I grew up on Classic Rock, Metal and Pop music, but there is one genre of music I had no exposure to growing up that I adopted as one of my top favorites. Surprisingly (even to me), it is Mariachi. For one thing, I love horn sections in music. And mariachi uses the trumpet as well or better than any other style of music.
But the other thing that draws me to this style is the sounds of the Spanish gypsy and Phrygian scales.
I’ve often used the influences of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, Vincente Fernandez and Rodrigo y Gabriela to help me write rock music. I just think the sound of traditional Mexican music is so flexible. It can sound happy and make you want to dance, then it can turn around and be sad and introspective.
So needless to say, this article was a joy to write and I picked chord progressions from some of my favorite and most influential Mariachi songs.
1. i IV i IV VII IV VII IV
This Mariachi chord progression comes from a song called “Guadalajara.” I’ve noticed that Mariachi bands tend to play some of the same songs. The first time I heard this song it was performed by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, which happens to be my favorite group. So these chords are taken from this version.
One other thing to note is that not all these songs follow the traditional minor and major scales. This one follows the C Phrygian scale.
Chords from the song: C minor, F major, C minor, F major, A sharp major, F major, A sharp major, F major
2. I IV V I
This chord progression comes from the Mariachi song I’ve heard more than any other, “Cielito Lindo.” I think it’s like a rite of passage for every Mariachi group to have their own version of this song. It really is a genre defining song, and it’s not surprising that it uses the most common chords from all western music, the I, IV and V.
Two incredibly common themes in mariachi are a 3/4 time signature and the guitar strumming on the 2nd and 3rd beat of each measure. Every version of “Cielito Lindo” I’ve heard follows this pattern.
Chords from the song: D major, G major, A major, D major
3. I V I
This very simple and standard chord progression comes from “Jarabe Tapatio,” which is one of those songs that everyone knows, but nobody knows the name. It’s featured in a lot of cartoons from my childhood. The trumpets really carry this song, but you can hear the chord progression underneath the melody being played by the acoustic guitars.
Chords from the song: C major, G major, C major
4. i I7 iv VII7 III
This Mariachi chord progression is seen regularly in the genre. We will see two more instances of this progression with slightly different takes, but this one comes from “Mujeres Divinas” by legend Vincente Fernandez. This chord progression is a staple in the slower ballad-like Mariachi songs.
This particular progression is in the key of F minor.
Chords from the song: F minor, F dominant 7, A sharp minor, D sharp dominant 7, G sharp major
5. i I7 iv VII III VI V7
Here we see the second iteration of the root minor, root dominant 7 chord progression. This one comes from “La Maguena.” And it finishes off with a surprising (and key changing) E major with the dominant 7.
This iteration of the progression is in the key of A minor.
Chords from the song: A minor, A dominant 7, D minor, G major, C major, F major, E dominant 7
6. i I7 iv7 VII7 III VI7 ii7 V7
I found this chord progression so frequently that I wanted to include it even a third time. This one is from “Sombras” and it’s adds a ii minor 7th chord (in this case an A minor 7) just before resolving on the V7. I’ve played through this progression several times while writing this article and it really is a wonderful series of chords.
This time the progression is in the key of G minor.
Chords from the song: G minor, G dominant 7, C minor 7, F dominant 7, A sharp major, D sharp dominant 7, A minor 7, D dominant 7
7. IV V7 I
Another chord progression that you could find in dozens of genres, this one comes from “El Son De La Negra.” The Mariachi influence on this chord progression is the inclusion of the dominant 7 chord.
Chords from the song: C major, D dominant 7, G major
8. I vi ii V
Here’s another example of a chord progression that spans nearly all genres of music. This one comes from “Dime Como Quieres” by Christian Nodal and Angela Aguilar. The song is in 4/4 and follows almost a Reggae style rhythm with chords hitting harder on the 2nd and 4th beat of each measure.
Chords from the song: D major, B minor, E minor, A major
9. I V I III
This chord progression comes from “Tamacun” by Rodrigo y Gabriela. It may be a bit of a stretch to call this group Mariachi, but I just love their music and they clearly take a ton of influence from the Mariachi style. If you want to hear a more modern take on Mexican music, I strongly recommend listening to their self-titled album.
Chords from the song: C major, G major, C major, E major
10. I V I V
Here’s another chord progression from one of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan’s most popular songs, “El Mariachi Loco.” Yes, this progression is nearly identical to #3 on this list, but sometimes I think it’s valuable to note that songs with completely different sounds can use the same (or virtually the same) chord progression.
There are so many factors that affect how music sounds apart from the chords being used. There’s a change in tempo, there’s a change in the featured instrument (trumpet vs. violin), one features vocals and one is instrumental. There are so many ways to influence sound outside of the chords you use, and these two songs are a great example of that.
Chords from the song: G major, D major, G major, D major
Writing Mariachi Music
Of course chord progressions will only take you so far in writing music. In order to write within a particular style, you need to follow enough of the common themes to be in a certain category.
As I mentioned before, I don’t write Mariachi music. I write rock music. But Mariachi has actually been hugely influential in at least a dozen songs I’ve written. So while I’m not a Mariachi expert, I have listened to the genre extensively and here is what I think separates the genre from others.
Here are some of the common themes I hear:
- Trumpets – this instrument is more prominent than the guitar
- 3/4 time signature with strumming on the 2nd and 3rd beat of the measure
- 4/4 time signature with strumming on the 2nd and 4th beat of the measure
- Multiple vocalists singing in unison
- Other instruments I’ve regularly heard: violin, flute, acoustic guitar, string bass
- Most commonly you hear melody being played by some combination of trumpet/violin/vocals and rhythm being played by acoustic guitar and string bass
There is never one single way to write music, and I’ve found the joy of creating is taking the rules you see and breaking them in small and unexpected ways. It’s great to be aware of the trends in a genre to help root your music. However, you should always be looking for ways to add your personal flare into the music that inspires and influences you.