Guitars from Latin America

From Mexico to Cuba

Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadors came to the Americas along with their European musical traditions. Their colonisation followed by the 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. For your information, I have added details on the register and tunings of 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 . 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 = BbEeAADDGG, 10 strings (5x2) (as its' name does not say). The Porto Rican national instrument, also played in Cuba. The body is shaped like a violin.
  • 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.

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 reccomend 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 the most recent Ralph Thamar CD.
If you are not into deciphering ancient scriptures, you can easily
listen to this sample in Real Audio
which will certainly give you an idea of the richness of this "local" rhythm that remains a mystery to many a French metropolitan guitarist. (Tempo goes from slow to rapid).

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Studio 124
124 Quai Louis Blériot, 75016 Paris - France
phone : +33 614 629 810, e-mail :
Studio 124 Publishing
Danièle or Véronique, phone : +33 147 580 681, e-mail :
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