Charango – the sound of the Andes

by on 7th March, 2014


This week Andean Trails’ traveller Paul Crowther describes his love affair with the Charango instrument and the Andes, with some great pictures on Facebook.


He writes:

“For me, the charango is the essential sound of the Andes. The pipes and flutes are also typical, but the charango sound is not found anywhere else.

The charango supposedly came from the Spanish guitar which the indigenous Andean people adapted. They made it smaller and more portable (to accompany most journeys on foot) and doubled the strings (I suspect a mandolin was the model here.)

A guide in Potosi showed us a carving on a 17th century church showing a mermaid playing a charango.

The shell of the armadillo was used as a sound box but now that’s illegal and they check this at border crossings.

How it got it’s tuning I have yet to discover – it is effectively tuned like a ukelele with an extra string at the top. For me it’s the pairs of soft nylon strings which give it the jangly sound I love. You can play and sing to it in your hotel room quietly or get into a loud frenzy at a barbeque!


My first charango

It’s not too difficult to play the charango if you play the guitar, mandolin or ukulele. I bought a cheap one in Cusco 4 years ago, just from an open-air stall in the Plaza des Armas, along with a colourful cloth case. It cost about £20 (USD 30) but it still plays with a lovely tone.

The drawback of buying a cheap one is that the strings are secured at the body end with glue and they are difficult to replace if they break. (I was fortunate to know an instrument repairer who took on the challenge.) I only learnt a few chords and played El Condor Pasa because it was the only tune I recognised.

You get a “how to play the charango” book with hilarious instructions such as “It’s united from 3 or more keys it play it the same time means standars(?) of arpeggios or strum make rythm and harmony from accompanying”. Luckily I was able to get the gist and follow the pictures and chord diagrams.


charango practice


Time to get serious

When I came on a trip to Bolivia and Chile in Dec 2013 I knew I wanted a better instrument, and I had time over the five weeks in South America to learn to play better. My wife Clare encouraged me by buying me a charango lesson in La Paz as a Christmas present (she rang Andean Trails to see if they could arrange it, which they did – thanks, Alan).

There’s a picture of me having a lesson with Eduardo. He didn’t speak English and my Spanish is rudimentary, but with Clare’s help we communicated in a memorable three-way lesson. Later that day we saw and heard Eduardo in his Band, Talake.

I also bought a lovely charango with a carving on the back which cost about £85 (USD 130) – I could have paid four times as much and I don’t think it would have been better. I bought an extra set of strings, a case and had strap-buttons fixed to the body. You’re supposed to grip the instrument with your upper arm while you strum, but I notice most players have a strap instead, which is a must-have colourful Bolivian accessory.


Champion altiplano music 

Eduardo had taught me the four main sequences of chords which are used in Altiplano music of the Andes and encouraged me to strum them with a loose wrist and plenty of abandon! Charango is not a shy retiring instrument, or merely backup – it has a central role in the band setup, along with the quena (flute) and pan-pipes.

To strum or pick you mainly use the right index finger with the nail grown suitably long as plectrums are nowhere to be seen. Actually Eduardo had enormous nails on all fingers and thumb of his right hand – quite feminine!

Later in the trip in the Toro Toro region we had two guides, both called Jose – and both were charango players. In that region the instrument has metal strings so the sound is different but they said that every man needed to play the charango well to woo the best girl – a good incentive to practice if I ever heard one! One of the Joses had won a national charango competition and sounded brilliant. He would play in the Jeep and whenever he had an instrument to hand.


Beatles’ time

Over the next four weeks I had a few opportunities to practice – once while our flight was delayed at Cochabamba airport – nobody seemed to mind – and built up more chords and a few songs. I managed to get the chord sequences fairly smooth – changing from one chord to another is what slows most beginners down – and I also adapted a few Beatle songs – Yesterday, In my life, Mother Nature’s Son – for variety. I was quite selective as I don’t like murdering Beatle songs and only a few feel right on the instrument.

When In southern Chile, in the Ecocamp at the Torres del Paine I was able to give an impromptu sing-song to thank our guide, Xabi.

However since I got back home I am trying to YouTube a few of the Spanish songs such as Naranjutay.

These contain some “tune picking” on two strings, which is exciting development once you have the chords under your belt. Andean bands are not too plentiful round here but I’m still on the lookout.



So if you have the slightest inclination, I would buy a beginner’s or a “professional” instrument, maybe have a lesson, but you can get a long way with two chords, A minor and C major, which are really easy.

I had no problem carrying it into the cabin of a plane – you just have to be careful where you stow it. It also looks impressive hanging on your wall at home – and when you play it, the sounds of the Andes come back to you…

By the way we had a brilliant holiday – Andean Trails worked really well for us!”


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