The Big Guitar in a Mariachi Band: Unveiling the Vihuela

by Madonna

When one thinks of Mariachi music, vivid images of lively musicians adorned in traditional charro outfits playing a plethora of instruments come to mind. Among the ensemble, there’s one instrument that stands out both in its unique sound and appearance – the big guitar. In the world of Mariachi music, this instrument is known as the “vihuela.” In this article, we’ll explore the vihuela, shedding light on its history, construction, and significance in the vibrant world of Mariachi.

A Brief Overview of Mariachi Music

Before we delve into the vihuela, let’s take a moment to appreciate the rich tradition of Mariachi music. Originating in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Mariachi is a genre of folk music that has transcended borders and captured the hearts of people worldwide. Known for its energetic rhythms, passionate lyrics, and the iconic sombrero-wearing musicians, Mariachi is often performed during festive occasions and celebrations, from weddings to Mexican Independence Day.


The typical Mariachi ensemble is composed of various instruments, each contributing to the ensemble’s distinctive sound. While the trumpet, violin, and guitarrón (a large bass guitar) play integral roles, it’s the vihuela that adds a unique flavor to the Mariachi sound.


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Unveiling the Vihuela: The Big Guitar

The vihuela is often referred to as the “big guitar” in a Mariachi band, but it is, in fact, a distinct instrument with its own history and characteristics. Its name is derived from the Spanish word “vihuela,” which refers to a family of plucked string instruments. The vihuela used in Mariachi music is not to be confused with the Baroque vihuela, a guitar-like instrument popular in Europe during the 16th century.

History of the Vihuela in Mariachi Music

The vihuela has a long and storied history in the realm of Mariachi music. Its origins can be traced back to the indigenous cultures of Mexico, where early stringed instruments were crafted from materials such as gourds and animal skins. Over time, Spanish influence led to the evolution of these instruments into the vihuela we know today.

In the context of Mariachi, the vihuela first gained prominence during the 19th century. It was introduced to Mariachi ensembles as an instrument that could provide rhythmic accompaniment, helping to drive the energetic sound that defines Mariachi music. Its compact size and bright, percussive tones make it well-suited for this purpose.

Construction of the Vihuela

The vihuela is a small, five-stringed instrument with a round back and a flat top. Its body is traditionally crafted from a single piece of wood, often cedar, and is painstakingly carved to achieve its distinctive shape. The flat top is essential for producing clear, percussive tones that cut through the ensemble’s sound.

The vihuela’s strings are typically made of nylon or gut, and it is played with the fingers or a small pick. The instrument is tuned similarly to a guitar, with the most common tuning being A, D, G, B, and E, from highest to lowest pitch.

Significance in Mariachi Music

The vihuela plays a crucial role in the Mariachi ensemble. Its unique tone, which falls somewhere between that of a guitar and a traditional Mexican guitarrón, adds a distinctive color to the overall sound. While the trumpet and violin often take the lead in melodies, the vihuela contributes by providing a rhythmic foundation and harmonic support.

The vihuela’s bright, percussive tones help create the lively and energetic feel that is characteristic of Mariachi music. Its role is somewhat akin to that of a rhythm guitar in other genres, but with a distinctively Mexican flavor. The vihuela player in a Mariachi band is not just responsible for keeping the beat; they also add embellishments and flourishes to enhance the music’s excitement and vigor.


The vihuela, often referred to as the “big guitar” in a Mariachi band, is a distinctive and vital component of the rich tradition of Mariachi music. Its history, construction, and unique tonal qualities make it an integral part of the ensemble, contributing to the infectious energy and passion that Mariachi music is known for.

As Mariachi continues to captivate audiences around the world, the vihuela remains a symbol of the genre’s cultural and musical significance. So, the next time you enjoy the spirited melodies of a Mariachi band, take a moment to appreciate the contributions of the “big guitar” – the vihuela – in creating the unmistakable sound of Mariachi.


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