North America ATLAS of Plucked Instruments 

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North America

In Canada and USA (including Hawaii) we find mainly the instruments already mentioned in the general historical chapters : (acoustic and electric) guitars, mandolins, banjos, dulcimers, etc.
Also included here is Oceania, with Hawaii and Tahiti.

Mexico is the ultimate source for plucked stringed instruments : a very wide variety of different models and sizes; and in most of them you can still recognize the original smaller size European guitars of the 17th century, with 5 strings or double courses.

More plucked instruments of America you can find in :

 

top USA (incl. Hawaii)
 

In the United States plucked stringed instruments are quite popular and are used in typical American style music :

bluegrass :
steel string guitar, 5 string banjo, mandolin, dobro, (plus standing bass and fiddle)

country :
electric (solid body) guitar, (pedal) steelguitar, electric bass guitar, (drums)

folk :
autoharp, appalachian dulcimer


See for all those instruments the general instrument pages.

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ukulele
example : bought 1973
L=540 B=170 H=55mm
scale 350mm
You Tube
hawaiian style
You Tube
Jake's ukulele weeps

ukulele

The ukulele is the small guitar of Hawaii. It originated from the rajão (the tuning) and braguinha (the size) of Madeira (see EuropeWest), which both arrived on the islands in 1879. The ukulele (also spelled ukelele) was soon very popular. After the Hawaiian music reached the USA during the 1920's (together with the Hawaiian guitar) a few million of these instruments were made.

The instrument is made like a small guitar, and the better (more expensive) ones are made from koa wood. But even the cheap plastic ones are said to produce an acceptable sound.

The tuninghead usually is flat, with friction pegs or machine tuners, and some instruments have a guitar-like head. The body shape can look like a spanish guitar, a mandolin, a pineapple, a sigarbox, etc. The fingerboard is slightly raised above the soundboard. The bridge is guitar-like and fixed to the front.

The ukulele comes in different sizes : the normal soprano (scale 34cm), the concert (39cm), the tenor (44cm), the baritone (49cm).
All have the same guitar-like tuning : g' c' e' a', except the baritone : d g b' e'. Notice that (except for the baritone) the 4th string is higher than the 2nd (re-entrant tuning). Some people tune the soprano and tenor up to b'.
Some instruments have 6 strings (often the first and third course doubled), or 8 strings (all courses doubled) - called the taropatch, see under.
A ukulele always has nylon (or gut) strings, never steel.

Playing is strumming with the fingers or with a pick, to accompany singing or Hawaiian dance music.

For more information see the site of Ukulelestrummers.


left : the relative sizes of : soprano, concert and tenor ukulele

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taropatch
example :
Lanikai LU-8, bought from Thomann.de 2010
L=700 B=230 H=750mm
scale 430mm
You Tube

taropatch

The taropatch (or taro patch) is a ukulele with double strings, so 8 strings in 4 courses. The name comes from Madeira, where the rajão was often taken to the ricefields (the "taro-patch") and therefore nicknamed : "taro-pach fiddle". When after the arrival on Hawaii the rajão fell in disuse, the name was used for the double string ukulele.

The size in the 1920 was usually like the concert ukulele, but recent models seem to favour the tenor ukulele. Similarly the original flat peghead with friction pegs has nowadays been replaced by a guitar-like tuning head.

The taropatch with 8 nylon strings has the two top strings in unison and the two bottom strings in octaves. The tuning is like the ukulele : gg' cc' e'e' a'a'.

A similar 6-string ukulele exists, which has only two strings double (first and third course) - see under ukulele above.
Note that there is nowadays also a small guitar with the size of a tenor ukulele, with 6 single strings, called guitalele, which is tuned like a 6 string guitar, but of course much higher : in a' (see miscellaneous).

a older taropatch
(picture from eBay)

In case you expected to find Hawaiian guitars here : see under steelguitars. Apparently it is nowadays difficult to find Hawaiian guitars on Hawaii - the slack key guitar seems now the most popular national instrument. This is a normal (usually steel string flat top) guitar, with an open tuning, on which traditional Hawaiian tunes are played.

