World Tradition


In Europe, the plucked string instrument was of a more recent vintage.  The invasion of the Moors from North Africa in 711 to 1492 brought about the creation of the Arab kingdom of Al-Andalus, which dominated almost all of the Iberian peninsula, leaving a lasting cultural and social character on the Spanish environment. The guitar was one of the offshoots of this cultural meeting, having been brought by the Moors in the 8th century in the form of the four-string ‘ud.  By the 1200, two instruments were called “guitars” in Spain: the guitarra latina (Latin guitar) and the guitarra moresca (Moorish guitar).  The guitarra Latina exhibited  one sound hole and  narrow neck, while the guitarra moresca had a round back, with wide fingerboard, and several sound holes. By the 14th century both instruments were referred to as simply guitars.  A guitar-like instrument is the Spanish vihuela, which in the 15th and 16th centuries, influenced the development of the baroque guitar. It had six courses of strings.  By the 16th century, the vihuela developed its shape into the modern guitar, although its popularity gave way to the European lute.  In the meantime, the five-course Baroque guitar from the middle of the 16th century to the 18th century, gained popularity in the Spain, France and Italy.

In Catalunya, Aragon, Murcia and Valencia, emerged the rondalla, an ensemble of plucked or plectrum instruments, deriving its name from “ronda”, meaning serenade.  “Rondas” or round songs were used to serenade young women at the windows of their houses, or the public in general, and its form is an alternation of solo and chorus.  The main instrumental accompaniment was provided by the rondalla which also supplied the music for dances. The instruments of the old rondalla were Mozarab-influenced: the guitars, flutes and vihuelas, mandolins, panderetas, castanets, tambourines triangles and a large earthen jug.  In the present times, rondallas have assumed vibrant lyrics, although still expressively melancholic in love and still done in evening serenades. In the 13th century, university students grouped themselves into groups called tunas to play and earn money or food, or serenade young ladies. Today, the tunas still exist, playing the bandurria, lute, guitar and tambourine, to entertain audiences.

Plucked chordophones in Portugal constitute the rich variety of musical instruments.  Guitars are called violas.  A small guitar called cavaquinho is popular in the northwest, and it has been exported to Brazil, to Hawaii where it was called ukulele, and to Indonesia known as kroncong.  The guitarra Portuguesa is a pear-shaped instrument with six double courses of strings, and it came from Great Britain during its occupation in Oporto.  Portugal has also the tunas that are found mostly in the north, a plucked string ensemble consisting of different sizes of mandolins, violas or guitars, and viola baixo (bass guitar).

In Russia, the most popular instrument is the balalaika, a three-stringed lute with a triangular sound-box.  It comes in different sizes: the piccolo balalaika, prima balalaika, secunda balalaika, alto balalaika, bass balalaika, and contrabass balalaika, with the prima balalaika as the most commonly used, and played with a plectrum. The term balalaika was first mentioned in a document that dates back to 1688. The earliest mention of the term balalaika dates back to an AD 1688 Russian document.  The domra, on the other hand, has been known in Russia since the 16th century although plucked instrument has been observed as early as the tenth century.  The domra was re-designed from a broken instrument found in 1896, and it has three strings and played with a plectrum.  It now provides the main melodic materials in balalaika ensembles.

In the late nineteenth century, the balalaika, a long-necked plucked lute also with triangular body became popular in eastern Ukraine, which comprised common ensembles that included a mandolin, a guitar, and a bandura, an instrument with 68 strings.  In Romania, the cobza is an old instrument that resembles the ‘ud from the Middle East, having 8 to 12 gut or metal strings and used to accompany melodic instruments.  It plays fiituris or rhythmic formulas named after dances and musical forms.  In Georgia, the plucked instrument is called panduri which are long-necked fretted lutes that are popular in accompanying dances, songs, as well as folk poetry competitions.   The chonguri, on the other hand, is non-fretted  medium size lute with four strings, and accompanies singing and dances.  The tambura or tamburica are instruments of Serbia which are grouped in ensembles, and these long-necked lutes can be found among the Croatians, Hungarians and Serbs.  They were brought into the Balkans after the invasion of the Turks in 1300.  In Bosnia, there are the long necked lutes like the tambura, šargija, karadjuzen, and bugarija, although the urban population prefer the saz which are used to accompany Islamic singers, and may have also come from Turkey.

