The ukulele has become a wildly popular instrument in the United States. Ukulele versions of popular songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “I’m Yours” continue to go viral on YouTube. And while the ukulele is traditionally thought of as a Hawaiian instrument, did you know that it has its origins in Portugal?

In fact, the ukulele is part of the lute stringed instrument family, and so is the cavaquinho. As explorers and colonizers invaded other countries, they brought with them their culture and music. Native populations then took those instruments, modified them for their own use, and introduced a whole new musical style.

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What Is a Cavaquinho?

cavaquinho with hat and music sheet
Source: Adilson D. Silva via flickr
The cavaquinho is used in both traditional and classical music.

Used in both traditional and classical music, a cavaquinho is a stringed instrument that is a member of the lute family, which includes the banjo, mandolin, oud, or Chinese pipa.  

The cavaquinho evolved into what it is today in Portugal. After the lute and other similar stringed instruments immigrated to the country, locals transformed it to fit their musical style. 

How It’s Played

The cavaquinho has four strings that are made from steel, gut, or nylon. Traditionally, it is strummed either with your fingers or using a plectrum or pick.

Types of Cavaquinhos

There are several types of cavaquinhos that vary based on their geographical location.

Venezuelan Cuatro

cuatro
Source: Wilfredorrh via flickr
This cuatro has a high pick guard to protect from aggressive strumming.

While named after Venezuela, the cuatro is played throughout South America and the Caribbean. It is slightly larger than the cavaquinho and is traditionally used as a strumming instrument in South American folk music—the neck is flush with the body and there is a pickguard to protect the wood. It has the same tuning as a ukulele.

There are more modern versions of the cuatro that allow it to play lead melodies, which make the instrument available for classical pieces.

Cavaquinho Brasileiro

The cavaquinho Brasileiro, from Brazil, is also bigger than the cavaquinho and closely resembles a classical guitar in size and shape. While it still has only four strings, the fretboard is raised from the body instead of being flush with it.

Cavaco

Cavaco
Source: Hlen via Wikipedia Commons
Cavaco is the Mini-Me of cavaquinho brasileiro.

The cavaco is a smaller, brighter version of the cavaquinho brasileiro that is a big part of traditional Brazilian samba music. Using a plectrum, the cavaco creates syncopated strumming techniques to get dancers moving.

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Machete or Braguinha

The machete or braguinha originates from the Madeira region of Portugal. It uses steel strings and is usually plucked with the thumb and fingers. The braguinha is often considered the import to Hawaii that transformed into the ukulele.

Minhoto

The minhoto comes from the Minho region of Portugal. While it has many similarities to other cavaquinhos, one of its unique differences is the shape of its sound hole. While many cavaquinhos and guitars of circular sound holes, the minhoto’s is shaped like a manta ray—called a raia in Portuguese. 

The Difference Between Cavaquinho and Ukulele

There are a few major differences between the cavaquinho and the ukulele. First, the cavaquinho strings are made of steel, while the ukulele’s strings are nylon. This results in a bright, sharp sound in the cavaquinho, while the ukulele sounds more muted and warm. 

The strings are tuned differently: The ukulele is usually tuned G-C-E-A, and the cavaquinho is tuned D-G-B-D. This also contributes to the sound differences between the two instruments. In addition, the cavaquinho has a thinner body than the ukulele and a neckboard that is flush to the body. 

Ukuleles are far more available in the United States than are cavaquinhos, so you’ll have to search a little harder to track one down. But rest assured, the hunt is worth it!

Get to Strumming!

Whether you want to learn a few songs on a ukulele or master one of these traditional cavaquinho variants, it’s important (and interesting) to learn the history of your chosen instrument. The next step? Practice, practice, practice!

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