The güiro is one of several unique Latin American percussion instruments. It’s primarily associated with Puerto Rican or Cuban folk and popular dance music such as salsa, son, and trova, and used in rhythm percussion accompaniment. Similar versions of it can also be found in Panama and the Dominican Republic.
It belongs to a class of scraped idiophones. Scraping this instrument’s body with a scraper or a stick, called a pua, causes its resonant material to vibrate and produce its distinct sound.
Traditionally, it’s made from a long, dried, and hollowed-out gourd from a higüero tree. It’s open on one end and has rows of notches or ridges carved on its sides.
Güiros are often played by singers or as part of a percussion ensemble. Depending on the design, a performer holds the instrument with one hand by inserting one finger and the thumb into two holes. Or it could rest on one’s palm.
Several güiros have elongated handles on one end that are the stems retained from the gourd. The other hand holds a scraper, and stroking the ridges with it in an up-and-down motion produces that popular dry and rhythmic rasping sound.
The güiro’s Origins, History, & Evolution
Research findings on the güiro’s origins have not been definitive. There’s some speculation that it came from Africa and brought to the Caribbean by the various peoples of African descent.
Its close similarity to the Afro-Brazilian reco-reco seems to support this theory. It’s a widespread instrument found in Africa below the Sahara and has different names.
It has been used in Cuban and Puerto Rican folk and dance music for hundreds of years dating back to pre-Columbian times before it became a familiar staple in other Latin musical genres.
In Puerto Rico, the güiro can be heard in reggae, plena, and bomba, besides salsa. In Cuba, the güiro rhythm is highly recognizable in the cha-cha.
Scraped idiophones can be found in many places around the world. However, many western musicians find that the güiro sound typifies the many forms of dance music from Latin America that they admire.
As Latin music continued to grow popular worldwide, so did its different percussion instruments such as the maracas and güiro. They’ve influenced many percussionists from different backgrounds and helped define their tastes.
That’s why today, it’s not surprising to see a güiro in a non-Latino’s percussionist kit. Some have even found their way in drum sets. The ridged areas could have a striped or crisscrossed diamond pattern that is either notched or raised. Some versions of it are filled, and others are shaken rather than scraped with a pua.
While the sound a gourd makes is the most desired, the material isn’t very durable and is quite fragile. Today, modern güiros are made with fiberglass that has molded ridges, have uniform shapes, and consistent output.
There are some made of wood and even metal, although the original gourd güiro remains quite popular.
Type of güiros
Güiros come in many shapes and sizes, and they continue to evolve. No two gourds from a tree are precisely the same, which is why every traditional güiro is unique. While they follow the same general design, their dimensions can vary greatly and fall anywhere between 9inches to as long as 16 inches.
Because of this variety, you can imagine how each has a sound of its own. Traditional güiros are also painted in bright colors. Modern güiros, like any factory product, have more uniform dimensions, which allows them to produce an identical sound.
Manufacturers also use more durable materials, and the best ones that closely mimic gourd güiros are made from fiberglass and wood. Some companies have an extensive line with different models that have different designs. Still, the gourd güiros remain the most popular with Latin musical artists who are after that authentic rasping sound.
The modern ones, particularly those made of plastics like fiberglass, have become the choice of western percussionists who’ve added the unique musical instrument to their kits. The design of other metal idiophones has been fused with güiros to produce a type of hybrid. They are heard more in dance compositions because of their sharp sound.
Other manufacturers based their design on traditional methods, but have radically altered shapes and are squarish and blocky instead of cylindrical. The list of these types of güiros keeps growing and changing. Yet they all follow the general concept of the traditional instrument and are played in the same way.
The scrapers used have also undergone some radical redesigns. The traditional beater or stick is still the most commonly used, especially within Latin music circles. However, the wooden block that has metal tines, and resembles a comb or brush is gaining popularity.
Although they’re used almost exclusively with güiros made out of metal, some have tried them on other types, including gourd ones. They produce a sound that is different and higher pitched than traditional scrapers.
Other Latin countries also have scraped idiophones similar to Puerto Rico’s güiro and Cuba’s guayo, which remains the most popular. For instance, Brasil has its reco-reco as mentioned before, the Dominican Republic has the güira, and Colombia has the guacharaca.
Playing Techniques & Sound Production
At first glance, a güiro would seem like a straightforward instrument to operate. However, just as with other percussion instruments, it takes precise action and excellent timing to produce the constant, but more importantly, consistent, rhythmic sound.
One must also possess knowledge of the vast and intricate rhythms and timings found in each genre to come up with the right groove. Many Latin music genres have distinct beats that a performer must follow to achieve authentic rhythmic patterns.
Typically, the player makes a forward and back brushing motion, or go on a single direction repeatedly, either backward or forward. Sometimes a circular motion is applied or a combination of different strokes.
Once in a while, they can tap rhythmically on the güiro. It all depends on the rhythm and tempo being applied as well as the performer’s creativity.
Even if the güiro is an unpitched instrument, finesse is still required when controlling the output’s loudness. Naturally, lighter strokes would produce softer sounds when needed. Another thing to keep in mind is that the güiro isn’t kept stationary while playing.
For every stroke with the pua, there’s a corresponding stroke in the opposite direction with the güiro. For example, if you give the güiro an upstroke with the pua, you also make a downward motion with güiro while the pua slides on the ridges. You’ll see both of the performer’s hands are always moving while he’s playing the instrument.
The character of the sound would also depend on the type of material used on the güiro. Because metal is more rigid, it will produce a higher pitch than wood or plastic. Gourd güiros also have a higher pitch than those with hardwood, and fiberglass comes closest to replicating their sound.
It’s also dependent on the type of scraper used as well, as they have a direct effect on the sound, particularly the pitch. A performer could use either a wooden pua for that traditional sound or a block that looks like a brush with metal tines that produces a higher-pitched rasp. A pua made out of lighter materials like bamboo also has a higher pitch.
That’s why a percussionist might own a set of different kinds of güiros and select one that’s more suited to the music he’s going to perform.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the güiro, check out some more significant culutural instruments I’ve written about!