What to look for in a Charango and Ronroco
Sooner or later when one is playing an instrument, an interest develops in how it's made. This can be driven by the need to repair a broken part, to buy a new instrument, or from simple curiosity. While knowing your “gear” doesn’t make you a better player…it can make your playing sound better! The reason for this is that everything from the choice of woods, the types of machine heads used and the set up affect how an instrument is played. Everyone has different sizes of hands and playing styles, so over time luthiers have started to develop instruments to meet the needs of particular performers. Nowhere is this better understood than the world of guitar. Magazines abound as do blog sites on the various virtues of particular pick-up systems, tuners, body types, etc.
While I’m not aware of any particular publication devoted to charangos and ronrocos in English, there are quite a few websites (some in English) that reflect a passionate following for these instruments. What is clear, however, is that these instruments are just being discovered by people outside of South America.
One of the seminal books on guitar is by Gerken, et. al. (2003). Acoustic Guitar. An Historical Look at the Composition, Construction and Evolution of the Worlds Most Beloved Instrument. It’s a fine book for any guitarist curious about the roots and structure of this instrument. I’m not about to replicate this work in this blog, but I will touch on a few topics.
The charango first appeared around the end of the 17th century in Bolivia. Districts like Potosi, Chuquisaca and Chochambamba still make traditional forms of the instrument. Use of the instrument then spread to several Andean countries including Argentina, Peru and Chile. Until the mid 20th Century, the charango was only played in rural areas. As a result, city dwellers held the charango and its music in disdain.
Like the guitar which was considered an outlier of the lute, it has taken a number of virtuosos to elevate the charango to its own status. In the guitar world these included Fernando Sor, Francisco Tarrega and others. It was in the early 1940s that Mauro Nunez Caceres was able to gain a more respecting audience. While there are now many famous players in South America, I would contend that Gustavo Santoalalla has done more to popularize the charango and ronroco to Western audiences than his predecessors.
While the standard design of charango echoes the Spanish guitar it is one that has constantly evolved over time. For me one of the more interesting aspects of the charango was that the body used to be made from the shell of an armadillo. If you look at a charango from behind it's easy to picture this. Thankfully this practice has stopped to save this endangered species. That being said I personally find the charango about as hard to hold as an armadillo!
Charangos come in all shapes and sizes. Some have gut or nylon strings, while others have metal strings. Some have round sound holes while others are done in the shapes of suns, geckos and other exotic shapes.
Buying a Charango
So what do you look for when you buy a charango or a ronroco? I am at the beginning of this journey myself so I don’t have a lot of answers. At this point, however, I’ll share a few observations, which if I can, I will update over time:
(i) Tuning Machine Heads: In general these do not appear to be very advanced on charango’s or ronrocos…at least not when compared to guitars. I’d be tempted to replace them with a precision machine head made for guitar if I thought they would fit on the headstock. I’ve never tried this, but if someone has I’d love to hear about it.
(ii) Truss Rods: I was recently designing a charango with Pablo Richter and I asked him if the charango would come with a truss rod. He reported that since the body is carved out of a single piece of wood and the neck is relatively short they do not come with truss rods. Ronrocos are slightly bigger and personally I can see no reason why a truss rod couldn’t be installed. Doing so would help ensure that the instrument could be adjusted for any warping due to humidity or dryness over time.
(iii) Saddles: Like guitars charangos and ronrocos appear to have a range of materials used for their saddles. Curiously my “better” ronroco has a saddle made out of wood. For me this was counter-intuitive since bone saddles often provide a better sound. The use of different saddle material seems to range widely however, so it may reflect the luthiers own preferences and the resulting sound.
(iv) Built-in Pick Ups: While the majority of charangos and ronrocos do not come with pick ups, increasingly these are being made available on the market. If you have any intention of recording or playing with other musicians one should consider buying an instrument with a pre-installed pick up.
(v) Price: Entry level charangos can be bought for as cheap as $100-$300. The quality of these is quite mixed. Unfortunately the biggest problem is high action (i.e. the strings are too high off the fret board, making them difficult to play), or the neck is warped. Both result in an instrument that can be played lower down on the fret board, but are impossible to play higher up. If you are already a guitarist or a committed musician I’d definitely recommend buying a charango around the $600-$700 price range to start with. (This price range does not include the case).
I will try to respond to any questions you might have and update this blog periodically with new information.