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Land of winds > Instruments > Instruments | Issue 05. May.-Jun.2011
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Andean chordophones: general comments

The history of Andean string instruments is relatively recent, dating back to the time of the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century. Among the chordophones that the conquerors brought to the Andean lands there were the vihuela, the rebec, the very first viol (also known as viola da gamba) the medieval harp and the lute. Once in their new surroundings each instrument developed its own size, shape and characteristics according to the materials, manufacturer methods and different performance styles.

String instrument, in Wikipedia.

Rebec Chiloé island

The Castilian rebec (rabel) did not have much success in the Andes: at present it is only played in the south of Chile. Exactly the opposite happened with the vihuela: the number of variants of small guitar (guitarrilla) and guitar-like instruments existing in South America nowadays is huge, ranging from the cavaquinho and the cuatro to the tres and the jarana. The guitar, the Chilean guitarron, the Colombian tiple, the guitarrillas of Potosí and Chichas (Bolivian departments), the Uru-Chipaya guitarrilla, the guitarron of Vallegrande (Bolivia), the medianas and more than twenty variants of the charango, all of them found their own place in the Andean regions.

Rabel (rebec), in Wikipedia.
Chilean rabel (rebec) [es].
Picture 01. Chilean rabel (rebec).
Video 01. Chilean rabel (rebec), playing traditional dance “El Rabel”.


The chordophone most widely spread in the Andes is the guitar. Its type is the same type as that of the modern European guitar, with six strings and of medium size. It is an accompaniment instrument (strumming and arpeggio), though it can play in the bass register and perform melodic lines as well. In the Andes, there are many local variants of this musical instrument constructed of different materials (e.g. gourd, various woods, hide).

Guitar, in Wikipedia.
History of the guitar, in Wikipedia [es].

The guitarrón chileno, also known as Chilean guitarron, with 25 strings is similar in size and shape to the old vihuela. It is played in central and southern Chile to accompany not only songs from the repertoire of payadores (those performing improvised musical dialogues) and of popular singers (in Spanish, cantores “a lo poeta” and “a lo divino”), but also widespread rhythms such as the cueca and the tonada.

Guitarrón chileno, in Wikipedia.
Guitarrón chileno, in Fundación Joaquín Díaz [es].
The guitarrón chileno, in Payadores Chilenos [es].
Misterioso guitarrón (literally, mysterious guitarrón), in Nuestro Cl [es].
Picture 02. Guitarrón chileno 01.
Picture 03. Guitarrón chileno 02.
Video 02. The guitarrón chileno, by F. Astorga.
Video 03. Sound example of guitarrón chileno.
Video 04. Guitarrón chileno. Manuel Sánchez.


The tiple is an instrument of the guitar family, similar in appearance although slightly smaller and wider than an acoustic guitar, with 12 steel strings (grouped in four tripled courses). It is played as an accompaniment instrument as well as a solo instrument and is associated with Colombia, where it is considered the national instrument, bringing its distinctive sound to rhythms such as bambuco, guabina and pasillo, as well as to the traditional repertoire of the “trova antioqueña” (improvised singing from Antioquia department).

Tiple, in Wikipedia.
Book “Los caminos del tiple” (The tiple paths), in Digital Library “Luis A. Arango” [es].
Blog “El tiple colombiano” (The Colombian tiple) [es].
Picture 04. Tiple.
Video 05. “Guabina de los tres”, by Oriol Caro.
Video 06. “Bambuco en La menor”, by Oriol Caro.
Video 07 (low quality). Colombian bambuco, with tiples and the guitar.

Bolivia is home to a collection of native chordophones generically known as “guitarrillas” (small guitars). Its size varies from that of the charango to the guitar. It is constructed of rough materials and its shape is quite basic (contrary to what it may seem, this does not harm its characteristic sound). They can be divided into the guitarrillas of Potosí and Chichas (Bolivian departments), the Uru-Chipaya guitarrilla, the guitarron of Vallegrande (similar to a large charango) and the medianas. The most popular one is the guitarrilla chipaya, with 10 steel strings (grouped in five doubled courses), traditionally used to play tonadas and tinkus.

Picture 05. Guitarrillas chipayas.
Video 08. Guitarrilla chipaya.


The charango, perhaps the Andean chordophone best known away from the Andes, has different sizes, shapes, materials of construction, number of strings and traditional tunings. The standard model has 10 strings (grouped in five doubled courses) attached to a resonance box, which was traditionally made out of armadillo (kirkincho in Quechua) shell and it is nowadays constructed of various woods (charango “lauckeado”). Like the guitar and the tiple, the charango is played as an accompaniment instrument as well as a solo instrument.
Among the variants of this instrument we find the charango sacabeño (6-8 strings), the rankha charango (8-11 strings), the walaycho and the ronrroco (smaller and larger relatives of the standard charango), the khonkhota (q'onq'ota, mokholo or machu charango, with 8 strings), the charango anzaldeño, the charango vallegrandino and the charango from Ayacucho.

