The güiro is a handheld percussion instrument that was likely first used and invented by the Taino people, a large indigenous group that lived in areas like the Bahamas, the Lesser Antilles, and the Greater Antilles in the pre-Columbian era. It’s a percussion instrument you’re bound to hear in a variety of music today, particularly in music from Latin America and from Cuba. The güiro is a simple and effective instrument with a unique scraping sound.
The traditional güiro is made out of a hollowed out gourd. This means sizes and shape can vary. The gourd is carved on the outside with grooves, so that when a wooden stick is scraped across the grooves, it creates a sound like a ratchet or gragger, the traditional Jewish noisemaker. In other words, scraping the stick across the grooves in the güiro makes a series of fine clicking noises that blend together. Depending upon the music and tempo, movement can be up or down across the grooves, and fast or slow.
The earliest descriptions of the güiro by explorers were written by the Benedictine monk, Fray Íñigo Abbad y Lasierra, who described numerous instruments used in Puerto Rican music, include such instruments as the tambourine and maracas. Since that description, the instrument has far outstretched its native origins. You’ll hear many examples of it in classical music, like Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and in many modern rock songs. The band R.E.M. used it in their 1996 album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi and praised it on the album jacket. You can also hear the güiro’s sounds in the classic 1964 hit Under the Boardwalk, and you’ll definitely be familiar with the instrument if you listen Latin American dance music like salsa and mambo.
Modern versions of the güiro may not be made with gourds. You’ll find examples made of plastic, fiberglass, wood and metal. Some versions have a handle, which makes for easier holding, but others, particularly if they are made from gourds, may lack this feature. The percussion instrument is a fun way to teach kids about music and rhythm and you can find inexpensive varieties for less than $20 US Dollars (USD). The accompanying stick is often called a scraper, and it’s a good idea to make sure that you purchase your güiro with an included scraper. You may also find this instrument sold in wood in a fish shape, and many refer to the instrument as a fish.