Mariachi guitar comes from traditional Mexican music. It differs from other styles in several ways. For example, it is always played in an ensemble rather than solo and relies primarily on strumming (rather than fingerpicking). It is always played on a nylon-string guitar and doesn't use a microphone or electronic amplification.
Tips for Playing Mariachi Guitar
If you've always been enchanted by mariachi music and you want to play the style on guitar, you're in for a treat. Although mariachi guitar has some challenging chord progressions and fingerings, it can be a fun and accessible style to learn.
1. Proper Strumming Hand Position
The first step to playing mariachi guitar is finding the correct hand position for the strumming hand. Unlike other genres, the strumming hand is never parallel with the strings in a straight position when playing mariachi music on guitar. Instead, the hand is bent at a right angle perpendicular to the strings.
- Your fingers should be stretched out, not curled in.
- Keep your strumming hand and arm as relaxed as possible.
- You should also use a pick for strumming. (The bigger and heavier the pick is the better.)
Using this technique will allow you to strum with incredible speed. It gives more torque, and the power comes more from your wrist than any movement of your arm
2. Equal (or Stronger) Upstroke
In mariachi music, the upstroke is always just as loud and strong as the downstroke, which is different from the rhythm of other genres. In other styles, the downbeat is always emphasized the most. With mariachi, though, it's all about the upbeat. Therefore, to play mariachi guitar, you must train your hand to strum just as hard as it comes up.
3. Use Varying Dynamics
It is important to develop the ability to strum clearly but with sensitivity to the song and arrangement in order to master the art of playing mariachi music on guitar. This skill is required for other music styles as well, but it is especially crucial with mariachi guitar. The guitarist must learn to strum softly without losing punch and clarity during sections when the song calls for it.
This is as simple as applying less force while still maintaining the same speed when you strike the strings. Notice how the guitarist in this video strikes harder when the brass play loudly in the beginning, then adjusts her force slightly when she sings.
4. Switch Between 8th and 16th Notes
It is important to become comfortable switching between strumming 8th notes and 16th notes, as this is very common in mariachi rhythm patterns. Do daily exercises switching between the two strumming patterns and you will master it quickly. This video demonstrates an exercise you can use.
5. Learn Multiple Time Signatures (3/4, 6/8)
Mariachi is often played in three count, in either the 3/4 time signature or the 6/8 time signature. Both time signatures have measures divisible by three, but they each have a different length and feel to them. Listen to the rhythm of the song Son Jalisciense to hear an example.
6. Learn the Fan and Mute Techniques
A more advanced technique is called fanning. It is done by striking the strings with individual fingers striking in a quick series with the ring finger first, the middle second, and the index last. The wrist and hand still do the same strumming motion, but you are fanning your fingers as you strum. While doing this, you can also learn to occasionally mute the strings with your left hand when you strike to create percussive accents.
A talented guitarist demonstrates both techniques beautifully in this video.
Additional Resources for Learning Mariachi
There are a number of helpful resources you can use to learn mariachi guitar.
- Chords: GuitarCoaching.com has the perfect list of basic mariachi chords to get you started. The list breaks down the common chord progression patterns you'll need to know. This list of easy guitar chords will show you how to play many of these chords.
- Sheet music: Virtuoso Mariachi has free mariachi songs with sheet music available for you to use in your training and practice.
Formal training: Institutions such as the San Antonio Mariachi Academy offer classes where you can learn to play mariachi from professionals. If you're truly serious about mariachi guitar, a trip to Texas might be in your future. If you're not ready to take a trip, look for local class or online lessons.
The Fine Art of Mariachi
Mariachi music is one of the most beautiful folk-art forms still practiced today. It takes teamwork and years of practice to play with artful skill as part of an ensemble. If you put in the hours and hard work, someday you can stand tall with a guitar strapped around your chest and your fellow mariachi band members standing next to you.