What to look for in a Charango and Ronroco

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

 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.

Some History

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. 

Design

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.

 

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charangon

Hi Erik, sorry to take so long to reply -- famiy emergency.

I've checked out the video you linked, and I have to say I'm now more confused than ever about the charangon. Here's why:

Every source I've uncovered so far has described the charangon as "the larger relative of the charango", and it's alleged to be tuned (a 4th, 5th, or octave lower).

Problem is, that's exactly the same description other sources give of the ronroco.

I wen looking on "Bolivia Mall", which gives measurements for many of their instruments. Here's what I found:
Ronroco: 75 x 25cm, 80 x 21cm
Charangon: 74 x 22cm, 77 x 21cm

The differences are minor, other than that the charangons' measurements are a little /smaller/ than the ronrocos. But really, these instruments seem to be virtually the same size, shape, and tuning.

And yet... in that video the charangon looks a good deal /larger/ than these measurements, like it might be a true bass charango. It's hard to tell because of the perspective angle; perhaps it looks large in the photo than it is.

Which makes me wonder: Are these really two different instruments? Or is "ronroco," perhaps just another name for a "charangon"?

Any insights?

P.S. I've fallen in love with the ronroco I've had for two months. I have it tuned a 4th lower than the charango, and that seems to suit it well.

Charangon = Ronroco

Hey Dr. H

I may have found the answer to your question. I recently had the good fortune to cross paths with a famous french recording charagist who has spent significant time in South America. He told me that a charagon IS a ronroco. In fact he told me that there was no such term as ronroco! After lengthy debate on that particularly mundane point I came to two conclusions.

1. They are synonymous terms

2. The history of the charango in South America is incredibly varied. Literally designs changed from village to village as did tunings. As a result it is highly likely that the words used to describe baritone charangos are also varied. The term ronroco appears to come from Argentina and has gotten traction in North America and Europe from Gustavo Santaolla's work. Other parts of South America appear refer to the same instrument as a charangon.

Hope this helps!

Erik

Charangon = Ronroco

Hi Erik,


Last year was a very busy one for me, and I've been neglecting my on-line contacts.  It occured to me that I hadn't been back to the charangon/ronroco thread in a long time, and checking in, I find that you've been carrying on the research. :)


What your luthier connection says makes some sense  -- that "ronroco" may be another name for "charangon".  I know that all these instruments vary from region to region.  I have heard the charango refered to as a "quirquinchu", for example, by a player from Bolivia.  I'm maybe 80% convinced that these are the same instruments, but for tuning, except for three remaining points:


1) Charangons seem to have the same rounded shape as charangos, whereas nearly every ronroco I've seen has angular sides. 


2) All of the sources I've uncovered to date have stated that the ronroco was invented by Gonzalo Hermosa González of Los Kjarkas in the 1980s.  The charagon, however, is listed in musical referrence sources dating back as far as the early 1970s -- Marcuse's Dictionary of Musical Instruments (1974), for example. 


3) Los Kjarkas is a Bolivian band, and Gonzalo Hermosa González is a native-born Bolivian.


Now I suppose that it's possible that González had a charangon which he used in a (then) new tuning, and eventually got a luthier to make him a distinctively-shaped charangon for that tuning, which he eventually dubbed the "ronroco".  In which case his "invention" of the ronroco really amounts to a reinvention of the charangon.  But if the name "ronroco" is Argentine, why would a Bolivian, playing a Bolivian instrument, in a Bolivian band, give an Argentine name to an instrument he invented for that band?  Seems unlikely, though knowing personally how perverse musicians can sometimes be, certainly possible.


Still, it would be nice to get the full story from someone who knows what it is.  I wonder if González would answer a polite letter from a crazy gringo guitarist?  Maybe I'll try it and see.


In the meantime, speaking of inventing new instruments, it has been my thought to design a charangon that is somewhat larger than a ronroco, and thus better able to support the tuning an octave down from the charango.  I note that you special-ordered a ronroco directly from a luthier; did he custom-make an instrument  for you?


If so, I'm wondering how one would go about getting in contact with an authentic ronroco/charangon luthier who might be interested in building a charangon to my specs?  I'm thinking about 86-90cm long; 33-37 cm wide; with a scale somewhere between 66-72 cm.  that's not exactly double the typical charango, but scaled up from the ronroco by a similar percentage as the ronroco is scaled up from the charango.


What do you think?

Charangon versus Ronroco

Hi Dr. H

Unfortunately I have no insights. As the old saying goes..."if it looks like a ronroco, plays like one.." If you see my blog on musical notation you'll also pick up on a wide range of musical terms used in South America that are a blend or European and other terms. It wouldnt surprise me if there was more than one word to describe a ronroco.

I love the sound of my ronroco...and use it way more than my charangos. The pitch is wonderful. Glad you are enjoying yours.

Erik

ronroco

Hi Eric.
I am about to purchase a Pablo Richter ronroco and wondered which of his models you chose for yours? Did it arrive well set up, meaning the action playability, or have you had to make any adjustments? Does yours have a pick up installed ? Thanks for your shared information - it has helped me wade through the mass of good and bad surrounding these instruments .
Anthony.

