The harp was introduced into the Spanish colonies of North, Central and South America by the Spaniards. Three different styles were introduced over the centuries from the conquest through the 19th century, reflecting the evolution of the harp in Spain and Europe. These harps varied not only in size but also in the shape and placement of sound holes, and how the feet are integrated into the harp.

First to come over was a small, slender model with approximately 22-29 strings, in the XVI, XVII and XVIII centuries. Harps of this style can be seen European paintings of that era. These harps are characterized by such details as the slender body, shape and placement of the sound holes on the top and twin animals on the neck of the harp. Feet were merely an extension of the base of the harp. Harps of this style found there way into certain indigenous cultures and areas and may still played today in areas such as Sonora and remote indigenous communities.  

A larger model was introduced in the XVII and XVIII centuries, and had a body of much larger proportions.  These harps had 36 or possibly even more strings, and again had sound holes on the soundboard, while the feet were often dowels attached to the base of the harp. These harps replaced the smaller harps in most cities, and form the basis of most of the harps currently found in Latin America. 


In the 19th century yet another model was introduced, in which the sound holes were moved to the back of the body, or sometime to the base, and the harps were designed such that, unlike the previous two styles, they could stand up, resting on the base. It resembles a modern pedal harp, but in miniature and without the pedals.   This style is found in Zacatecas and surrounding areas, and is not as widely distributed as the previous styles, perhaps owing to its later introduction.

Given the variety of harps introduced over five centuries and over such a large geographical area,  many different and distinct harps are now found throughout North, Central and South America.

Here is a link to a web site on current reproductions of traditional Spanish harps in Spain. Lots on interesting information and photographs. In Spanish: http://www.vanaga.com/arpandes/


Mexico as a country has more variations on the harp than any other country. There exist many distinct forms and traditions with the various indigenous and mestizo cultures. Some of the more common ones are Veracruz, Michoacán, Jalisco and Chiapas: In addition, many other styles of harps and playing exist, including (but not limited to) the traditions of, Sonora, Zacatecas, and Chihuahua. More information can be found in "ATLAS CULTURAL de MEXICO - MUSICA" written by Juan Guillermo Contreras Arias and published by INAH in Mexico City.


The Jalisco harp as we know it today has remained essentially unchanged for at least two centuries.  It is a large harp, with the feet formed from the same piece of wood that is the base of the sound box, typically with four staggered sound holes in the top.  While 36 is the “normal” number of strings it is possible for it to have fewer or even more than that number.  Its top is made of a local soft wood known as tacote or rabelero, and the sides of the box are typically cedar, though other woods can be incorporated.  The neck and pillar are of either ash, cedar or mahogany. The shape of the neck is relatively flat, when compared to most other harps.  Originally the strings were made of gut, with the bass strings also being unwound. Starting in the 1950's, the gut strings were gradually replaced by nylon, with the bass strings being nylon wrapped on either a solid nylon core, or sometimes on nylon fibres. It is often played standing up.  When played in a mariachi, one of its main functions is to play the bass line, and the harp is, in fact, much older than the guitarrón, an instrument that developed and evolved in the late 19th and early 20 centuries.  With the appearance of the guitarrón, two distinct ensembles were possible, that of the harp and guitarra de golpe along with violins, and that consisting of guitarrón, vihuela and violins.

The 20th century saw the merging of these two instrumentations and the addition of the trumpet to the ensemble, and a gradual increase from a size of 4 musicians to as many as 12 or more.  In the larger mariachis of the 1950’s forward, the harp’s roles were duplicated by other instruments, notably the guitarrón, and a decline in the use of harps started.  By the 1980s, few groups were using harps.  Fortunately, the 1990’s saw a resurgence of interest in the harp, and now many mariachis are once again incorporating harp as a part of the ensemble.

Parallel to the tradition of playing harp in a mariachi, there has existed a tradition of playing solo harp, notably in southern Jalisco in and around Zapotiltic, Ciudad Guzmán (Zapotlán el Grande), Concepción de Buenos Aires, and their neighboring cities, but also in many other towns such as Mezquitic and La Huerta.  Perhaps the most famous of these solo harpers was José Mendoza of Zapotíltic who himself played briefly with Mariachi Vargas around 1934 and whose son Arturo Mendoza played with Mariachi Vargas from 1945 until 1995.  José was most at home as a soloist on the harp, playing at countless events in his home area, but never dedicated himself exclusively to music. Other solo harpists of note include Jesús Reyes of Zapotíltic, Abundio Morales of Concepción de Buenos Aires, Jalisco and Benito Martínez Santillán.

Part of one of several murals at the Central Cultural La Moreña in La Barca, Jalisco, painted by Gerardo Suárez (1834-1870?). Photograph by María Guadalupe Rivera.


The harp tradition of Tierra Caliente in Michoacán is a half-brother to that of Jalisco, its neighboring state. The harp is very similar to that of Jalisco, and in fact there exist more variations on the harp within the two traditions than between them. I think of them as being the same harp, though there is a tendency in Michoacán within the last 50-75 years to make the box out of a single sheet of door-skin plywood, much like many Veracruz harps. This construction technique is rarely found on harps made in Jalisco. The top is always tacote, as it is in Jalisco, and has the four staggered sound holes. The base and feet are made from the same piece of wood.