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tiple
example :
Stadlmair USA
bought via eBay 2007
L=700 B=230 H=85mm
scale 430mm
You Tube
tiple

In the wake of the popularity of the ukulele, the Martin guitar factory made in the 1930's (until 1960's) a small guitar (the size of a tenor ukulele), with steel strings - which was influenced by a South American folk guitar, the tiple [pronounced "tea-play"].

The original tiple (see under Colombia and Chile in South America), has 4 courses of 3 thin metal strings each. The Martin tiple (but also made by other factories) however has just 10 strings : 1st and 4th course are double, 2nd and 3th triple.

The tiple is made like a small guitar. The tuning head could be flat (with machines from behind), or slotted (like a classical guitar). The bridge is often a bit larger (rounded on the lower side), probably to have a larger glue surface area for the higher pulling force of 10 steel strings.

The tuning could be like a guitar : aa' d'dd' f#'f#f#' b'b'.


a Martin tiple (picture from eBay)
   
top Tahiti
Tahitian ukulele
example :
bought via internet from Kanua, New Zealand 2007
L=~750mm B=220 H=40mm
scale 410mm
You Tube

Tahitian ukulele

There is also a Tahitian version of the ukulele, which is quite different from the traditional model. It has been developed since the 1990's.

The body (and usually also the neck and head) of the Tahitian ukulele is carved from a single piece of wood (or some pieces glued together) in a fluid rounded shape (like a solid body electric guitar), often flattish at the bottom.
A round conical hole is carved right through the middle of the instrument, narrow at the back and wide at the front. The front side is covered with a thin piece of wood, on which a loose bridge rests. The body and head is sometimes decorated with woodcarvings, or it is made of different coloured woods, glued together.

The flat tuning head is usually wider on the top, with tuning machines from behind, 4 on each side. The frets are metal, inlayed in the neck. The fingerboard is flush with the front.

The Tahitian ukulele has usually 4 courses of thin nylon strings (often bright yellow fishlines), and is tuned like the normal ukulele : g'g' c"c" e"e" a'a'.

The sound of the Tahitian ukulele is a bit like an old banjo. So sometimes it is referred to as the Tahitian banjo.

See for more information Ukulele and for making one : Gouaro (in French).

the back with the soundhole
   
top Mexico
vihuela
example : bought by mail : from Casa Talamantes, USA 1998
L=800 B=300 H=170mm
scale 510mm
You Tube
vihuela

Mexico has a very wide variety of guitar-like instruments. The most well known ones are used in the Mariachi music style, which includes also trumpets, violins, guitarron (bass guitar), etc.

The vihuela is a guitar-like instrument, but slightly smaller (3/4). The back of the body is made in a rather high (almost triangular) vault. Around the edges of front and back are thick strips of rounded purfling.

The fingerboard is flush with the front, and it has usually only 4 tied-on nylon frets. The peghead is flat, and nowadays always has guitar-style tuningmachines.

The bridge is quite narrow compared with the wide and flat guitar-bridge.
The colourful items seen on the bridge are pipe-cleaners, wound around the sharp end of the nylon strings to avoid painful interaction....

It has 5 nylon strings in a re-entrant tuning : a d' g' b e' .

Playing is in a typical strumming style with a combination of threes and two's.

The high back of the vihuela, with the round edge purfling.

 

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guitarron
example : Lucida,
bought from Thomann 2012
L=1060 B=470 H=275mm
scale 655mm
You Tube
guitarrón

The guitarrón is the (acoustic) bass guitar of the Mariachi orchestra. It is sometimes also called guitarrón de Toloche.

The instrument is made like a huge vihuela, so with a high vaulted back and thick round strips around the edges. It has no frets.

The 6 thick nylon strings are always plucked two strings (octaves) at the same time. The tuning is A' D G c e A - (notice the top A is lower than the third string).