Latin America

In Latin America, most indigenous communities play wind and percussion instruments, with the flutes and drums being the most prominent.  Thus, all the chordophones that are now prevalent in Latin America must have originated from the Iberian peninsula through the missionaries that brought the harp, violin and the guitar, from which all plucked strings had been derived.  The charango or the quinquincho is an instrument common in Peru and Bolivia, having come from the Central Andean region way back in the 1700s.  It is a small guitar-like instrument, with a flat or round back made of armadillo shell.   In Peru, the charango’s body is sometimes carved into a mermaid which is the symbol of the power of courtship, while in Bolivia, the charango is associated with the dry season and its larger version, the guitarilla, kitara or guitarrón, is played during the rainy season.  The charango may be played solo or in groups, with melodic and ostinato chordal patterns which accompany singing or dance.  Together with the charango, Peru has also the mandolin, the bandurria, and the harp.

In Brazil, the popular stringed instruments are the viola (a guitar with five single or double courses of strings) which is used by the lower class, the violão (the guitar of Portugal) which is the instrument of the upper class, the cavaquinho (a small guitar similar to the ukulele), and the bandolin (a mandolin-type instrument with four double courses of strings).

In Chile, creole or mestizo music likewise originated from the Spanish church and Arab-Andalucian tradition.  The instruments that were developed were the guitarra (a six-stringed guitar), the vihuela (a five-stringed guitar) and the charango which is a board zither unlike its name-sake in Bolivia and Peru.  The guitarron accompanies versos, which are sung poetry.  Another vocal form, the tonadas, are accompanied by  one or two guitars, while in the urban areas, vocal quartets sing the tonadas, with harp, accordion and guitars.

In Columbia, the tiple is a medium size chordophone that is related to the Spanish vihuela and was seen in the country since the late 1600.  The tiple today has  twelve strings grouped in four courses, accompanying the voice, the bandola, as well as guitar melodies.  The tiples part of estudiantinas which are organized by schools, businesses, and churches, which also include 3 bandolas and a guitar. The estudiantinas which play in serenatas in open-parks and concert halls are differentiated from murgas, which consist of non-professionals and even non-musicians, and play with tiples, clarinets, tambourines tamboras (drums), quijadas (  ) and reed flutes.  In Ecuador, a small guitar called requinto is played virtuosically, and is also part of the conjuntos with 2 guitars, bombo, and raspa (gourd).

In Venezuela, there is a four-stringed guitar called cuatro which has become the national instrument.  Often called guitarra in large cities, these instruments are called by the number of strings, thus, cuatro, cinco, and seis, and they play accompanying figures to the melodies of plucked lutes like the bandola and the mandolin.

In Panama, a small five-stringed guitar like the ukulele is called mejorana, the performers of which accompany singers of decimas, songs with ten lines to a stanza, as well as dances.

Since 1930s, the mariachi has become the most popular folk music ensemble in Mexico.  It consists of two trumpets, 2 to 3 violins, a guitar, a guitarra de golpe, a large instrument that is between the guitar and contrabass, a harp or a string bass.  Rondallas, consisting of guitars and a double bass, have also proliferated as a song-instrumental ensemble.


In Africa, reference is made to the guitar as having been introduced by Portuguese explorers as early as the 1400s, and the presence of guitar-like instruments such as the harp-lute that was first called the sanku and later known as seperewa.

There is also the plucked lute with three or four strings called the ramkie which were played by South Africans as early as the 1730s.  There were also other lute-like instruments in Madagascar, which looked like Arab or Islamic-influenced, like the Swahili udi (‘ud) and the Malagasy kabosy,  called gabusi in the Camoro islands. Later on, black immigrants in Liberia and Sierra Leone brought along the guitar, as did the sailors, soldiers, and missionaries that came from Europe and the Americas in the 1800s to the 1900s

Instruments whose origins are unknown are the kora, the bolon, and the ngombi.  The kora is a harp-lute with nineteen to twenty-one strings which is played by men to accompanies praise and historical songs sung by men and women in Senegal.  The bolon, on the other hand is a large three to four-string arched harp and the ngombi is an eight-string harp.

Next: Conclusion & Bibliography