Make your way to the regions of the Andes, and you’ll likely come across a pleasant, albeit somewhat peculiar, string instrument: the charango.
A charango is what you’d get if you took a classic guitar, scaled it down to about the size of a ukulele, and made it out of an armadillo shell. It’s also one of the most celebrated instruments in Andean culture, with a long history and an ongoing presence in South American folk music.
Here’s what to know about the charango, including its interesting origins and some of the different variations you might find.
What Is a Charango?
A string instrument popular in the Andean regions of Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Peru, a charango is a member of the lute family and can be found in dozens of regional variations throughout South America.
Charangos, which are about the size of a ukulele, were traditionally made out of armadillo shells, though today it’s more common to find them made out of wood. And what it lacks in size, the charango more than makes up for in sound, with a powerful projection that’s similar in tone to a classic guitar or mandolin.
The origins of the charango can be traced back to the 16th century and the Aymara and Quechua people, whose inspiration for the instrument is assumed to come from the vihuela, a type of guitar introduced to the region by Spanish colonists. Over the years, the charango has been popularized and adapted into many other regions, with variations that include the hollow body charango, the grand charango, and the solid-body electric charango.
How Many Strings Does a Charango Have?
There are 10 charango strings in the original form of the instrument. These strings are divided into five courses, with each course containing two strings that are strummed or picked together as one. Variant types of charango may have anywhere from four to 20 strings with single-, double-, triple-, or even quadruple-strung courses.
Aside from the number of strings and courses, charango strings can also differ in material. Metal, nylon, gut, and mixed-material strings are all possibilities, and contribute to the unique sound of whatever type of charango is being played.
New to Guitar?
Learn Guitar: The Complete Beginner’s Guide
Types of Charangos
There are more than 30 types of charangos, including many regional variations and some hybrid varieties as well. (The charango charanguita, for example, is a hybrid of the charango and the guitar.)
The specific differences between the types of charangos are sometimes small and sometimes pronounced, though each variation has some unique quality that sets it apart from others. Despite these differences, all are part of the larger charango family, and all have their roots in South America.
Here are five of the most popular types.
The walaycho, also known as the kalampiador, hualaycho, or maulincho, is the smallest member of the charango family and contains the traditional 10-string structure. It is a fretted string instrument, which means that the strings vibrate away from the main body. The strings on a walaycho are metal and are strummed instead of fingerpicked to produce an inherently folksy sound.
Go up in size instead of down, and you get the low-pitched charangón, a tenor variation of sorts that comes in an octave lower than the standard charango. It was invented by Mauro Nuñez, a famous Bolivian composer and musician and the father of Bolivian folk music.
As the size of a charango gets larger, the pitch gets lower. Case in point: the ronroco, which is about five centimeters longer than the charangón and defined as more of a bass or baritone charango. It too came out of Bolivia and features five double courses of nylon string.
The term chillador refers to two types of flat-backed Peruvian charangos that may have 10, 12, or 14 strings. Chilladors have the appearance of a small guitar and sound somewhat like a deeper-toned ukulele. Strings may be nylon or steel, and are in paired or tripled courses. Some chilladors have a mix of course sizes—such as the 12-string chillador that features two triple-strung courses.
The hatun charango is another Pervuian invention. The name means “grand charango” and refers to the extended range of this small but mighty string instrument. This type of charango is quite modern and has only been around since 2001. And unlike your typical charango, it actually has just seven or eight strings, all set in single string courses except for the last two strings, which are paired.
Difference Between a Charango and a Ukulele
Comparisons between the charango and ukulele make sense, since both are small string instruments that look and play similarly to guitars. And in many ways, the charango does resemble a tenor ukulele. That being said, a charango has a wider neck than a ukulele, and usually has 10 or more strings to the ukulele’s four. There is also the matter of origin. The ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument while the charango is distinctly South American.
If you’re interested in other small, guitar-like string instruments from South America, check out the tiple, the vihuela, or the cuatro.
How to Write Better Music
Music Theory for Songwriters: From Beginner to Producer