Looking for a Travel Guitar? Try a Charango

It’s fun to play a musical instrument that causes double takes every once in a while. And when the charango brings up some interesting conversation, the instrument’s colorful history and sound offer a story that doesn’t disappoint.


What Is a Charango?

A Charango is a string instrument in the lute family. They are similar in appearance to an ukulele with a small body and larger neck. Though charango’s can have anywhere from four to 15 strings, the most common style has ten strings in 5 pairs, or courses. The number of frets along a charango neck can range from five to 18.

Tuning a Charango

Charango’s are tuned in a re-entrant pattern. This means that unlike a guitar, their strings do not go from lowest to highest pitch when plucked in sequence.

Charanguistas employ several tunings, but the most popular (starting with the pair of strings closest to the musician’s head when playing) is G, C, E, A, E. These notes are all in one octave. The pair of E strings in the middle being the lowest pitch, then in ascending order, the Gs, As, Cs, and finally the Es on the end.

Both guitarists and ukulele players will appreciate the charango’s tuning. It’s G, C, E, and A string pairs are the same as a soprano ukulele. The intervals also match the D, G, B, and E strings of a guitar and baritone uke. This means chord patterns will transfer easily from one instrument to the other.

History of the Charango

Travel Guitar Charango

Today, the bodies of most charangos are made from wood. Originally though, the native people of Bolivia and Peru fashioned the backs of these instruments from armadillo shells.

A Bolivian legend tells the story of a poor armadillo who wanted more than anything to make beautiful music. For hours, he’d sit by the pond and listen to the songs of the creatures around him. He listened to the voices of the frogs, the crickets, and a bright yellow canary. He desperately wished to sing as they did, but if he’d understood the animals songs, he’d have known they were laughing at his silly dream.

Finally, the armadillo came to the home of a wizard who took pity on him. The wizard said he could make the armadillo sing, but only at the cost of his shell. The armadillo gladly gave his life to take part in a song, and when the other animals heard the music, they agreed that armadillo had the best voice of all. It’s often said that an armadillo must go to school for five years before it can hope to become a charango.

In actuality, charangos were built by the natives of Peru and Bolivia who were impressed by the guitar-like bihuelas brought to their land by Conquistadors from Spain. These natives lacked tools that could fashion wood into the shape of a guitar body, but the shells of the strange armadillos were already crafted into a perfect resonator.

How Is the Charango Played?

Traditionally, charangos are played solo and in ensembles with flutes, guitars, and singing. Melodies played at rapid speeds backed up with chords of close harmony give the instrument a lively, harp-like sound. Charanguistas also commonly strum chords in rapid-fire procession adding a percussive feel to their music.

Guitarists or ukulele players looking for a way to stretch themselves or hoping to explore a new arena in world music may want to consider the charango. This tiny instrument travels well and has a unique sound that fully deserves its growing popularity.

The Guitar Capo

There’s a good reason guitarists love certain keys and would prefer to avoid others. For the same reason brass players often hate the guitarist’s favorite keys – and love those that their guitar picking friends detest. Neither of them is showing a lazy attitude, it’s that every instrument has keys that are just plain easier to play than others. The other point about these specific keys is that they actually sound better for reasons we’ll get to shortly. It’s when the two kinds of instruments meet that the guitarist’s most useful small accessory often comes out – the capo.

Give me a G

Travel Guitar

Short for capotasto Italian for “head of fretboard” it’s like a movable nut for the guitar. No matter what the individual design (and there are some very ingenious ones) the capo, in essence, clamps the strings to the fretboard at a position between the nut and the high end of the fretboard, shortening the vibrating length of the strings and raising the pitch of whatever chord the guitarist is playing by however many frets up the neck he’s placed his appliance. It sure sounds like cheating and some jazz or classical players would never use one, but folk, country, bluegrass and blues find their capos very useful indeed. Taking the example of bluegrass – many instruments essential to the genre are well suited to the key of G in particular. The banjo is tuned to an open G variation and so is the dobro so you’ll find that players of these instruments have an inordinate love of the key of G. But bluegrass is not solely instrumental music and, as with any vocal music, the needs of the vocalist come first. If he/she wants to sing in Bb, Bb it is. Out the window go all those open string runs, hammering on and off on the guitar. Or do they? Bluegrass guitarists (dobroists and banjo players too) will pull a capo out of their pockets and place it on the third fret. They’ll play chord shapes in the key of G with all the open string advantages of that key, but they’ll be pitched in Bb.

The added advantages for the guitarist

We’ve already mentioned the use of open strings that is facilitated by playing G shapes capoed up to Bb but there are other peculiarities of particular chord shapes that make guitarists prefer them. The D chord is great for jangly Byrds type melodies, so is A. Using D shapes a guitarist often drops his low E string down to a D, giving a very full bodied sound to the accompaniment. Using a capo can extend the usefulness of the “dropped D” tuning. In addition, as the sounds of the guitar strings become higher and higher, the instrument itself begins to take on some of the characteristics of smaller bodied, higher pitched instruments such as the mandolin and this can make for a very interesting arrangement, particularly when combined with another guitar capoed lower or not capoed at all.

Here comes the capo

If you need any more convincing on the worth of the capo, have a closer listen to the chiming sounds of George Harrison’s guitar in Here Comes The Sun – played with D shapes capoed on the seventh fret. It just wouldn’t sound the same done any other way, no matter how good a guitarist you might be.