The Cavaquinho – What Is A Cavaquinho?


No matter where you go in the world, you are likely to come across an instrument that looks like a guitar whether it’s a balalaika in Russia, a ukulele in Hawaii or a cavaquinho in Brazil. Such instruments were spread by European explorers who traveled the globe in the early nineteenth century.

Not surprisingly, the cavaquinho has similar roots to the ukulele. Brazil was conquered by Portugal (as was Hawaii) and they introduced their instrument the machete to both countries. In Hawaii it developed into the ukulele and in Brazil it became a cavaquinho.

One thing to notice is that these instruments are all much smaller than the guitar. Obviously, explorers are restricted as to the size and weight of the instrument. So small, fretted instruments were the obvious choice. Once introduced to new countries they to keep their diminutive size.

How Big is a Cavaquinho?

The cavaquinho is very similar in size to a ukulele. Most commonly they are under sixty centimetres long. The most common scale length (that is the part of the string that is actually played) is around thirty four centimetres.

How is a Cavaquinho Tuned?

The standard tuning of the cavaquinho is DGBD – giving the cavaquinho a G chord when it is strummed with all strings open. This is similar to the ‘slack key’ tuning of a ukulele (a popular alternative tuning for the ukulele in Hawaii). The difference being that the bottom D string is tuned low rather than being tuned between the E and G strings as it is on a ukulele.

There are a number of variations on this tuning. Many guitarists and ukulele players prefer to tune their cavaquinho to DGBE. This gives it the same tuning as a the top four strings of the guitar (but an octave higher) and allows ukulele players to use the chord and scale shapes that they are familiar with.

Famous Cavaquinho Players

Waldir Azevedo was a Brazilian composer of the 1940s. He wrote for many instruments, but his chosen instrument was the cavaquinho. He was one of the one of the pioneers of the cavaquihno and is widely credited with popularizing the cavaquinho and making it into a respectable musical instrument.

Paulinho da Viola was another Brazilian multi-instrumentalist with a fondness for the cavaquinho. In the 1960s and 70s he became a huge Samba star. As a result he spread knowledge of the cavaquinho world wide.

The cavaquinho is a great instrument to pick up. Particularly if you are a guitar player, it makes a great traveling guitar and will open your ears and your fingers to new possibilities for your music and your playing.

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