We’ve all heard the sound of a Spanish guitar before, haven’t we? The soft melody emitted by its strings, interpreting world-famous songs such as Wonderwall. It is, without a doubt, one of the best-known Spanish instruments.
In addition, these days we seem to love and enjoy Latin music more than ever before. Latin music is not equivalent to Spanish music, but it helps us get started and familiarized with Spanish instruments.
10 famous Spanish instruments you may not have heard about
Allow me to take the liberty of mentioning this instrument that we are all undoubtedly familiar with. It is so traditional from Spain that it cannot be missing from this list. The Spanish guitar is today a multi-faceted instrument used in both classical and popular music.
In its electrified version, it is the most used instrument in genres such as blues, rock, and heavy metal. Its curved shape, which resembles a woman’s body, has been widely used as metaphors or similes in literature and songs. We all know that it is a stringed instrument, but it has not always had 6 strings, as the current ones have.
It is a number that has varied over time, reaching up to 12. Although nowadays, most of them have 6 strings, there also exist Spanish guitars with 7 of them. The strings can also be very diverse, starting with the type of material (originally they were made of animal guts). Nowadays, the mainly used material is nylon.
The bagpipe is a well-known wind musical instrument that, although we associate with countries such as Scotland, Ireland, Germany, or even Eastern countries, is also deeply rooted in several Spanish regions. It is a typical instrument of Asturias, Galicia, and Cantabria, the northern regions of Spain.
Expert Tip: The musician who plays the bagpipe, known as gaitero in the Spanish language, blows through a tube. That air reaches a bag called “odre” (again, in Spanish) and inflates it.
To produce the sound, the piper must squeeze the bag with his arm to make the air come out through several tubes while also playing the desired notes and rhythms with his hands, opening and closing holes as if it were a flute. It is widely used in celebrations and military or political acts.
Probably few Spanish instruments are as well known worldwide as the castanets. Curiously, their origin lies in the Phenician culture more than 3000 years ago. However, it is in Spanish music where they have taken root more fiercely and where they have gained recognition.
They are percussion instruments formed by two concave shell-shaped halves that are held with the thumb or middle finger to hit each other. They are part of our folklore in many typical Spanish songs, particularly used to provide percussion and rhythm while the dancers tap their feet.
Although castanets are by excellence, a highlight of flamenco, they are also often used in other Spanish folkloric expressions. And not only in Spain, but castanets are also part of the expression of folklore in Portugal and other Latin American countries.
To sum it up, castanets are a key accompaniment in dance and the rhythmic structure of various musical compositions, being one of the most interesting and ancient percussion instruments that have survived over time to become the symbol of an entire culture, mainly of Flamenco.
It is a friction instrument that serves to give accompaniment and rhythm, formed by a large container and covered by a membrane of skin, leather, or plastic. A hole is cut in the membrane through which an elongated wooden rod is inserted. The musician turns the rod or inserts and removes it repeatedly to make the membrane vibrate.
These vibrations are amplified by the container and that is where the magic happens. This instrument is not of Spanish origin, it is believed that it arrived from the Congo to the Iberian Peninsula around the 15th century.
This instrument of remote origins is an onomatopoeic word that comes from the Congolese word zimbembo, which seems to allude to certain funeral hymns.
However, this instrument is quite traditional in Spanish culture. Ask any family if they could imagine a Christmas gathering without the sound of a good zambomba accompanying Christmas carols. Most of the groups that play Christmas music in the villages during December use the zambomba to give it that special touch.
The bottle of aniseed
As we all acknowledge, glass containers with liquid in them can produce different sounds. In fact, depending on the amount of liquid inside, they produce one sound or another. This makes it a very entertaining experiment for children or anyone. Place several glasses in front of you and modify the amount of water they contain.
Play them one by one and you will see that the range of tones differs greatly. But this is not exactly the functioning of the aniseed bottle. Spanish “instrument” is so traditional. Just like the zambomba, the aniseed bottle is used to give rhythm and accompaniment and is used in typical Christmas music groups.
Expert Tip: It works as follows, the bottle is held by its spout and an object is rubbed against its body such as a spoon, a plastic rod, or some metallic object. The way it is played is like the charrasca or quijada both other Hispanic American folk instruments.
It may seem a little odd, but it is widely used during gatherings and festivities. It provides a very nice and unique touch to the melodies.
The bandurria is a stringed plucked instrument, that is similar to the guitar or mandolin, but it belongs to the Spanish lute family. It has 12 strings and a lute shape. The strings are stepped on completely perpendicularly, not obliquely, as this causes weaker keys. Perhaps one of the oldest instruments.
If we admit that the guitar comes from the Greek Citara, we could assume that it is more than two thousand years old but the Bandurria is possibly a thousand years older.
