A Guitarists Choice To Play The Ronroco (baritone charango)

Reverse view Ronroco up front charango shown in rearRonroco and charango (smaller) beside each otherClose up of charango showing 5 pairs of double stringsClose up of Ronroco showing five pairs of double strings

This is the first of several blogs I will post on the Ronroco. This one introduces myself and provides a little background on the instrument (more will follow). I am not a professional musician, nor a particularly good ronroco player. However I hope that, as someone discovering this instrument, I can help others who may also be interested by making their journey a little easier and more exciting!

I've played guitar on and off for years. It started with lessons in classical guitar. My family moved a lot, so finding teachers was difficult. This turned out to be a good thing; since I was forced to go outside classical music. The next teacher I had, albeit briefly, was a former studio musician who had played with a number of big bands in the 1970s. A serious blue grass player, he asked me on my first lesson with him what my goals were. I had brought a copy of Dire Straights’ Sultans of Swing. His listened to Mark Knopflers solo twice then turned around and played it almost effortlessly. My jaw dropped and he just laughed. "Its not that difficult, just a Bach progression done up a different way".  I was hooked.

I haven’t had that feeling for a long time...until about a year ago that is when I heard Gustavo Santaolalla perform the song Iguazu. Its used in the TV series Deadwood.  The haunting beautiful voice of the instrument took my breath away. Doing some quick internet research I found more about the composer Gustavo, who is now one of Hollywoods’ most sought after composers.  His music is astounding and spans an incredible number of genres.  While searching youtube discovered the song "De Ushuaia a la Quiaca" and it was game over.  I had to find out what instrument had such a beautiful voice. 

My research opened up a new world to me of South American culture and instruments. Not being a Spanish speaker makes this a bit more challenging.   And for English speakers interested in getting to know about charango's and ronrocos the road ahead comes with a warning...bring your Spanish Dictionary!  My first step, and it turned out to be not a bad one, was mistaking the charango for the ronroco. I ordered an instrument from the US...the cost was approximately $300 with shipping. Living as I do Thailand comes with certain challenges when trying to learn about South American music.  I was not able to walk into a music shop and talk to a shop keeper or play the instruments so embarking on this journey of discovery by mail order was a bit nerve wracking!  When it arrived, the instrument I unpacked was beautiful.  It certainly had the voice I was looking for, but with one problem. It was an octave too high. More research and I realized that my new musical hero Gustavo plays ronroco more often than he plays charango.  He even has an album entitled Ronroco which is a good entry point for people interested in this instrument.  

The ronroco is, in fact, a baritone charango.  The photos at the top left hand side of this blog show a ronrocco in front with a smaller charango behind it. Another photo compares the guitar, ronroco and charango so that one can see the relative differences in size. Pictures to the right show that both ronroco and charango have ten strings paired in twos (like a mandolin).  The tunings are as follows: 

charango G32 G32 • C37 C37 • E29 E41 • A34 A34 • E41 E41 

ronroco  D27 D27 • G32 G32 • B36 B24 • E29 E29 • B36 B36

The numbers by the note indicate their position on a piano keyboard. For easy reference you can go to a number of virtual piano websites if you dont know the keyboard. One I know is virtual piano but there are many others.  

After having played my charango for 4 months I realized two things. The first was, you get what you pay for. Its not a bad introductory instrument, but if you are serious about playing either charango or ronrocco its well worth paying $600-$700 for an instrument that plays well. In fact concert charango's and ronroccos go for around $1,200...and I'm sure they are well worth the price.  I decided to probe further into the ronrocco.  Gustavo has played ronroccos made by a luthier based in Argentina by the name of Pablo Richter.  I decided to take the next big step and order a more expensive instrument from him. While it took almost a year to pull off this feat from Thailand (thats another story), when the instrument arrived I was not disappointed. I had asked Pablo to install Fishman pick ups so I could record and perform with the instrument. It has an incredible sound and was worth the wait.

What has amazed me about the musical journey I am on so far is this. I have passed by countless Andean bands in Canada, US and Europe. Garbed in traditional clothes with pan pipes the almost inevitably play the song El Condo Pasa. Popularized by Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960’s it is, without exception, the most overplayed cover by any Andean street band in the world. I literally get nauseous when I hear the song!  Hiding in these bands the entire time was a charango and – occasionally – a ronroco. I now wonder why I never saw the beauty of this instrument before? 

The answer partially lies in the musical genius of Gustavo Santaolalla.  A lot of traditional South American music can sound the same after a while to the untrained ear of someone from another culture.  To be able to hear an instruments voice and hear its potential outside of how it is commonly played is the key.  Gustavo’s musical sensibilities go well beyond his Argentinean heritage. He was able to bring out the voice of this instrument and introduce it to a world hungry for new sounds.  Gustavo is not the only one. The world is waking up to the sounds of these instruments and endless possibilities await. Curiously Japan is one of the early adopters. When you think about it, you can almost hear a ronroco sound in some traditional Japanese music. I cant wait to hear the results.  And maybe your turn is next!