28th Oct 2014

The Guiro Style, Sound and Connection

Have you ever walked around a store that sells musical instruments and noticed a carved wooden frog with a stick sitting on a counter or shelf? The frogs may come in a variety of sizes and colors, and the size of the instrument dictates the tone of the... well, the "ribbit." These frogs are one variety of a hand percussion instrument known as the guiro, and these days, you can find guiros in all shapes and sizes and made from a wide range of materials.

There is not a 100% certainty about the origins of the guiro. It is said to have either originated through the Tainos or the Arawaks, both indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Through the Taino origin story, guiros are said to have had their start in Puerto Rico. Regardless of where the instrument belted out its first "croak" exactly, it is considered a Latin percussion instrument. It’s important to realize, though, that use of this instrument spans Central and South America. As it turns out, even Brazilians are all about the guiro (although they call it “reco-reco”). In fact, Cuba has a specific ceremony found in Santeria religious practices that centers around gourds. This reverence for gourds is thought to extend to guiros and even shekeres, strengthening these percussion instruments' presence in Cuban culture as well as music. This connection between the guiro and Cuba could also connect the instrument with African religious practices, instruments and culture.

Outside of the traditional sounds of Caribbean and Latin American folk music, you are most likely to hear the guiro played in cumbia and salsa music. It often plays a key role in the rhythm section and is known for its ratchet sound, produced as the stick (or pua) is rubbed along the notches or ridges. Originally, guiros were fashioned from hallowed out gourds left with one end open. The guiro is held in the left hand, with the thumb placed in a hole cut out for the purpose of holding the instrument in place. From that basic design, however, different styles have emerged over the years based upon geographical region and artistic bent.

These days, guiros are made from wood, metal, plastic, and fiberglass. Some guiros are even adapted with a "shaker" ability that enhances the sound of the instrument, or can play double-duty during a performance. When playing, the musician will make long and short strokes over the body of the instrument to produce the signature sound. Singers and vocalists typically play the guiro, but it is also common to see the guiro played by any instrumentalist on stage, in drum circles or even at festivals or in parades.