A Guide to Norteño and Sierreño Instruments

Norteño is a musical style originally from the north region of Mexico, as the name indicates (norteño means northern in Spanish). Its origins date back to the 1800s and is an example of a sum greater than its parts. Thanks to waves of migration from Mexico and immigration from Europe to border towns along the Rio Grande, musical styles like the corrido and the huapango fused with European rhythms like polka, waltz, and schottische to give birth to Norteño and Tejano music.

Today, Norteño is as diverse as rock 'n' roll, but at the heart of it are the instruments that give it its unique sound. A typical Norteño group consists of a core set of instruments like the accordion and bajo sexto (more on these below), but it may include an upright bass, snare drum, and sometimes saxophone or violin.

Norteño artist Remmy Valenzuela's "¿Por Qué Me Ilusionaste?"

Norteño didn't become a popular genre outside of the northern parts of Mexico until the 1950s. As groups began to record and perform for larger audiences, the style evolved as well. Artists today have turned Norteño into a popular urban style, though they're always sure to pay tribute to its roots in the countryside and as the music of the people.

In recent years, another variation of Norteño—Sierreño—has become a popular style among younger fans and musicians. Originally referred to as "campirano," Sierreño is a style of Norteño common to more rural regions of Mexico. It is performed with a group of instruments consisting of a 12-string playing "melodía" and a 6-string guitar or "armonía," accompanied by an instrument taking on bass duties, preferably a sousaphone.

Sierreño star Ariel Camacho's "El Karma"

With the growing interest in learning and performing Norteño and Sierreño, the way in which their traditional instruments are used and even manufactured has evolved. This evolution is a push and pull between tradition and practicality. To understand how present-day Norteño approaches its instruments, it is important to understand its origins.

Bajo Sextos and Bajo Quintos

Norteño groups each rely on guitar-like instruments called bajo quinto and bajo sexto. The guitar-shaped basses are composed of six or five courses of strings. But how these uniquely constructed instruments evolved into their present state is not entirely clear.

A custom-made Jesus Sevillano Bajo Quinto. Photo by Campos Music and Supplies.

The origins of the bajo sexto dates back to the 1800s. Both scholars and luthiers have suggested that a cross-pollination of Mexican and European influence gave way to these guitars. The influence of Spanish baroque guitar on Mexico made it so the "Guitarra Séptima" was developed using a similar design, intended for classical guitar. Another guitar using a similar string arrangement present in Mexico’s music history is the "Guitarra Huapanguera." Its influence is said to be clear not only in its design, but the regional proximity to the northern region where Norteño was developed.

Used in huapangos, or regional dance performances, the Guitarra Huapanguera travelled with migrants and was exposed to Northern Mexicans as well as European immigrants. The confluence of German and Czech immigrants settling in the Texas region with Mexican migrants would eventually lead to the fusion of musical styles and instrumentation that would give birth to the bajo sexto.

Both the bajo sexto and bajo quinto share the same tuning—standard E with the first two courses tuned half a step sharp—though the bajo quinto does not include a low E.

With the adoption of the electric bass, the bajo quinto has made the bajo sexto's lower register redundant. The bajo quinto has a thinner neck profile and is easier to string and adjust. Additionally, arrangements or "arreglos" for Norteño stay within the first three courses of strings, leaving the fourth and fifth strings relatively unused.

In the early days of Norteño, a bajo sexto player would take on part of the bass duties using the sixth and fifth course for bass accompaniment, allowing the accordion player to show off some of their fancy button work.

In order for a bajo quinto and sexto to be considered professional, they will most likely have to be handmade and customized. Sierreño, however, has great options to choose from in factory-made instruments.

A Candelas "BS 1 Special" Bajo Sexto. Photo by Hugo Cargnelutti.

Sierreño 12-String Guitars

As opposed to the bajo quinto, the 12-string guitar is a popular instrument across a wider range of genres. It was popular among blues musicians for its unique chorus effect and loud projection. Needless to say, it’s an important part of the history of folk and rock music.

Jesus Sevillano 12-string requinto Sierreño guitar. Photo by Campos Music and Supplies.

In Sierreño music, the 12-string guitar or requinto is preferred in part due to its higher range, allowing players to approximate the sound of a bajo sexto and play melodic arrangements in clusters of 16th notes, usually in the first two courses.

Because of this, players prefer guitars with a cutaway. To the disdain of many luthiers and manufacturers, players usually swap out the stock string sets, for all six courses to be matched string gauges—that is, instead of using a thinner gauge for pairs of strings tuned an octave apart, each set of two strings is the same.

This modification adds a lot more strain on the bridge and neck and usually requires the nut to be modified, the neck to be compensated, and the bridge to be reinforced with aftermarket products.

After the tragic death of Sierreño rising star Ariel Camacho, the popularity of the genre skyrocketed among young players. His love for pairing Takamine Pro Series 12-strings and 6-strings in his ensemble has made Takamine the brand of choice among Sierreño enthusiasts.

Due to Sierreño’s popularity being fairly recent, there’s only a handful of companies, even in Mexico, that have addressed this niche. As the Sierreño guitar evolves and the genre finds its place in the mainstream, it has yet to solidify into an instrument that can be mass produced.

Factory vs. Handmade

Behind Norteño and Sierreño’s signature sound is the craftsmanship of the luthiers who build quality instruments. However, these styles were not as prevalent in the rest of Mexico, and luthiers from states further south, like Michoacan, had to learn how to manufacture them. Their skill set, as formed by making Mariachi instruments like vihuelas and guitarrones, made it feasible to add bajo sextos to their production, especially with the increasing demand for them.

Present-day bajo sexto players, whether novice, professional, or somewhere in-between have a lot of options to choose from. But the quality, sound, and playability of a handmade bajo remains unmatched.


Bajo Sextos and Bajo Quintos

Norteño music is closely tied to live performance. Therefore, it is a common practice to learn to play on an inexpensive bajo sexto and pick up small gigs with the intention of upgrading down the line. Mass-produced bajos, usually manufactured in Asia, are attractive to players for their quality and playability as well as price. In the United States, companies like Oscar Schmidt, Hohner, and Paracho Elite offer affordable and quality bajo sextos and quintos, ranging from $250 to $600 USD.

For many, the journey does not end until they’ve obtained a handmade bajo sexto or quinto from a reputable luthier. Today, a player can choose from a wide range of options. Some prefer a traditional look, while others get very creative and infuse their instrument with their personality.

Structurally, a traditional-style bajo sexto features natural finish on a wider body and neck, with a single cutaway and rope binding, while the modern bajo sexto combines years of tradition with modern upgrades. A traditional body is designed to project sound in a room and for heavy strumming and arrangements. Modern bajo quintos tend to have a thinner body, a more comfortable neck profile and action, and a truss rod. Usually, modern bajos are designed with the idea of fitting them with a pickup.

In the case of Sierreño, the options are limitless, because the 12-string guitar is already a mass-produced instrument. The inadvertent endorsement of companies like Takamine by famous musicians have made it the Sierreño player’s guitar of choice, but brands like Oscar Schmidt, Fender, Breedlove, and Dean have also become go-to brands that offer great-sounding cutaway 12-strings guitars sturdy enough to withstand the modification to Sierreño.

The future of Sierreño guitars might not take the same trajectory as a bajo sexto, as the amount of custom-made Sierreño guitars are nowhere near as in-demand as custom-made bajos. Conversely, factory-made bajos still have a way to go to meet the quality and craftsmanship of a seasoned luthier, but we are at an exciting time for these instruments to be understood and enjoyed by more people around the world.

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