Richter's Ronroco

Hi Anthony,

Sorry for the delay. Its been a busy week. Also I'm glad to hear that some of the information I've posted has been useful to you.

I basically bought the top of the line ronroco from Pablo. I cant remember the title he gave to it..something like "special" or "ultimate". It cost about $750 if I recall correctly. Prices may have changed since then. Extra costs included installing a pick up...which is a must if you are recording or performing and shipping.

Since I live in Bangkok, the shipping took forever (4.5 months). If you live in North America I imagine you could halve that time. It also took a while for Pablo to build it...so if your looking for instant gratification, dont hold your breath. I was happy with the result. That being said, two years into the instrument I've had to make the following modifications:

1. I added fret dots to the instrument. I had asked Pablo to do this, but he forgot

2. I also replaced the nut - the original was made of wood - with a bone one. I also added a bone bridge on the saddle. This was done for two reasons. The first and most important was the low B string (the only one with metal) sounded awful between the 13-15th fret. Sort of tinny. Replacing these two allowed me to elevate that string slightly to give it a clearer sound. I think some purests would say that the wood nut gives the instrument a folky sound. It was quite nice, except for the B string. But I must say the bone nut and saddle topping vastly improve the sound.

I have to make a comment about the pick up installed by Pablo. He maintained that it was especially designed for charangos. I'm disappointed in it. It doesnt pick up the G and D strings as well as the B E Bs. The volume just falls away. I'd recommend you look into alternative pick ups...then let me know if they work better.

Hope this helps!

Erik

Ronroco Tunings

Hi Erik
My search for exact information on ronroco construction , tunings and chords continues - there is sketchy info for much of it but thanks to you and others like Joe Todaros, I am steadily getting a clearer picture. I have found out that there are 2 basic tunings for the instrument. One being the same as charango - as in Andean -and the other
Argentinian . How easy was it for you to move to using the Em tuning of the Richter ronroco and did you find chord books to help you? I am used to the other tuning as I have an old armadillo bowl charango . Can one change the tuning or is it set because of its fret spacing in construction? Pablo has offered to construct the nut and bridge out of ebony because I mentioned that I knew someone who had had theirs altered to bone to sharpen the sound.
Joe Todoros - has a music store in Philadelphia importing charangos etc. - recommended the Aquila nylgut strings
to help produce perfect intonation. He says that poor string quality is the cause of poor intonation in many instruments. Would you agree and what type of strings do you have on yours and did they come with the instrument?
Thanks for your informative blog!
Anthony

Tuning, Chords and Strings

Hi Anthony

Glad my blog is helping out. I'll try to add more over the following months since it seems to be popular. Just a few comments from my side.

TUNING

I was recently discussing tuning with a friend of mine who's traveled all over South America as a professional charango player. Apparently each village had their own design of charango and own tuning. You could always tell which village a musician was from by the tuning of his/her charango. As a guitarist I'm a huge fan of Al Petteway and Martin Simpson. Both of these gentlemen have really opened my eyes to the possibilities of multiple open tunings. Rightly or wrongly I carry that bias into my charango playing. I think anything goes, however there are some combinations that seem to work better than others. So rather than be prescriptive I'd recommend that you explore the world of charango music and see what variations you like best. If you look at my introductory notes on how to tune a charango, the ronroco is 3 steps down from the charango

RONROCO CHORDS

Of course guitar-learning.com is set up to help you with chords, so its not a bad place to beginl However The Charango Chord Bible is probably the definitive resource. The only hassle as a ronroco player is that you have to go through the book and transpose down the names of the chords.

STRINGS

Like the guitar world everyone has their favorite brand of strings. I'm currently using Medina Artigas Professional! :) but there are lots of good strings out there. I bought my first charango from Joe - a lovely Garcia. Joe is a great guy, very helpful so I'm sure he's providing you good advice. Since I live in Thailand, I buy strings in bulk and tend to purchase from whoever is going to South America next. If your living in the US you'll have a lot more choices than I.

With regard to intonation, there can be multiple problems that an instrument can bring, if its poorly set up, if the neck is warped, if there are cracks that alter vibration, etc. Changing the strings is the best way to start trouble shooting. If that doesnt work, then you may have another problem.

Hope this helps!

Cheers

Erik

Hi Erik Apologies for the

Hi Erik
Apologies for the slow reply - I have been away on holiday. Your comments and experiences with your Richter
ronroco are helpful. Should I also have a problem with the B string , I will know what to do. I have asked him to consider using bone for the nut and bridge but no reply so far. I think you have a Waldo Panozo charango. Am I right and if so , are you happy with the construction and the sound?
Thanks a lot
Anthony.

Charango Premium

Hi Anthony

I ordered a charango premium from Pablo. Its a nice little instrument and plays well. What I like about Richter's instruments is that the necks are very playable. For me this is very important since I like technical pieces that involve a lot of fret work. The pick up works well on this one...and to edit an early comment I made about the pick up that Pablo first installed, apparently it was dirty. I got the pick ups cleaned recently and the sound was perfect! So a mia culpa to Pablo for misrepresenting his choice of pick up.