Picture: Edgardo Civallero.
Charango, in Wikipedia.
Book “El charango: su vida, costumbres y desventuras” (The charango: its life, habits and misfortunes), by Ernesto Cavour [es].
“El charango para todos” (The charango for all), by Héctor Soto [es].
Picture 06. Charango 01.
Picture 07. Charango 02.
Picture 08. Charango 03.
Picture 09. Charango 04.
Picture 10. Charango 05.
Picture 11. Charango 06.
Video 09. The Charango (scenes extracted from a documentary film).
Video 10. “Flor de violeta”, by Federico Tarazona.
Video 11. “El diablo suelto”, by Héctor Soto.
Video 12. “Pall pall”, tonada, by Norte Potosí.


As for the violin, the instrument spread widely across and along the Andean chain. Although in some parts of Bolivia there are several roughly made “local” variants (violin chicheño, Andean violin), the most commonly used is the European model. In Bolivia, the violin accompanies rural rhythms such as takipayanakus, tukuchas, k’ochus and wedding tonadas. In Peru it plays a central role in the repertoire of the Central and Northern Sierra (e.g. huaynos of the Cusco region, the huaylarsh and the “Danzas de las tijeras”). Finally, in Ecuador this instrument is used in the sanjuanito and the capishca.

Violin, in Wikipedia.
Picture 12. Ecuadorian violins.
Picture 13. Peruvian violin.

The European medieval harps spread widely in the bosom of colonial society. In time, native and rural communities borrowed them and adapted them to their needs. At present, the harp distribution covers the Andean territory between the central valleys of Chile and the south of Ecuador.

Picture 14. Peruvian harps being held in the air during the “Danza de las tijeras” (literally, scissors dance), Ishua (Lucanas) 01.
Picture 15. Peruvian harps being held in the air during the “Danza de las tijeras” (literally, scissors dance), Ishua (Lucanas) 02.
Picture 16. Peruvian harp.
Imagen 17. Group of scissors dancers holding their harps in the air.

Andean mandolin

Stringed instruments played with a pick such as the Castilian lute and the Italian mandola introduced in South America by Europeans developed their own particular version. The present-day mandolin is the most widely spread, though equally important are, for example, the Bolivian bandurria, the bandurria of the Cusco region, the Colombian bandola and the Ecuadorian bandolín. The mandolin has 8 steel strings (grouped in 4 doubled courses), usually tuned in fifths like a violin. Unlike its Italian ancestor, the resonance box of this mandolin is flat. In Peru it is known as “bandolina” and can have 8 to 12 strings. The mandolin is used in the north of Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador to play huaynos, huaynitos and huaylarsh, among many other rhythms.

Picture: Edgardo Civallero
Mandolin, in Wikipedia.
Picture 18. Mandolin.
Picture 19. Mandolins.
Video 13. Ecuadorian mandolin.
Video 14. Mandolin, harp and violin in “orquestín” cusqueño (small band in the region of Cusco).
Video 15. Peruvian music played with the mandolin, the harp and the violin.
Video 16. “Loruchacuna”, traditional huayno, by Los hijos de Tintay.

The bandolín is very popular in Ecuador. It has 15 steel strings (grouped in five tripled courses) and accompanies all types of rhythms, especially the sanjuanito and the albazo, besides being inherent to the music played by native rural orchestras.

The bandolín, in Flacso Andes [es].
Picture 20. Ecuadorian bandolín.
Picture 21. Bandolines.
Video 17. “Chimbaloma cayadora”, traditional sanjuanito with bandolín.
Video 18. “Mamajuana”, by Ñanda Mañachi.

Further north, in Colombia (and Venezuela) the bandola is similar to the bandolín. The Andean version has 12 to 16 strings grouped in courses. The variant known as “llanera” (widely spread in Venezuela) is a small pear-shape chordophone used to play the bambuco and the pasillo.

Bandola, in Wikipedia.
The Andean bandola of Colombia, in Laboratorio cultural.
Picture 22. Bandolas.
Picture 23. Bandola.

Lastly, in Bolivia and Peru there is also the bandurria (with its Bolivian and Cusco versions, respectively). And in the Andean “estudiantinas” context the lute may be found, even if this instrument is not played in popular and traditional areas in the Andes. Both instruments are similar to their European ancestors.

Bandurria, in Wikipedia.
Picture 24. Bolivian bandurrias.
Picture 25. Bandurria.

Although chordophones are not native to the Andes, during five centuries stringed instrument have been incorporated and widely used throughout this region. They have developed to match their new performers’ needs giving birth to innovations and new designs that, nowadays, have won their own place in the Andean music scene.
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