19 Traditional Mexican Musical Instruments You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Mexico is a type of melting pot of cultures. From the original Central American inhabitants (including the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs) to the three hundred years (1521 until 1821) of Spanish colonialists and their African slaves, Mexico’s traditional music draws from three vastly different sources to create the distinctive sounds we know today.

During its colorful history, Mexican music developed various styles, including Mexican Son (with many regional variations), Ranchera, Norteño, Banda, and one of the most popular, Mariachi.

All of these styles showcase some of the traditional instruments that are associated with Mexican music. Some have been “borrowed,” while others organically developed.

Below is a list of some Mexican instruments, both traditional and those used in traditional music.

1. Accordion 

A familiar instrument to most, the accordion comprises hand bellows, a treble casing, and a bass casing.

The two casings sit on opposite sides of the bellows and feature piano keys (for the treble) and buttons (for the bass).

By operating the bellows, the player moves air over metal reeds located inside the casings. By pressing the keys or buttons, the player can alter the notes produced.

Accordions feature heavily in the Norteño style and signify a sizeable German influence during the 1800s in the Rio Grande Valley.

Narciso Martínez is a famous accordion player who was influential in the early days of Norteño music.

2. Arpa Jarocha

The Arpa Jarocha or Mexican Harp is a large, wooden-framed harp, which has 32 to 36 strings made initially from animal guts, but nylon is now used, a resonator, a flat soundboard (occasionally arch outwards), and without any pedals.

The Arpa Jarocha is unique from other harps in that its soundboard has holes located on the back.

The performer is usually standing while playing. Like most harps, the Arpa Jarocha is played by one hand on the bass string to create a bass line, while the other hand adds melodies from the higher pitch regions.

The Arpa Jarocha features in many different styles, including son Jarocho. A player of renown in Mexico and abroad is Celso Duarte.

3. Ayoyotes

The Ayoyotes are part of the legacy left behind by the Aztecs.

They are considered percussion instruments, which are made of the hard shells of seeds from the Ayoyote tree. The dried seeds are tied onto cloth or pieces of skin.

These rattles are tied around the ankles and wrists of performers and are shaken while dancing/playing music. They produce a sound similar to the rain falling.

They were and continued to be used in many Aztec dances, such as concheros, that link to the heritage of those dancing.

4. Bajo Sexto

The Bajo Sexto is part of the guitar family, belonging to the strings section. These are larger than standard-sized guitars with twelve strings divided into six sets of two strings.

The Bajo Sexto is played in the same manner as a regular guitar, with one hand strumming and plucking over the body while the other depresses the strings against the fretboard.

Depending on its role in a band, the Bajo can either be used as a bass variety (with strings being plucked by finger) or as a melodic instrument with chords (when a plectrum is often used).

The Bajo Sexto often features in conjunto ensembles playing norteño music and at weddings and dances.

The origins of this instrument are still debated, but a likely candidate is the chitarra battente, an Italian baroque guitar. One of many well-known players is Max Baca.

5. Cajón De Tamboreo

The Cajón de Tapeo also known as a Cajon De Tamboreo is a type of percussion instrument.

These drums are generally six-sided wooden boxes with a hole cut into the top.

This instrument is the southern Mexican version of the Cajon, which gained popularity in Peru during the Spanish occupation.

Slaves and indigenous peoples were barred from using drums, so they began to play on all manner of furniture, including crates, boxes, and drawers.

In Mexico, the Cajon De Tamboreo became a substitute for “tarima de baile” (the wood platform). These instruments are often used in son Jarocho folk music.

The Cajon De Tamboreo is usually played by striking the top of the drum with an empty hand (fist or palm) and with a stick in the other hand. These drums are often used during dances.

6. Cantaro

The Cantaro is a percussion instrument. They are made from clay pottery, which often has various amounts of water added to change the pitch of the sound produced.

The Cantaro is played by striking the outside of the pot with your bare hand. Various sounds can be made depending on the location hit, and the amount of water added.

Cantaros have been used in various forms of Mexican folk music (Son Mexicano) and traditional dances.

7. Guiro

The Guiro has been traditionally used in Puerto Rican music since around 1788, but Mexican and Latin American music, in general, have adopted it.