Just FYI - I bought a Garcia charango from Joe Todaro at half the price of Pablos. It has - in my opinion - a way nicer sound. Unfortunately there are a number of neck issues that make this little gem strictly a strumming instrument for the beach.

Sound is a very personal issue, so what I might like on an instrument you might not. I'm still learning about what makes each instrument sound different. Of course the shape of the instrument, the wood, strings, etc all count, but my comments about the nut and bolt still hold. They have a significant impact on the instrument.

Hope this helps!

Cheers

Erik

Charangon

Hi Dr. H

With regard to charangon's there is a video here that features one off to the left hand side of the performer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCe5_R9RurA

Unfortunately the video doesnt feature Patricio playing the instrument, but at least we have visual proof of concept. It looks quite interesting.

I recently found a bass classical guitar, which sounds like the guitar equivalent. It had a rich deep voice. Definitely something to add to the collection! I imagine a charangon would be the charango equivalent. Thanks for flagging this.

Cheers

Erik

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Charango and Ronroco

Hi there.

I'm a long time guitar player (more than 30 years)who has been involved with the charango for the past 8 or 9 years. Recently I've acquired a ronroco, and while poking around the web for historical info, I came across some of your blog posts. You've put together a good brief intro for someone new to the instruments. I feel compelled to point out a couple of things, though.

First off, while a lot of modern charangos are all-wood, they are also still available -- particularly from Bolivia -- made from armadillo shells. I have several of these, and bought another one just 8 months ago.
Second, nearly all armadillo charangos are made from the quirquincho or "nine-banded armadillo". These are -far- from "endangered"; they're as common as rats, and indeed are considered a pest in many places.

My own experience with charango quality is similar to yours: under $150 quality is inconsistent (although sometimes it can be good).

However, I wouldn't suggest that one has to pay $600 - $1000 to get a "professional" instrument. There are some high-quality charangos available in the $300 - $400 range. Past that, you're mostly paying for bells and whistles: fancy wood coloring; carving; flashy inlay; electronics; etc.

It's important, I think, to remember that these are /folk/ instruments. When first evolved they were quite crude (many didn't use bridge saddles, and even in recent times they are often strung with monofilament fishing line).

I guess it comes down to what one wants to do with the instrument. If you want to play Bach, then maybe you need an expensive "pro" instrument. But if you want to play from the original folk music rep, then a folk-quality instrument is probably not only sufficient, but more authentic.

Anyway, it's good to see the increasing interest in these instruments. Thanks for the article.

Thanks for your additions!

Hi Dr. H

I appreciate you taking the time to add your experience/comments.

Reading your post I realized I missed out on the mid range charango's, which you've nicely addressed. This is the most interesting one since the average musician will likely be spending money in this range. In fact I have a charango that I purchased for $300 which has a lovely voice - even nicer that my $700 one - but the action higher up the neck is terrible!

The "professional" category is a label that I've noticed used on quite a few sites selling their top end charangos. The price range is higher ($600-$1000), and the instruments tend to be made of better woods, featuring pick ups. If you check out my other article on Historical European Music with the Charango there are quite a few people playing Bach and complex pieces that require precision fret boards. So I think the category has merit and services an expanding market.

Of course it deserves to be said that if you can travel to South America your almost guaranteed to be able to buy charangos at a better price (if you dont include your airfare in your cost calculations!).

The guitar was a "folk instrument" that Segovia elevated to the mainstream through his efforts. I think similar things are happening with the charango. So while I take your point that there is a world of lovely folk music to explore with this lovely instrument, it is also quickly evolving into a mainstream instrument. This evolution is being accompanied with many changes in how the instrument is constructed. Its my guess these will draw upon the improvements made in guitar construction where relevant. As you point out many didn't use bridge saddles and they were often constructed from armadillos. But many luthiers are now using techniques more commonly associated with guitars to produce instruments with more consistent sound and action. This has included shifting to wood construction. Its an exciting time for the charango!

Best Wishes

Erik

Segovia and the blues?

Hi Erik,
Your point about the guitar and Segovia is well taken. I would point out, however, that Segovia helped to define a whole new genre of guitar playing, but he didn't redefine guitar playing in general. There were still people making a go of the folk idiom with $25 guitars they purchased out of Sears catalogs. Robert Johnson, Bill Broonzy, and Leadbelly come to mind.
So it really is about the -music-, more than the axe.

If I want to play the rep of Segovia, I might want to invest in a $5000 Ramirez instrument. But if I want to cop Robert Johnson's sound on the blues, I might well choose a $75 plywood "Stella".

I do agree with you, though, that it's exciting to have enough variety available to be able to -make- those choices.

On a slightly different topic, you mention charango and ronroco; have you ever encountered an actual _charangon_? Thus far this member of the charango family has remained largely mythical to me, as I've not set eyes on a working model. Add to that, that it's been described both as "slightly larger than a ronroco, and tuned to a lower pitch," and also as "slightly smaller than a ronroco, and tuned to a higher pitch," and it begins to take on an air of mystery. Any insights here?

Thx.