FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How is a Jalisco harp tuned?
The normal 36 string Jalisco harp is tuned diatonically from G3 (2 and 1/2 octaves below middle “C”) to g’ (2 and 1/2 octaves above middle C). It can be tuned to any scale, to allow the harpist to play in any key, but it is commonly tuned to a G scale. Arturo Mendoza usually had his harp tuned to G. Some harpers tune to a C scale (the low string is still G, you just adjust the sharps and flats accordingly). Because of the time and difficultly involved in changing keys in performance situations, it is sometime necessary to play a song in one key, say “F”, while tuned in another key, say “A”. This is a separate issue.
What woods are used in a Jalisco harp?
The most common woods used are cedar for the sound box, tacote for the sound board and either ash, mahogany or cedar for the neck and column. The tuning pegs are made of grenadillo or other hard woods, though lately some harps have pegs of aluminum in the traditional shape, or even steel or brass tuning pins as used on classic and celtic harps.
What are the strings made of?
Traditionally the strings were made of gut, including the bass strings. Nowadays nylon is almost universally used, with plain nylon strings used in the upper registers, and nylon wrapped on nylon core or fibre core for the bottom 16 or so strings.
Where can I obtain a Jalisco harp?
The most famous maker of Jalisco harps is Roberto Morales of Guadalajara. He has a well deserved reputation for excellent arpas, guitarrones and vihuelas and usually has a backlog of six months or longer. His son Rubén Morales also makes instruments in the family tradition and is more economical on the price. Rubén’s son, Rubén Jr., is also making instruments. There are many other makers of harps, notably in Cuidad Guzmán and other towns in southern Jalisco, as well as numerous makers in Michoacán. In the United States, Jalisco style harps are being made by Brian Steeger of San Juan Bautista, California and by Sandpiper harps in Seattle, Washington.
Where can I get strings for my harp?
In Mexico City, harp strings can be obtained from Julian Badillo, (phone number 55-58-37-29-87) and in the United States strings can be obtained from Guadalupe Custom Strings in Los Angeles, and Robinson’s Harp Shop in Mount Laguna, amongst others.
What do you do about accidentals?
This is a problem spot for all diatonic harps. There are several solutions:
If the accidental is in the melody, i.e. right hand, 1) Tune an individual string to the accidental, commonly in the highest octave, and play the problem phrase in the high octave while playing the rest of the song in the low register. 2) “fret” the string with the thumbnail of the left hand by pressing on it just below the tuning peg. This will only work on a Jalisco harp where the strings come straight off the tuning peg with no bridge pins. The necks are designed to allow for this. 3) Play a note a third above or below the accidental. 4) If the note is not on a down beat and is short in duration, be expressive: Play the note before a little longer than its normal value, and then quickly play the “unaltered” form of the note that should be sharpened or flat, and pass very quickly to the next note. 5) Avoid the tune.
If the accidental is in the bass, you may either 1) fret it with the thumb of the right hand (leaving the melody out - this works best in a mariachi when some one else is playing the melody and is not very effective in solo work.) 2) play the natural form of the note and hope nobody notices. 3) Play a third up or down from the note. 4) If you are playing with a Guitarrón player, play “air harp” for that one note. 5) If you simply must play the note AND keep the melody going, it is sometimes possible to fret the bass note with the left hand thumb, and sound the string with the left hand index finger.
See also the section on levers on a Jalisco harp.
What do you do about playing in different keys?
Ideally you re-tune to the key you are playing in. This is not always practical, particularly when playing with a mariachi, unless you have a harp equipped with levers. Traditionally the Jalisco harp does not have levers, but they are becoming common, making it easier to change keys. Assuming your harp does not have levers, what should you do if you cannot re-tune to the key, or if the song has passages in different keys? Sometime it is possible to re-tune only selected octaves in a given key. To play a song in G with a section in D, you might tune the highest C to C#, and play the sections in G low, while playing the sections in D high, and avoiding C# in the bass. In other cases, when playing in a mariachi, you may have to play in one key while tuned to another musically remote key, and have to simply play only the bass line, using your right hand to adjust the sharps and/or flats as needed. (Note that flats are always played as a sharp, i.e. "B flat" is played by fretting the "A" string, raising it a semitone to "A sharp". In Mariachi Mixtlán, I laid out or formal concert programs based on key (or at least harp tuning) to minimize retuning and make the transitions smooth and unobtrusive. We might start with pieces in A, then move to D, on to G, pass through C and end up the concert in F. This is rarely practical except if you are the leader and it is a prearranged presentation. When playing ‘al talon” or in a restaurant, you will not have this luxury: Give serious thought to investing in levers.
What about levers on a Jalisco harp ?
While the use of levers is not traditional on a Jalisco harp, for playing with a modern mariachi, they are very practical. For playing solo, I prefer a harp without levers, but once you use a lever harp with a mariachi, you'll never want to go back. I am aware of five brands of levers on the market, with more sure to come: Salvi levers, sold by Lyon and Healy harps; Performance levers by Lyon and Healy; Truitt levers sold by Betty Truitt of dragon whispers harps in Mt. Laguna, California; Loveland levers sold by Bob Bunker in Bertoud, Colorado; and Camac levers by Camac harps in France. I have tried the first four, and have not yet had a chance to try the Camac, which look to be promising. Of the first four mentioned, only Salvi works acceptably in the bass on a Jalisco harp. The other three, for various reasons, do not work satisfactorily in the lowest octave. There is insufficient clearance for the thick, loose, bass strings, and they rattle on the levers. On my harp, I mix brands of levers, using Salvi tn the bottom octave, and either Loveland or Truit's for the rest. Rubencito Morales uses Salvis on all strings with good results, and Sandpiper harps uses Loveland levers on all strings successfully, by making special strings for the lowest octave. The Lyon and Healy performance levers are very high quality, but do not work well on a Jalisciense because the strings are too close together for them, causing the strings to rattle on the next highest lever. I am awaiting a set of Camac levers to check them out.
