocked the Mali musicians from landing in Cuba. The challenge became an opportunity. Coder and Gold assembled a group of veteran Cuban musicians to share their folk and story songs from the day in a celebration of their culture.
For some of those artists, a different life unfolded in Havanna - clubs were closed, and they believed it was the end of their careers. The project gave was a chance for them to pick up again the same instruments they haven’t played since the '60s. The Buena Vista Social Club album was recorded in 6 days and generated a new wave of Latin music worldwide. The project was later turned into an Oscar-nominated documentary by German director Wim Wenders in 1999.
The Tiple Colombiano
Considered one of Colombia's national instruments, the Colombian Tiple is about three-fourths the size of a classical guitar. Imagine a ukulele with twelve strings set in four triple-strung courses. It can be played as a lead instrument or accompaniment to the guitar, and it's used for traditional styles of music like bambucos and pasillos.
The Tiple's three of the four courses, the first and third strings are tuned an octave higher than the middle string. Tiple strings are made of steel and are fingerpicked or played with a plectrum. Though it originated in Colombia, several other Latin American countries have their own Tiple with variations of strings and tunings incorporated into their culture.
Pacho Benavides - the king of Tiple
It was in the hands of Pacho Benavides that the Tiple Colombiano started to shine as a solo instrument. Benavides was born in Colombia's Santander region in October 1900s and became interested in the guitar at an early age. Legend has it that his grandpa used to play the Tiple around the house. But one day, after noticing how well his grandson played, he decided to stop playing in front of him, afraid of being surpassed by the young child.
Benavides's skill and talent with the Tiple were compared to Andres Segovia (that famous Spanish guitar player you already know). His best-known compositions are 'Veleñita,’ ‘Ensueño,’ ‘Sol de julio,’ and he's still known as one of the greatest Tiple guitarists in Colombia and abroad.
The Charango - Peruvian (or Bolivian) guitar
The Charango is also an instrument that resembles a ukulele, but this one has ten strings (five double) tuned to G-C-E-A-E. The sound can have harp-like characteristics and resemble the mandolin and the guitar. But what’s most unique about it as an instrument is that its resonation box is made out of armadillo shells.
The Charango is thought to have been influenced by the interactions between the Andean people and the Spanish. The modern states of Peru and Bolivia were not yet established then, so both Bolivian and Peruvian folk artists claim it’s origins. One theory suggests that native Andean musicians were fascinated by the idea of stringed instruments, and decided to create their own. Using their knowledge and resources, they devised the Charango setup made of wood for the instrument's front and arm, and dried armadillos shells as resonators. Another theory for its shape and size points to a possible cultural clash. The Spaniards prohibited local music, which led people to adapt, creating an instrument that could be easily hidden inside their ponchos.
Nowadays, with more resources and knowledge available, relying on the poor's armadillo shell is not necessary, and wooden options are becoming the preferred option.
Ernesto Cavour - The Charango soloist
If you are curious about what a Charango sounds like, Ernesto Cavour is a great name to start with. The Bolivian folk musician was renowned worldwide as a charango soloist and was part of the first Bolivian folk groups to tour Europe in 1969. Later, he performed in Hamburg's Music Hall alongside Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia (there he is again!). Cavour was recognized for his books and texts about local music traditions and playing methods for varied instruments. He was also the founder of the Bolivian Charango Society (established in 1973) and an active figure on the scene. After a prolific career, Cavour passed away this year (07-08-22) at 82.
Outside the Bolivian Folk traditions, the Charango's sound was featured on the hit song "If I Could" by American Folk duo Simon & Garfunkel. Another Charango enthusiast is the composer Gustavo Santaolalla, known for working on popular films like Babel, 21 Grams, and The Motorcycle Diaries.
The Mexican Guitar - Guitarrón mexicano
If the Tiple and the Charango are recognizable by their small size, the Guitarrón Mexicano is the opposite. "Guitarrón," translates into "big guitar," so it already sets the stage for what to expect. The instrument is a large-bodied six-string acoustic bass with a convex back to support its holding. Though it is also a stringed instrument, it’s more of a cousin to the Spanish guitar and a sibling to another Spanish instrument - Bajo de uña, a fingernail pluck bass. The Mexican guitar produces a deep and loud sound due to its size, and it's the backbone of the famous Mariachi style. It can also be used to replace the harp for the rhythmic bass lines.
The Guitarrón is often tuned to A1-D2-G2-C3-E2-A2, so the pitch is not necessarily rising as you move along the strings and needs more strength ( in both hands!) compared to the guitar. The Guitarrón doesn't have frets; instead, you pluck on heavy gauge nylon strings for the high three and wound metal for the lower ones.
El guitarrón Mariachi
Now that you know the instrument, you probably already guessed where it's used the most. The Mariachi tradition is a known cultural aspect of Mexico. Mariachi bands are known to provide entertainment and support young couples' courting on beautiful "serenatas" - a musical message of love delivered by the Mariachi on a person's behalf.
Playing as Mariachi is also a tradition passed down from generation to generation. It's not uncommon that the same band will go on as their musicians retire and their children continue the legacy. Berna Santiago, one of the most recognized guitarrón players, followed this tradition, coming from one of Mariachi's most distinguished families. Born in Guachinango in 1939, Santiago learned the guitarrón from his father; and later passed the knowledge to his son, who plays in the traditional Mariachi band Vargas de Tecalitlán.
Other artists have been known to explore the guitarrón sound in styles outside the classic Mariachi tradition. Eagle's singer and bassist, Randy Meisner, played the guitarrón on the song "New Kid in Town" from the album Hotel California (1976). And those who enjoyed 80's brit-pop might have come across the band Fairground Attraction, which featured a guitarrón and reached number 1 on U.K. Singles Chart in 1988.
Are you inspired to make your own music?
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