The Guiro is a hollowed-out, open-ended gourd with grooves cut into it along the gourd’s width.

The Guiro is played by pulling a scraper or “pua” across the ridges that the grooves create. This produces a rasping-type sound.

The original invention of this instrument was created to the Taino, a tribe of Arawakan-speaking peoples of the Caribbean.

This instrument often features in salsa music.

8. Guitarron Mexicano

Guitarron Mexicano

A Guitarron Mexicano is a sizeable-bodied bass guitar with six strings.

Three of the strings are usually nylon, while three are steel. These instruments have fretless necks.

A Guitarron is played by either pulling a single string or by plucking two strings simultaneously. The other hand depresses the strings along the fret to form chords.

These guitars feature primarily in mariachi ensembles, where they form rhythmic bass lines. It is also believed that the Guitarron replaced the harp as the preferred instrument for bass.

The Guitarron was believed to have been derived from the Spanish Bajo de uña, a sixteenth-century bass.

9. Maracas

The Maracas are a handheld shaker, considered to be a percussion instrument.

Originally they were constructed out of gourds or turtle shells and filled with beans, beads, or pebbles inside to produce the sound.

Modern Maracas are made from wood, plastic, and other material like rawhide. The material used and size of the Maraca will cause it to make differing sounds.

The Maracas are generally played two together by shaking the instrument. They are often used to keep the beat and provide a rhythm but can also be of two different sounds (high and low) to create a different effect.

Three potential origins exist for the Maracas. Central Chile’s Araucanian people may have first coined the term “maraca” in 500BC, alternatively, Brazil’s Tupi people or West Africa’s Guinean people.

10. Marimba

The Marimba does not originate from Mexico. Instead, they are originally from Africa and were introduced to the Americas when slaves were brought across.

The original design was believed to be wooden “planks” placed across a hole in the ground, which were then struck. Eventually, this evolved into planks mounted on gourds which acted as resonators.

Over time the design swapped out the gourds for wooden pipes and then finally metal.

Marimbas are generally played with two (one per hand) or four mallets (two per hand). These mallets are used to strike the wooden bars.

These percussion instruments are often found in Mexico as part of Marimba bands. One such band is Brisas Del Grijalba.

11. Marímbula

The Marímbula or Marimbol in Mexico is another example of an African instrument coming home in Latin America. They are considered to be of the lamellophone family.

These large instruments are comprised of a resonating box (a wooden board with a hole cut into it) with strips of metal attached over it.

Players are generally seated on top of their instruments. The Marimbol is played by plucking the metal strips, which in turn produce bass tones.

These instruments are versatile and have found their way into folk music across Central America. In Mexico, the Marimbol is featured in son Jarocho style folk music.

12. Ocarina

The modern Ocarina is based on an Italian earthenware carnival whistle from the 1800s. However, examples have been around much longer than that.

Both the Aztecs and Mayans had similar versions of this instrument, some with multiple globular compartments, producing a range of sounds.

The Ocarina is considered to be a globular flute, and it is usually egg-shaped. They are generally constructed from clay or metal.

There are eight finger holes and two thumbholes. Some Ocarinas also have a tuning plunger.

These wind instruments are played by blowing into a mouthpiece and placing one’s fingers over the holes to produce different sounds.

Dancing, singing, and rituals of the Aztec and Maya people were accompanied by the Ocarina (or similar type whistle/flute)

13. Pandero Jarocho

The Pandero Jarocho is a type of tambourine. It has an octagon design, and it has eight metal disks spaced around its circumference. There is also animal skin stretched across the frame.

Two methods of paying the Pandero Jarcho are recognized.

The first involves gently shaking the instrument to activate the disks while skin is struck in an alternating use of the thumb and forefinger.

The other method involves using the thumb on the outer edge of the instrument while quickly vibrating it back and forth.

The Pandero are frequently used in son Jarocho folk music in the Veracruz state in Mexico.

14. Requinto Guitar

As the name suggests, a Requinto Guitar is a type of guitar.

It has six nylon strings, and it is relatively smaller (around 18%) than a regular acoustic/classical guitar and is slightly deeper (4.3 inches vs. 4.1 inches) in Mexico.

