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Guitarra De Golpe

The guitarra de golpe is a type of guitar found traditionally in certain parts of Jalisco and Michoacán. Its role is the same as that of the vihuela, i.e. rhythmic, chordal accompaniment. It is known by several names, including; guitarra de golpe, guitarra mariachera, guitarra colorada, guitarra quinta, and quinta. It is also sometimes referred to as a "jarana", which is a very general, non-specific term that leads to confusion with jarana (huasteca) and jarana (jarocha). Its most famous player was Gaspar Vargas, father of Silvestre Vargas, both of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. (photo, L to RL: Silvestre Vargas, Manuel Mendoza, Gaspar Vargas)


Guitarra de golpe is one of the most traditional mariachi instruments, but it has been replaced in contemporary mariachis by the vihuela and guitar. The "quinta" is rarely seen in mariachis nowadays, yet is still an essential part of the "conjuntos de arpa grande" from Tierra Caliente in Michoacán. Its virtual disappearance from modern mariachis an be attributed to several factors, among them the fact that its role is duplicated by the vihuela and guitar (which have closely related left hand chord positions), and the fact that tuning and left hand positions for the guitarra de golpe are distinct and relatively unknown.
The guitarra de golpe has a voice distinct from that of the vihuela and the guitar, and fills out the "armonia" section of a mariachi. It is also the perfect guitar to accompany the harp, as its pitch is lower than a vihuela, and it has less sustain than a guitar and therefore does not cover up the melody on the harp as do guitar and vihuela. In addition, with its deep box and distinct peghead, it has a visual aspect which we should not overlook, since a mariachi in charro suits is not only musical, but also visual. The "quinta", along with the Jalisco harp, complete both the sonoral and visual aspects of the mariachi.


Guitarra de Golpe Tunings

One of the problems facing potential players of the guitarra de golpe is the lack of information on the instrument, including such basic information as how to tune it, or even what strings to put on it. The following is information that I have gathered from various sources over the last 25 years. Let us begin with the tuning:

1) The tuning used by Gaspar Vargas, as told to me by Victor "Pato" Cardenas of Mariachi Vargas was, 5th to 1st string, D-G-B-E-A (see the chart on tunings for actual pitches). "Pato" first told me this tuning in the early 1980's and confirmed it again to me on February 6, 2006. This tuning is closely related to the common tuning of the Spanish vihuela and the 5-string baroque guitar. At first glance it may seem different from Mexican vihuela and guitar chord positions, but observe that certain chords ("D" for example) are fingered the same, simply moving the fingers over one string. I call this tuning "Tecalitlán / Gaspar Vargas".  

2) The tuning currently common in Michoacán is D-G-C-E-A. Note its similarity to that of Gaspar Vargas, varying by only one note (raising the B to a C). As this tuning is exactly a fifth below the vihuela, it has the advantage of using vihuela positions, albeit transposed. that is, a vihuela player can pick up a guitarra de golpe tuned this way, and can play in any key by simply fingering the chords of the key a fifth up - finger what would be a "D" on vihuela, and it sounds a "G" on the guitarra de golpe. Coincidentally this tuning is very close to that of the 'ukulele and, other than octave transpositions, is identical to that of the Portuguese machete de rajao. I call this tuning "Michoacán". 

3) There is another tuning used by some contemporary urban mariachis, sometimes used in Mexico City and Los Angeles, California, of G-C-E-A-D (see the tuning PDF for the actual pitches). There are two versions, one having a high "E", and one having a low "E", but both using the same positions. This tuning seems to have evolved within the modern mariachi . Some mariachis mistakenly represent this tuning as the tuning used by Gaspar Vargas. it is NOT, though it is related. Victor "Pato" Cardenas of Mariachi Vargas confirmed that this tuning, while common in contemporary mariachis, is newer, and is actually a fourth higher than what Gaspar Vargas used. Thus, the left hand finger positions are related to the positions in Gaspar Vargas' tuning (leading to the misconception that it is the tuning used by Gaspar Vargas), but bear exactly the same relationship as requinto left hand postions do to guitar positions. Note that in the "high E" tuning the instrument is tuned exactly a fourth higher that Don Gaspar's, while the "low E" tuning approximates the sound of Gaspar's lower tuning. I call this tuning "Urbana". 