Picture from a travel brochure, showing the relative size of the vihuela and the guitarrón.


In Argentina exists an instrument which is also called guitarrón, but that is a slightly larger size normal Spanish guitar tuned with the (second string) b as top string, and an extra low 6th B' (so the entire tuning is 5 pitches lower than a normal guitar).

In Chile you can also find a guitarrón, but that is a completely different instrument, with not less than 25 strings ! (see South America).

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guitarra de golpe
example :
bought via eBay Mexico, 2010

L=940 B=345 H=110mm
scale 600mm
You Tube
guitarra de golpe / guitarra colorada / quinta de golpe

The guitarra de golpe is the rhythm guitar of the Mariachi Tradicional, or the Sones de Tierra Calliente. Although for a while replaced by the normal (spanish) guitar, nowadays it becomes popular again to use the traditional guitarra de golpe.

It seems to have many different names, so you can sometimes find it called a mariachera, or a guitarra colorada, or a quinta colorada or a guitarra quinta or a quinta, or even a jarana.

It is a bit smaller size guitar, but larger than a vihuela. It lacks the high vaulted back, as it is made like a normal guitar, with a flat back. Often it is deeper than a normal guitar.
The fretboard is slightly raised with the front and has metal frets, although some have wooden frets for the first 3 frets.

The peghead usually has a very typical carving with a double curve, (supposed to be a stylised owl) although nowadays a normal guitar-style tuning head with machines may be found.

The strings run to a narrow (vihuela-like) bridge, glued to the front.



picture from book by Bruno Montanaro

The 5 nylon strings could be tuned like : d g c' e a (note the hight 3rd), but see the next link for the many choices.

See for more information about the guitarra de golpe : jaliscoharp.

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guitarra doble
example : picture from book by Bruno Montanaro
L=0 B=0 H=0mm
scale 0mm
guitarra doble

The guitarra doble was the Mexican 12-string guitar, with all strings double - and in unison (so not like our 12-string guitar, with some strings in octaves).
The guitarra doble seems not much in use anymore.


See for a more popular 12-string guitar of Mexico : the bajo sexto.

 

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bajo sexto
example :
bought via internet from Kwim-V.com, USA 2001
L=1045 B=390 H=120mm
scale 650mm
You Tube
bajo sexto / bajo quinto

This is the 12-string bass guitar used in the Mexican country music, a kind of TexMex. It differs from the guitarro doble by having octave strings in the 3 lower courses, and is tuned a whole octave lower. There is also a bajo quinto, which has 5 double strings - the low 6th course is taken away, as apparently it is hardly ever used on a bajo sexto anyway.

The bajo sexto guitar is made like a normal guitar, with a flat back. Usually it has a cut-out, and decorative extensions to the bridge. Often there is extra decoration around the soundhole and around the edge of the body. The fingerboard is raised above the front. It has normal guitar frets.

The tuning is a like a 12-string guitar, but one octave deeper (!), so the lowest stings are really like a bass guitar. The left string of the course is the high octave: EE' AA' dD GG cc ff.

Playing is with a combination of bass notes and strumming to give the rhythm basis for the music.

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requinto
example :
bought via eBay, 2008
L=860 B=335 H=95mm
scale 545mm
You Tube
requinto

This is the smaller Spanish guitar, used in the bambuco music style (also called romantico), in a trio including also a Spanish guitar and a standing bass.

The requinto is made like a small size Spanish guitar, tuned 5 pitches higher (topstring in a') than a normal guitar.
The body often has a cut-out to reach the higher frets more easily, and the depth is often slightly deeper than the normal guitar.

It is used to play the solos, often using a plectrum.

 

 

 

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huapanguera
example :
bought via internet from Portman Music, Mexico, 2006
L=980 B=390 H=135mm
scale 620mm
You Tube
huapanguera

Around the town of Vera Cruz (in East Mexico) some different styles of music are in use. One of them is the son huasteco music. This is played with three instruments : the violin, the (big) huapanguera guitar and the small jarana huasteca guitar.

