Evolution of an instrument

You may be surprised to learn that the ukulele was invented by the Portuguese. The uke is a slightly smaller version of the Portuguese machete de braga – or braguinah.  The braguinah is a member of the guitar family, descended from the early European lute. It is a member of the family of Portuguese stringed instruments that include:

The viola braguesa. This oldest of the group, is not a violin-style instrument, but rather a small 10-string guitar (set in five courses much like a 12-string guitar). It was invented in Braga.

The citole was an instrument played by troubadours and restricted to the nobility in the 15thand 16thcenturies. By the 17thand 18thcenturies, however, it had found its way to the lower classes, and could be found in theaters, taverns and barbershops. A smaller, flatter (and cheaper) version of the citole, the cittern, became popular during the Renaissance, because it was easier to play, cheaper to make and more portable.

The guitarra Portuguese (Portuguese guitar) is a descendent of the citole. It is a type of 12-stringed guitar with a short neck and large rounded, teardrop-shaped soundboard. There are two styles of the guitarra, the Lisboa model and the Coimbra model. The Lisboa has a shorter neck and larger soundboard. The guitarra Portuguese is a staple of Fado music. It is sometimes accompanied by steel strung classical guitar (viola de fado) and a double bass.  

The machete was a small, four-stringed instrument developed in Madeira using local wood from the heavily forested island.  The braguinah (machete de braga) is a variation of the machete that first arose during the 11thcentury. It is a soprano-sized guitar, with four strings, that had a bright sound when it was strummed and plucked. It was popular among the high society women in Madeira. It later became popular with sailors and the Portuguese who emigrated to the sugarcane plantations of Hawaii in the late 1800’s because of its small, portable size. There, it was downsized slightly more and became the ukulele for which Hawaii is most well known.

Lisboa guitarras depicting the voyages of Vasco de Gamma as told in Portugal’s most famous epic poem, “Os Lusíadas”, by Luís Vas de Camões.  “Os Lusíadas” is often compared to Homer’s “Odyssey”.


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