Adding levers to an old harp means changing the neck completely. It is impossible, or at least impractical, to modify an existing traditional Jalisciense neck to accept levers. It is easier to build a new neck. In almost all cases it means sending your harp to someone who knows how to do it, and is willing to do so. It is no easy undertaking. There are at least two approaches: Rubencito Morales builds a split level traditional shape neck, with a "shelf" added to accommodate the levers. These can usually be fitted into the existing head slot with little or no modification to the slot. The pole will have to be shortened, or a new, shorter pole made. To make the neck, it is essential to know the brand of levers that will be fitted, as each brand has a different clearance, and requires a shelf of a different height. An alternative is a split "paraguayan style" neck, with the right half extended down to form the apron or shelf for the levers. Brian Steeger of San Juan Bautista prefers this approach. It is structurally very sound, but changes the appearance significantly.
Rubencito Morales makes Jalisco harps in the family tradition, with a special neck for levers, and uses Salvi levers. He also makes harps without levers. Sandpiper harps of Seattle, Washington markets a Jalisco harp, designed by Checo Alonso, with a Paraguayan style neck, with Loveland levers on all strings. I found the Sandpiper harp very comfortable to play, with good string spacing (very much like my Morales), and a balanced, but comparatively quiet sound. It is the only harp with a built in pickup.
Who is playing Jalisco harp these days?
Most large mariachis these days have a harpist, and most, but not all, play on a Jalisco harp. Julio Martínez and Enrique Mendoza are currently playing with Mariachi Vargas, Marco Antonio Valadez with Mariachi América de Jesús Rodríguez de Hijar, Baltazar Juarez with Mariachi Perla Tapatía de Juan Pinzón, Marcos López with Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán, Arturo Gerst with Mariachi Sol de México, and Checo Alonso with Mariachi Los Camperos, amongst others. Soloists include Arturo Gerst of Los Angeles, Santiago Maldonado also of Los Angeles, Jesús Reyes of Guadalajara, and myself, as well as countless others in Mexico. See also the Rogues Gallery on this web site for more harpists, present and past. Not included in the Rogues Gallery, but of equal importance, are the hundreds of local harpists throughout Jalisco and Michoacán who maintain the tradition in a less visible but perhaps more vital way.
How can I learn to play Jalisco harp?
The best way is to arrange for lessons from a harpist you admire, though this is not always possible or practical. Many mariachi festivals these days are including harp workshops, but not all are on traditional Jalisco style. Many are teaching Veracruz or Paraguayan pieces within the context of mariachi, and unfortunately ignoring the tradition, thus modifying (consciously or unconsciously) the perceived role of the harp in a mariachi. Enter into any workshop with your eyes and ears open. You may also check out the free online lessons on this web site.
Do I need a Jalisco harp to play Jalisco style?
If you play in a mariachi, you might get by with a Veracruz harp or a Paraguayan harp, but it will look inappropriate and sound different. The notes can be played on almost any harp, but the musical accent will be different, particularly on Celtic and pedal harps. They will sound best on a Jalisco harp, but in all cases the most important factor is the harpist and not the harp.
How is a Jalisco harp different from other latin harps?
Each harp in latin America has its own shape and voice. The Jalisco harp is one of the largest, and is designed to be played standing up. It is designed to have a very strident bass. A good Jalisco harp has the loudest bass of all the Latin American harps. The box is traditionally wide (16”-20”) and deep, though some modern players are using smaller harps for traveling purposes and convenience. The woods used help shape its voice, and tacote is an essential part of the sound. It is base traditionally extends down to form the feet, and the top has four staggered sound holes. The neck has a very shallow arch, and the strings are relatively low tension. See the pictures in the History section for further illustration of some of the differences.
Is A Jalisco harp different from a Michoacán harp?
Not really. The Jalisco and Michoacán harps are essentially the same instrument, being as much variation within Jalisco harps as there is between those from Jalisco and Michoacán. In times past, there was no difference, but with the appearance of thin plywood, there is now a tendency to make Michoacán harps with a round back made form a single piece of thin plywood while most Jalisco harps are still made with a five or seven piece staved back. More importantly, the playing technique and musical roles are the same between Jalisco and Michoacán, as opposed to say, the Veracruz style, and not withstanding the current trend of playing Veracruz and Paraguayan music with a mariachi.
Who would you recommend listening to?
For mariachi style, listen to recordings of Mariachi Vargas, though the harp's role is often hidden in the mix. Arturo Mendoza can also be heard on recordings with David Zaizar and Cuco Sánchez. There are some recordings of Mariachi Miguel Díaz, notably “Voy de Gallo” with an exciting but perhaps atypical harp back-up. The famous jarocho harpist Andrés Huesca is a valuable source for ranchera style playing, which is universal in México. His right hand technique for rancheras is both a source of inspiration and technique. If you can find them, solo recordings of José Mendoza are true gems. He. along with Jesús Reyes can be heard on the INAH recordings of “Sones del Sur de Jalisco, vol. 1 & 2."
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