Unlike Jalisco, where the tradition of harp playing has diminished over the last 100 years, the harp tradition in and around Apatzingán, Nueva Italia, Coalcomán and Tierra Caliente in general is alive and well. The harp is an essential part of the regional sones, and there is a harp festival every October 22nd, in Apatzingán. The playing style is essentially the same as that of Jalisco, with the left hand playing octave bass lines, and the right hand playing chordal melodies. Many of the sones are unique to Michoacán, but there exists a body of sones common to both Tierra Caliente and the mariachi of Jalisco. Sones and songs are passed freely between both traditions. Recordings are readily available of harp groups from Michoacán, the most famous being the group "Alma de Apatzingán" in its various incarnations.


The Veracruz or jarocho harp is different form the Jalisco/Michoacán harp in several ways. Traditionally, the top is either spruce, or sometimes plywood (as opposed to tacote), and it has no sound holes on it: Rather the holes are in the center of the back. The box can be staved as is a jalisciense, but nowadays is most often made of door-skin plywood bent into a single piece round back. In times past, the back was sometimes carved out of a log, yielding a one piece back. This yields a harp very heavy for its size, and they tended to be smaller. These are rarely seen today. The feet are doweled and bolted onto the bottom of the harp, in contrast to the integral feet of the jalisciense. The neck has a more pronounced curve, the tuning pegs are of metal, and bridge pins are used. The playing style is even more distinct. In the traditional sones from Veracruz, the right hand plays fast arpeggiated figures with much variation and improvisation. Likewise the lyrics are often improvised to tease members of the audience. The music is often at a brisk tempo, though there are some slower sones, such as La Bruja. Typical sones veracruzanos include La Bamba, El Tilingo Lingo, María Chuchena, El Balajú, and countless others. There are two styles of playing in Veracruz: The "puerto" style, which is brisk and what is most commonly found on records, and a "fandango" style which is less commercial, slower paced, and less formalized. The fandango style is rarely encountered on records, but can be found in Veracruz once you get of the beaten path. It is a more social, less commercial form of the music.



The harp in Chiapas is found within the Mayan communities and has become integral with the society. It is smaller than both the Veracruz and Jalisco/Michoacán harps, and often has metal strings in the treble. It is not commercially recorded, but can be heard on some collections of field recordings done in Chiapas. It is very similar to the harps of Belize and Guatemala, and may in fact be considered the same harp, in that it is found within the Mayan communities common to these areas.

Traditional musicians from Sacamch'en de los Pobres, Chipas. Used by permission from the following web site (the web site has more photographs): http://schoolsforchiapas.org/Pictures_and_Sounds/music/



Here are links to recordings of the harp in Belize.




Little is published on the harp in Guatemala, and I know of no commercial recordings. It seems to exist only in the Mayan communities outside of the cities, in the mountainous region bordering on Chiapas, México.







Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, noted Paraguayan harpist, playing Venezuelan harp (from the album "Clásicas de la canción llanera)

Colombia and Venezuela share a harping tradition, commonly called arpa llanera, for the llanos (planes) that are found in both countries. This tradition has yielded many great harp classics, including "Alma llanera" and "Moline do Café". The arpa llanera is one of the largest in Latin America, with a tall, moderately wide box, typically with three sound holes in the front. The string spacing is relatively wide, when compared with other latin american harps, and the tuning pegs are threaded bolts, with twin nuts used to adjust the tension, as opposed to being tapered as on most harps.

Here is a link to a web site in Spanish on historical harps in Venezuela: Historical Venezuelan harps


The tradition of harping in Colombia is shared with Venezuela, so the section above on Venezuela applies.

Here is a link to a web site in Spanish on historical harps in Colombia: Historical Colombian harps



Professor John Schechter of UCSC with Ecuadorian harp.

The harp in Ecuador has a history going back several centuries, one of the primary sources of introduction being the Jesuit priests that encouraged music and instructed the neophytes on the execution several instruments, specifically harp. There exist several variations, notably a larger diatonic harp, and also a smaller harp with a pentatonic or hexatonic tuning in the treble, and "chordal" tuning in the bass. Metal strings are common in the treble, and gut in the bass. The box is very wide and deep, and relatively short. It is most often played seated. The physical appearance is similar to its neighbor, the Peruvian harp, but the Peruvian harps tend to have pairs of holes on the soundboard, and the Ecuadorian harp has staggered holes, as do the Colombian/Venezuelan and Jalisco/Michoacán harps. For a detailed explanation and history see "The indispensable Harp - Historical Development, Modern Roles, Configurations and Performance Practices in Ecuador and Latin America" by Dr. John M. Schechter, 1992, Kent State University Press.




The harp in Chile

Charlotte's Web


The harp in Peru is best explained by the following links. How's your spanish?


Here is a link to a web site in Spanish on historical harps in Peru. Some very interesting photographs here: Historical Peruvian harps



©2005 William Faulkner - Jalisco Harpist. All Rights Reserved