The huapanguera is a normal size guitar, but with a large body and a short nek. It is also called guitarra quinta (which is not a quinta guitarra - that is the guitarra de golpe !).

The huapanguera is made like a guitar (with a body shaped somewhat between a spanish guitar and a jumbo guitar) with a flat back, and quite deep. The round open soundhole has often inlayed mother-of-pearl decoration

The fingerboard is almost flush with the front, and has 8 to 10 metal (guitar-) frets; it usually stops at the body/neck join.
The bridge (glued to the front) has often some kind of special extensions, like cow horns.

It has usually 8 nylon strings in 5 courses, the 1st and 5th being single, the rest double. A tuning could be : G dd' gg bb e (note the low first string !).

The huapanguera is strummed and provides the bass for the music.

 

 

Here the relative size of the two huasteco instruments : the big huapanguera and the small jarana huasteca.

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jarana huasteca
example :
bought via Mercado Libre from Son Arte Casa de Musica, Mexico 2013
L=710 B=230 H=95mm
scale 440mm
You Tube
jarana huasteca

In the son huasteco music style from around Vera Cruz the trio plays besides the violin and the huapanguera guitar, this small size guitar : the jarana huasteca.

The jarana huasteca is made like a small guitar (about the size of a tenor ukulele), with a flat back, and quite deep. The bridge (glued to the front) has usually some extension in the shape of cowhorns (like the huapanguera). The round open soundhole has often inlayed mother-of-pearl decoration.

The fretboard is almost flush with the front, and has metal frets. It usually stops at the body/neck join. The flat tuning head may have friction pegs from behind, or normal guitar-like machine tuners.

This jarana has 5 nylon strings in the unusual tuning : g b d' f#' a' .

It is played with a special golpe effect.


 

example :
bought from Mexican friend
in Amsterdam 1998

L=650 B=215 H=90mm
scale 395mm

 

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jarana jarocha
example :
bought via internet from Lark in the Morning, 1998
L=870 B=240 H=80mm
scale 570mm
You Tube
solo
You Tube
duo

jarana jarocha

Around Vera Cruz different styles of music can be found. Besides the huasteca, the son jarocho music is popular. This is played by a small group, with a harp and two different guitars : the requinto jarocho (which plays the bass lines - see under) and the jarana jarocha (which plays the chords).

The jarana jarocha (also called jarana veracruzana) is carved from one piece of wood - so body, neck and tuning head. The body is hollowed out and a thin front glued to it. The fingerboard is a thin layer of dark wood, slightly raised above the front, and there is some veneer on the front of the tuning head. The 12 frets are metal (like on a guitar), and often go no higher than the body/neck join.

The body shape is often quite slender and it is less deep than a normal guitar. Nowadays you may also find jaranas build like a guitar (from separate pieces, not carved).

The jarana jarocha has 8 nylon strings in 5 courses, of which the 1st and 5th are single.
The tuning is usually : a d'd' g'g bb e',
or : g c'c' e'e aa g (the 1st is a drone string).

There are several sizes of jarana : the smallest is called chaquiste (50cm), then the mosquito or chillador (60cm), then the jarana primera. The next one is the jarana segunda or requinto de jarana or tres cuartos (75cm), and the usual size : jarana tercera or jarana jarocha (85cm). The largest is the tercerola (100cm).

jarana mosquito
example :
bought via MercadoLibre Mexico, 2010
L=550 B=130 H=50mm
scale 325mm

They usually all have 8 strings in 5 courses, but the small ones may have 6 (only 3th double), 5 (all single) or 4 (5th left out). Sometimes the mosquito has 4 doubles.

For more information about the son jarocho see sonjarocho.com.

 



left : the example jarana jarocha (= tercera) and the mosquito (= primera)

 
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guitarra de son
example :
bought via internet from Comosuena.com, Mexico 2002
L=880 B=250 H=70mm
scale 550mm
You Tube
solo
You Tube
leona solo
You Tube
group
guitarra de son /requinto jarocho

In the son jarocho music style from around Vera Cruz they use (besides the harp and the jarana jarocha) this smaller size guitar : the guitarra de son, which is also called requinto jarocho.