These smaller guitars are played in the same way as a regular guitar would be.

The Requintos are often used as part of a guitar ensemble or orchestra. It is part of the strings section.

In Mexico, the Requinto’s popularity is associated with Trío romántico bands, which are comprised of vocalists and guitarists who sing romantic songs to specific rhythms.

Occasionally these groups will have a maraca player, double bass player, or a Guitarron player.

A well-known example includes Los Tres Caballeros.

15. Salterio Mexicano

The Salterio Mexicano is similar to the hammered dulcimer. It is constructed out of wooden pieces to create a box that has a trapezoid shape. 

There are three types of Salterio, tenor, soprano, and Requinto. Depending on the design, there can be 90 strings in three sets (Salterio Requinto) or over 100 strings in three or four sets (Salterio Tenor).

The strings are stretched across the soundboard (top board) and are seated over five bridges.

To play, the Salterio strings are plucked with a plectrum (usually metal) attached to both index fingers. This instrument is based on the Spanish “psaltery.”

16. Tamborita Calentana

The Tamborita Calentana is another Mexican instrument that is part of the percussion family.

This drum has two heads and was initially made with Parota root wood, with animal skin stretched over the top to produce a membrane/drum skin. The skins were made to be tight, reminiscent of military drums.

When playing on a Tambortia, musicians use a pair of wooden sticks. One stick would be softened by covering it with animal skin; the other would be left as is.

These drums feature in tierracalenteña music and are often in the accompaniment of guitars and violins.

17. Trumpet

Although the Trumpet does not originate from Mexico, it has become synonymous with Mariachi bands, where there are one to two trumpeters playing the melody line.

The metal trumpet is thought to have originated in Egypt during 2000 BC as a ritual or military instrument.

Over the next few thousand years, the trumpet gained popularity and use (the Romans and Greeks, and eventually all over Europe during the medieval ages).

Finally, in 1815 the trumpet began to resemble its modern variation with the invention of the valves.

Trumpets are a member of the brass family of instruments. They are cylindrical, with a bell flare on one end and a mouthpiece on the other.

To play the trumpet, the musician blows through pursed lips into the mouthpiece. The fingers of one hand are used to press the valves to change the notes being played.

18. Vihuela Mexicano

The Vihuela Mexicano is another instrument distinctly associated with the Mariachi style of music in Mexico.

The Vihuela is a type of guitar, similar in design to the Guitarrón but nowhere nearly as large. It has the same sound produced as a tenor guitar.

Two distinctions from regular guitars include a convex back and a more diminutive soundbox (or body).

Another distinguishing factor is that the Vihuela only has five strings, which are an octave higher than a standard guitar.

When playing the Vihuela, the method is generally to strum the strings (called a mánico) with all the fingernails of one hand.

Depending on how the guitar has been set, it can either produce a mellow or punchy sound.

In the Mariachi band, this guitar does not take on a melodic purpose; instead, it accentuates the rhythm created by the Guitarrón.

19. Violin

Our final instrument is another well-known one of non-Mexican origin.

The violin has also been incorporated into Mariachi-type music in Mexico.

Originating in Italy from its ancestor, the medieval European fiddle during the 1500s, the violin is one of the classic examples of string instruments.

The violin continued to undergo tweaking until the 1800’s when it reached its modern-day resemblance.

The violin has a fretless neck connected to the body or soundboard. The bridge located on the body passes the vibrations, which the four strings generate, downwards to the soundboard.

When playing the violin, the performer holds the instrument between their chin and shoulder; a bow is then drawn across the strings while the other hand’s four fingers are used to press the strings onto the neck to produce different notes.

In Mariachi music, the violin has taken the role of the primary melodic instrument.

Summing up our List of Musical Instruments From Mexico

Mexico is full of diverse cultures and a rich history, which shows perfectly in the musical flavor of the country.

Taking inspiration from Europe, Africa, and the original inhabitants of Central America, Mexican traditional music encompasses elements of each of these places, from the style of the music to the instruments it is played on.

Mexican traditional music is also highly connected with dance and rituals, linking its people to one another and their heritage. 

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.