Bajo sexto and Bajo quinto
A bajo sexto with a cutaway body
String instrument
Classification String instrument plucked with plectrum
Hornbostel–Sachs classification
(Composite chordophone)
Related instruments
lute, bandurria, banjo, mandolin, balalaika, tiple

The Bajo sexto (Spanish: "sixth bass") is a Mexican string instrument from the guitar family with 12 strings in six double courses.

It's played in a similar manner to the guitar, with the left hand changing the pitch with the frets on a fingerboard while the right hand plucks or strums the strings with or without a pick. Its original design was meant to accompany accordion players and thus offer a plethora of possibilities with only two musicians. This dynamic is a staple in regional Mexican styles, even with groups consisting of multiple instruments. The introduction of bass players eventually led to many players no longer using the lowest pair of strings. For that reason, the bajo sexto predates its close relative, the bajo quinto (Spanish: "fifth bass"), which eliminated the lowest pair of strings and only has 10 (five double courses).

When played in older styles of music where the instrument assumes the role of a bass, the strings are usually plucked with the fingers. In modern chordal and melodic styles, a pick is frequently used.

Origins and use

The history of the bajo sexto is characterized by its enigmatic origins. While limited historical documentation exists regarding its creation, compelling evidence suggests European influence. In particular, in the mid-to-late 1800s, a German music store chain had branches throughout Mexico, including Oaxaca,[1] part of a substantial migration of Germans to southern Texas during the 1830s and 1840s.[2]

The musical style and instruments of these German immigrants were readily embraced by individuals of Mexican heritage. Among the instruments that gained widespread popularity, the accordion emerged as one of the most influential. It found extensive use in dance music genres such as waltzes and polkas. The affordability of accordions made them accessible to a wide range of musicians, enabling them to explore Western music theory and develop their own interpretations of songs, ideal for solo performances.

While orchestras were popular in the early 19th century, they were far from common. The combination of accordions with bajo sextos introduced a new level of versatility. This duo allowed two musicians to cover diverse styles and popular songs previously reserved for orchestras. The bajo sexto contributed robust bass elements, establishing a firm rhythm that permitted the accordion to venture into intricate melodic lines. This dynamic collaboration became a hallmark of Norteno music.

The addition of bass players provided bajo sexto players with opportunities to take turns leading melodic lines, enriching the texture of Mexican Norteño music. Many musicians relished the creative freedom afforded by bass players so much, they commissioned custom 10-string models, now recognized as the bajo quinto, which omitted the two lowest strings. This evolution underscores the adaptability and innovation within the realm of Mexican Norteño music. 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.[3]

The exact history of the bajo sexto is somewhat unclear. There are few written sources, and until very recently, most music dictionaries and encyclopedias did not mention the instrument. A few contemporary researchers have been working from oral sources—living players and luthiers—to trace the background of the instrument.[4] They descend from the Spanish bandurrias and lutes that used double strings and were also tuned in fifths, perhaps to complete the harmonies in ensembles that required an instrument capable of giving the low notes of the harmonization of a melody. .[5]

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Mexican artisans built several types of instruments with double strings in three, four, five, six, seven and eight courses, influenced by their Spanish ancestors. Descendants of these instruments are bandolón, guitarra séptima, quinta huapanguera, jarana jarocha, concheras, and guitarra chamula, among others.[5]

The manufacture of bajo quinto and sexto reached a peak in quality and popularity in the 19th century in central and southern Mexico, in the states of Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Tlaxcala.[6]

Near the end of the 19th century the bajo sexto began to migrate northwards, where it became a popular instrument for weddings and dances such as the bailes de regalos (popular between 1870 and 1930). In these settings, it was usually played along with a set of small tom-tom drums.[7]

The 1930s saw the rise of conjunto music and the instruments of choice for this developing style were accordion and bajo sexto.[8] At this time the bajo sexto functioned primarily as a bass instrument, providing a strong rhythmic foundation supporting the solo accordion. In the late 1940s, string bass (and later, electric bass) was added to the instruments, and in the 1950s, drums, completing the modern conjunto ensemble. The inclusion of bass and drums freed the bajo sexto from exclusively rhythmic bass duties, and bajo players began experimenting with chords, counter rhythms, and melodic lines.[7]

As the popularity of conjunto spread northward, the bajo sexto went with it, and the instrument was taken up by musicians in Northern Mexico and Texas to play other forms of music: norteño music of Northern Mexico and across the border in the music of South Texas known as "Tejano" (or Tex-Mex), "conjunto", or "música mexicana-tejana".