This instrument is made like the jarana jarocha, so the body, neck and tuning head is carved from one piece of wood, and the body is rather shallow. The front is a thin piece of wood; it has a slightly raised fingerboard and veneer on the front of the tuning head. It has 12 or more guitar-like frets (often not higher than the body/neck join). Usually the front is quite plain : no rosette or purfling.

The guitarra de son has 4 (or 5) thick nylon strings.
Tuning is : G A d g, or C D G c, or (E) A d g c.

It is played with a plectrum made of horn, usually melody and bass lines in a kind of staccato syncopated style - which must be quite difficult to do as the player often is also the leadsinger of the group.

The guitarra de son comes in different sizes : the smallest is the primera, then the punteador, the medio requinto, the requinto (the normal size), the cuarta, the leona and the largest : the león.

From Loscenzontles.com

For more information about the instruments and the music see Comosuena.com (in Spanish).

leona
example :
bought via Mercado Libre from Jarana de Playa, Mexico 2013

L=1020 B=340 H=140mm
scale 680mm

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guitarra chamula
example :
from website photobucket by calamity liz
L=0 B=0 H=0mm
scale 00mm
You Tube
guitarra chamula

The guitarra chamula is quite a large guitar, used mainly in the area of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas (South Mexico), during festivals.

The guitarra chamula is made like a large guitar, with the top rounding of the body about the same width as the lower one. The front and the back are overhanging the sides. It has a round soundhole, often with a star decoration around it.

It has a relative short neck, with a thin fretboard (n the same colour wood as the rest of the instrument) that goes a bit over the front. It has only a few frets )some look like they are made of wood). The flat tuninghead ends in a hollow half circle. Some have 10 or 12 friction pegs from behind, some have a slotted peghead with 12 guitar-like tuning machines.

The (10 or 12) thin metal strings run to a bridge glued to the front, with often some extra decoration underneath.
With 10 strings it has probably 4 courses : the first and second double and the third and fourth triple. The 12 string version has probably 6 courses of double strings and tuned like a guitar.

picture from YouYube

The guitarra chamula is mainly used by strumming chords in a small group, to accompany singing and dancing. This group usually also includes a Mexican harp and a harmonica. During festivals more guitarra chamulas are used, all strumming together.

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guitarra conchera
example :
vihuela with wooden back, handmade by Guitarras Chema, Mexico, bought 2009
L=940 B=290 H=170mm
scale 545mm
You Tube
the instrument
You Tube
the festival
guitarra conchera

The "Concheros" is the name used for the colourfull dancers and musicians that perform "La Danza de los Concheros". This name comes from the use of a shell (of an armadillio) for the back of the guitars and mandolins that are used. The dance is performed on a Sunday in September in Mexico City and Queretaro, with the performers dressed in colourfull Aztec-style clothes.

The instruments are divided in :

mandolina conchera

vihuela conchera
guitarra conchera

 

4 double strings
5 double strings
6 double strings



picture from book Museos de Urueña

The back of the body is made from a "concha" (the shell of an large armadillo) or from a gourd, or nowadays also from a rounded carved piece of wood. The front is usually in a teardrop or oval shape (also the vihuelas and guitars) and is decorated with carvings or paintings.

The neck is guitar-like : raised above the front and with metal frets. The tuning head can be open (with guitar-style tuners), or flat, with traditional friction pegs (from behind).
The steel strings can be tuned like a mandolin or like the top 4/5/6 strings of a guitar. Usually there are double strings; the example has the 1st and 5th course three-double, with both a bass-string: aaA d'd' g'g' bb e'e'e.

It is usually played (by strumming chords) by the dancer himself, who has to perform the steps of the dance while playing. It has a loud and singing sound.

For more information about the instruments and the music, see Blogspot.

   
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