Its ancient origin is guaranteed by its name: Pan-turis, which was the term with which the ancient Sumerians called the stringed instruments 400 years before Christ and the oldest known, exhibits this root, in the Latin meaning of Pandura from which comes, according to many, the Spanish Bandurria.
The origin of the Bandurria could come from the Pandura, an instrument used by the ancient Romans in the countries of Mediterranean Europe, gaining immense popularity.
The Bandurria is mainly used in the traditional music of the Valencian Community.
Although it is not considered a typical instrument of Andalusia, it is also widely used in this region. It is used as an accompaniment for choirs and the tunas of the universities. It is common to see people playing it on the streets.
The Spanish lute
The “new Spanish lute” was created in the 19th century, using the name of a historical instrument that had fallen into disuse, to designate in reality a type of large bandurria that formed a family with it and from which it only differed in the larger size.
The Spanish lute is an instrument composed of a flat wooden box in the shape of a pear, a neck, and a head-on which a pegbox groups twelve strings arranged in six orders. It is widely used in Spanish folk music and in fact, is native to Spain.
It is used in popular orchestras and can serve as an accompaniment, harmony, or even melody instrument in certain pieces.
The accordion, a portable free-reed musical instrument, consists of a treble shell with external piano-style keys or buttons, which are connected by folding bellows and a bass shell attached to opposite sides of hand-operated bellows.
Inside the treble and bass casings of an accordion are free reeds, small metal reeds arranged in rows along with valves that are cut into metal frames. When air flows around a reed on one side, it vibrates above its frame, airflow in the opposite direction does not cause vibration.
The wind is admitted to the reeds selectively through valves controlled by a keypad or a set of buttons. Each valve admits wind on a pair of reeds, one of which is mounted to sound on the bellows press and the other on the draw.
It is quite common in Spain for some musicians to play the accordion in front of restaurants, to liven up the atmosphere, and then accept the donations that each family wants to make. The development of the accordion is believed to have been inspired by the Chinese cheng, the first known instrument to use a free vibrating reed to create sound.
The Chinese cheng consists of a series of bamboo tubes, a resonator box, a wind chamber, and a mouthpiece. It has a shape resembling that of a phoenix. During the following decades, several improvements were made to the accordion. Steel reeds were incorporated into the instrument in 1857.
Expert Tip: The addition of more bass keys was particularly important. Although accordions come in many sizes and shapes, the best way to tell them apart is by their sound as they are quite similar, regardless of whether some have buttons and others have (piano) keys.
The culture of the Basque Country a northern region of Spain is usually quite original and different from the culture of the other autonomous communities. Also, its traditional instruments are peculiar and original, such as the Txistu.
The instrumental family of the Txistu is composed of: the Txistu itself, the Silbote (a fourth or fifth lower than the Txistu), and the Txirula, an octave higher than the Silbote. The fingering is the same for all instruments, although, of course, each one has its particularities.
Except for the Txirula, which is made entirely of wood and is usually made in one piece, the rest of the instruments are made articulated, with the lower part changeable according to the key in which we want to play. The most commonly used wood is ebony, although others have been used such as boxwood or walnut and even plastic or metal materials.
As for the metal parts, these are usually chromed or in the best instruments, silver. The tuning of an instrument such as the Txistu, which lacks keys and has only three holes, is complex and depends largely on the player.
However, it is essential that the basic tuning of the instrument is correct, so a great deal of research and testing has been carried out to achieve instruments like the current ones, capable of playing in tune in any key.
The rociera flute (the bagpipe of Huelva)
The “rociera” flute is the three-holed flute of Huelva and Andalusia, a woodwind instrument that is always accompanied by the drum or tambourine, a percussion instrument that also has its own characteristics in the province of Huelva. This three-hole instrument from Huelva is also known as bagpipe “rociera” or simply flute.
The term “rociera” comes from its habitual and continuous presence in the pilgrimages and particularly in the Pilgrimage of El Rocio.
The Spanish pilgrimages are manifestations of popular religiosity, they are a walk towards a temple or hermitage dedicated to the Virgin and ask her favors, thank her and show her the love, affection, and tenderness of the children towards their Mother.
The bagpipe of Huelva is a vertical flute, of a single body, with an inverted conical tube both in its exterior aspect and in its interior tube, with a mouthpiece in the shape of a beak, opened by a small indentation in which the breath of air is introduced. An inverted conical tube means that the flute is narrower at the lower end, it tapers from the mouthpiece to the lower area where the fingers are placed.
The musician achieves with the usual combinations of the three open holes or covered with the fingers, a diatonic scale but not all sounds tempered. Today’s bagpipe makers, following the current sounds and tastes, build bagpipes that require less effort in the blowing, are more in tune, and are closer to the tempered system.