Construction and tuning

The fretboard and 10 strings of a bajo quinto

The bajo sexto is a member of the guitar family, and physically looks like a cross between a 12-string guitar and a cello because of its size. However, there are important differences: The body is usually a bit deeper; the neck is shorter, joining the body at the 12th fret (modern 12-string guitars usually join at the 14th fret); and (being a bass instrument) the strings are thicker. Older instruments tended to have a larger body; modern instruments are more guitar-like, and the body is typically not more than an inch or so deeper than the guitar. Modern instruments frequently have a cutaway in the upper bout of the body adjacent to the neck, allowing easier access to higher playing positions on the neck, for the left hand.[7]

Since the instrument is tuned an octave below the guitar, the body on some instruments is not large enough for the lowest E to resonate well, and many players remove the sixth course, playing on only 10 strings (five courses). Luthiers eventually picked up on this practice and began leaving off the low E course during construction, producing instruments with only five courses — bajo quintos.[9][better source needed]

Bajo sextos are traditionally tuned in fourths, what a guitarist would call all fourths tuning. The lower three courses are doubled at the higher octave (similar to the lower four courses on a 12-string guitar), and the upper three courses are doubled at the unison:

E1-E2    A1-A2    D2-D3    G2-G2    C3-C3    F3-F3    (from lowest to highest course)

The bajo quinto derives from the bajo sexto. Bajo quintos eliminate the low E course and are tuned as follows:

A2-A1    D3-D2    G2-G2    C3-C3    F3-F3    (from lowest to highest course, notwithstanding the first two pairs listed here as "highest to lowest".)[9]

Customization

In the world of bajo music, the journey for aspiring musicians traditionally starts with a gift of their first stringed instrument from an experienced player. As they age and become seasoned players, it is customary for them to seek out a skilled luthier and commission instruments tailored to their unique playing styles and preferences. The evolution of the bajo quinto, for instance, was a direct result of such customizations. Many players sought instruments that omitted the lowest pair of strings, a modification made feasible by the introduction of bass players, granting them newfound freedom to explore melodious heights. This tradition of instrument customization finds its roots deep within the Mexican music tradition, underscoring the paramount value placed on personalized craftsmanship.

To attain the coveted status of a professional-grade bajo quinto or sexto, an instrument had to be meticulously handcrafted and customized.[10] While each customization bore the stamp of individual preferences, several recurring elements emerged as emblematic of this artisanal craft:

Requinto-style setups for 12-string

Requinto-style setups for 12-string, also known as Mexican 12-String guitars, represent a distinctive and innovative approach to instrument customization, deeply inspired by the rich traditions of the bajo sexto and quinto in Mexican music. The scarcity of dedicated luthiers specializing in bajo sexto and quinto instruments spurred the creation of the requinto-style 12-string guitar—a testament to musicians' ingenuity.

In contrast to traditional 12-string counterparts, characterized by a configuration of six pairs of strings, most tuned an octave apart, requinto-style setups feature two sets of six strings. This configuration yields a resonant timbre reminiscent of the venerable bajo sexto.

Popular guitar manufacturers of 12-strings, including Takamine, Fender, Martin, and Ibanez, have emerged as favored canvases for crafting requinto-style instruments. The most popular option by far is Takamine, with its Takamine Signature artist model for John Jorgenson, commonly referred to as "el JJ" by players, being so sought after it's often sold out. In an interview with Takamine, Jorgenson learned the factory in Japan "couldn't build them fast enough". An iconic Regional Mexican style guitarist named Ariel Camacho used his signature 12-string with a requinto style set-up before he died young and many players favor his model in particular. [11]

It's worth noting that the traditional bajo sexto, engineered to endure high tension, differs markedly from the smaller and more modest physique of modern 12-string guitars, potentially ill-suited to such demands. To mitigate this excess tension, musicians employ various strategies, including:

Remaining true to tradition, customization remains a defining characteristic of these 12-string setups. Contemporary customizations encompass wrapping the guitar in a fashion reminiscent of automobile aesthetics, altering pickguards, fitting specialized soundhole pick-ups, and adorning the instrument with artistic embellishments—a vibrant reflection of musicians' creative ingenuity in lieu of finding a luthier in a now rare specialty.

Notable players

José Guadalupe Guzmán playing the bajo sexto
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References

  1. ^ Arcos, Betto (28 June 2012). "The Bajo Quinto: The Instrument That Will Not Go Gently". NPR. Retrieved 28 September 2023.
  2. ^ Gerald, Erichsen (15 January 2020). "Does Mexican Music Have German Roots?". liveabout. Retrieved 28 September 2023.
  3. ^ Dodero, Pablo (29 April 2020). "Matched-Course 12-Strings and Other Norteño and Sierreño Instruments". Reverb. Retrieved 28 September 2023.
  4. ^ Avetardo, J. T., ed.; Puro Conjunto: An Album in words and Pictures; Center for Mexican American Studies, The University of Texas; Austin, Texas: 2001. 470p. ISBN 0-292-78174-1
  5. ^ a b Arcos, Betto (June 28, 2012). "The Bajo Quinto: The Instrument That Will Not Go Gently". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2020-06-24.
  6. ^ Bajos de espiga. Diccionario de la Música Española e Hispanoamericana. Sociedad General de Autores y Editores. Madrid (2002). ISBN 978-84-8048-303-2
  7. ^ a b c Hernandez, Ramon; An Informal History of the Bajo Sexto; in Aventardo, Ch. 12, pp. 127–130.
  8. ^ "Texas-Mexican Conjunto". Smithsonianeducation.org. Retrieved 21 April 2021.
  9. ^ a b "Bajo sexto/quinto". Resonance Uprising. Archived from the original on 2016-04-23. Retrieved 2020-06-24.
  10. ^ "Takamine 12-String Setup - Requinto-Style". esptakamine. Retrieved 28 September 2023.
  11. ^ Jorgenson, John. "ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: JOHN JORGENSON". Takamine. Retrieved 28 September 2023.