There is one instrument that is hardly used in the mariachi ensemble but many people recognize it when they see it. That instrument is the Harp. But did you know that the Jalisco Harp was the original bass instrument in the mariachi ensemble? The Jalisco Harp was the instrument preferred by the mariachi musicians in southern Jalisco and Michoacán. The Guitarrón eventually replaced the harp because it might have been easier to carry from place to place, or just easier to play. In addition, there were violins to play the melodic lines that the harp once played.
When playing the harp, the left hand plays the bass line and the right hand plays the melodic line. Together, the harpist could play the bass line and the melodic line without any other melodic instrument accompaniment. The Guitarra de Golpe was used to accompany the harp and function as the rhythmic pulse. The harp is a large instrument and played while the harpist is standing. The Jalisco Harp today could have up to 36 strings, monofilament nylon and nylon wound or wrapped bass strings. If you look closely at the length of the strings, the shorter length strings have a higher (tenor, soprano) pitch and the longer length strings have a lower (bass) pitch. Tuning the harp can be challenging. A metal tuning key is used to alter the tuning of the harp strings from one key signature to another. When tuned, the harp could have a range of 4 to 5 octaves.
Did you know the original strings for the harp were made of gut?
The role of the Harp in today's mariachi ensemble is to play the bass line along with the Guitarrón. It can also provide a melody line but generally not as frequently as it was once played in years past. The harpist can also play chords and arpeggios as per the specified musical arrangement.
Though the Jalisco Harp style with a Tacote top is commonly used in the mariachi ensemble, the Veracruzana Harp style with a cedar top is also used.
Here's a great idea ... Maybe YOU can learn to play the harp and resurrect it back into the modern day school mariachi ensemble!