4) There is a fourth tuning that some have used for convenience's sake, but would seem to have no basis in tradition, and that is to tune the guitarra de golpe as a vihuela, (A-D-G-B-E). This facilitates chords positions, as they are identical to a vihuela, and very similar to a guitar. If tuned to the same pitches as a vihuela, the sound is thin compared to a vihuela, and is not recommended, but some individuals have noted that the pitch names of the Tecalitlán tuning (D-G-B-E-A) and the pitch names of vihuela tuning (A-D-G-B-E) vary only in the order of the notes, and have switched the strings on a "quinta" to match the order of a vihuela, yet keeping the registers of the guitarra de golpe, i.e. moving the "quinta" 5, 4, 3 & 2 strings over one position to 4, 3, 2 & 1, and moving the 1st string to the 5th string position. This maintains the sound of the Tecalitlán tuning, yet allows a person to finger it exactly as a vihuela, which has the added advantage that other musicians can "read" the hand positions. It also makes it unusual, in that it becomes a double re-entrant tuning. I haven't named this tuning and don't recommend it, but mention it here for the sake of the vihuela or guitar player who wants to "double" on guitarra de golpe, and has trouble learning new positions.

My favorite of all these tunings is the "Tecalitlán / Gaspar Vargas", with "Michoacán" a very close second. These two tunings yield chords that complement the harp, and have a full, almost "whoofing" quality, as opposed to the "bark" of a vihuela. They are also the most traditional, and analysis of the hand positions will show how both of them are related to vihuela and guitar positions. The "Urbana" tuning with a high "E" yields a thin sound, that I find unsatisfactory. The "Urbana" tuning with the low "E" yields a satisfactory sound, but I see no advantage to it. It uses the same relative positions as the "Tecalitlán / Gapar Vargas" tuning, but without the advantage that the Tecalitlán tuning has. To understand this, look at the hand positions in the Tecalitlán tuning for "D" and "A7", and compare them to the vihuela positions for the same chords, and you will see that the fingers are merely moved over one string. Now look at the ""urbana" positions for the same chords. Buen entendedor, pocas palabras. You, of course, are free to choose whichever tuning you deem most practical or prudent. 


Guitarra de Golpe chord charts all tunings






Strings for Guitarra de Golpe

With regards to strings, the strings you put on will depend on what tuning you use, and the actual instrument you put them on. As there is no standard size, and instruments vary in other ways (thickness and type of woods used), there is no one set of strings that will work for all instruments. As a starting point, however, I suggest the following gauges for an instrument made out of cedar and tacote with a scale of approximately 22.5 inches (57 cm), tuned in either the Tecalitlán / Gaspar Vargas tuning, or the Michoacán tuning. 

5th string - tuned to D - use a .055"(.135) nylon string

4th string tuned to G - use a .045" (.110 or .115 cm) nylon string (slightly heavier than a guitar 3rd/"G" string)

3rd string tuned to B or C - use a .036" (.090 cm) nylon string (slightly heavier than a guitar 2nd/"B" string)

2nd string tuned to E - use a .050" (.125 or .130 cm) nylon string.

1st string tuned to A - use a .040" (.100 cm) nylon string (guitar 3rd/"G" string)

If your guitarra de golpe is larger, you might wish to use slightly thinner strings than above, and if your guitarra de golpe is smaller, you might experiment with slightly heavier strings. If you have trouble locating the different string gauges, try a music store that deals in harp strings.

Two potential sources are:

 Guadalupe Custom Strings (