What Is A Small Guitar Called? (different types of mini guitars)
There are many types of small guitars available and it can be confusing if you’re searching for a mini guitar. There are so many mini guitars all with different names and sizes, in this article we’ll cover the main types and give you some idea of how to play them. Before we get into that, let’s quickly look at the sizes available for regular guitars.
Guitar sizes vary considerably, this is true of electric guitars and acoustic guitars. The sizes of guitars runs from full size to ¼ size, with full size guitars having a scale length of around 25 ½ inches decreasing to around 19 inches for a ¼ size guitar. We usually find when people refer to small guitars they’re often talking about ukuleles, so let’s start there.
The Ukulele (Small Size Guitar)
The ukulele is a member of the lute family of stringed instruments and originated in Portugal. The ukulele found its way to Hawaii where it became extremely popular, the word ukulele translates to jumping flea which is probably due to the hand movements needed to play it. Ukuleles were first developed in the 1880s with the design being influenced by other small guitar-like instruments from the areas of Spain and Portugal (see below).
Ukuleles usually have four nylon strings and come in four standard sizes, baritone, tenor, concert and soprano. There are however, another two sizes one at each end of the size range, the pocket (also called piccolo) is the smallest standard ukulele and the bass is the largest but as these two are less common, you’ll usually only see the four we mentioned earlier unless you go to a specialist.
Size And Sound
The size affects the tone and the volume of each instrument with the pocket ukulele having the lowest volume and the most trebly tone and at the other end of the range, the bass has the deepest, bass tones and the loudest sound due to the larger soundbox.
Ukuleles are usually made from wood although there have been models constructed solely of plastic. As with most guitars the construction costs include the materials used and cheaper ukes are made using plywood or other laminated woods. With the more expensive and better quality ukes being made from hardwoods like mahogany. In Hawaii where the ukulele is most popular, they are generally constructed from a local type of acacia wood known locally as koa.
The common shape of the body of a ukulele is likened to a figure of 8, much like a small acoustic guitar (which is why they’re considered as small guitars by many) but there are shape variations like some with oval body shapes, some look similar in shape to a boat paddle, there are even square shaped ukes (often made from wooden cigar boxes) and there are also cutaway designs too.
Ukuleles generally have four strings, however, some strings can be paired which effectively means eight strings (much like a twelve string guitar) these are generally used more for strumming than picking.
Originally made from catgut but now made from nylon, the strings can be plain (unwound) or metal wound (for the bass strings).Ukuleles with six or eight strings are commonly called taro patches or taropatch ukuleles and are usually either concert or tenor sized.
The most common tuning for a uke is C tuning which runs G, C, E, A, with the G tuned an octave higher which explains the alternate name for this type of tuning, high G. The soprano ukulele is often tuned in what’s referred to as D tuning, which runs A, D. F#, B. This was considered as standard tuning during the Hwaiian heyday in the 20th century. Another rarer tuning for the soprano uke is known as low G tuning and runs G, C, E, A which sounds exactly like playing a standard guitar’s top four strings with a capo on fret five.
The Ukuleles Popularity
Although originally from Portugal and adopted by Hawaii, the ukulele has become very popular in many countries ranging from Canada to Japan and including mainland USA and of course the UK. George Formby the popular musician and actor starred in a number of films in the 1930s and 1940s singing and playing a ukulele or a banjolele. The banjolele looks like a small banjo but has an extended ukulele neck and a resonator body.
Tessie O’Shea was another famous British ukulele player active from the 1940s and right up until 1978. Great Britain is also the home of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain that regularly tours worldwide. Plus the George Formby Society still holds conventions where ukulele players can play with other like minded musicians.
Other Small Guitars
There are a number of other guitar-like instruments dating back hundreds of years that are still being played to this day. We’ve included a selection here for your reference.
Mandolins commonly have eight strings with the strings being treated as double strings so four notes per eight strings which are plucked using a pick. Usually tuned G, D, A, E with the Gs as the lowest strings and the Es as the high strings. With a large sound box on either a bowl shape or a box shape body.
Eight stringed mandolins are the most common but there are also four stringed, six stringed and twelve stringed mandolins available. Mandolins are used to play many types of music but they are particularly used for playing violin pieces due to them sharing the same tuning. They are played in classical, country, bluegrass, folk and baroque music.
With mandolin music being composed by such names as Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, Mahler and Prokovief and many country and bluegrass bands having a mandolinist too, we can’t see them going out of style any time soon.
Often called a Kiku, the guitalele is a cross between the guitar and the ukulele, in fact some companies market them as six string ukuleles. It combines the portability of a ukulele with the playability of a Spanish guitar. It has six steel strings tuned to A, D, G, C, E, A like a guitar transposed to a fourth.
This is a small version of a Spanish guitar tuned just like the guitalele and the two are often confused for each other. A very popular instrument in Mexico and other South American countries. Mexican requintos have a deeper body than is found on a Spanish guitar whereas most other requintos look very similar to the Spanish guitar.
The charango is found in many Latin American countries including Argentina, Peru, Chile and Bolivia. Around 26 inches long, the charango was traditionally made from the back shell of the armadillo but is now often made from wood. With its five pairs of strings tuned G, C, E, A, E with all sets tuned in the same octave.
A smaller version of the charango, the walaycho has a scale length of around twelve inches and ten strings. The overall length can be upto half as much again as the scale length due to the room needed to accommodate the tuning heads on the headstock. Commonly tuned a fifth higher than the chrango but sometimes tuned a fourth higher.
Machete De Braga
Commonly called the Machete (not to be confused with the knife of the same name) this four stringed instrument also originated in Portugal and is the forerunner to the ukulele. When famine struck in Portugal many people fled and quite a few went to British Guiana (6000) and Hawaii (5000) taking their machetes with them. Historians say that the ukulele was based on the machete.
The machete looks like a small guitar, has four metal strings which are tuned to a banjo tuning (D, G, B, D) and is generally an instrument used for strumming rather than picking. Often found in European folk groups, the Machete De Braga originated on the Portuguese island of Madeira.
Machete De Rajão
Commonly called the Rajão, this five stringed instrument also has its origins on the island of Madeira. Often associated with the traditional dance of Madeira, the Rajão has steel strings tuned D, G, C, E, A, and is around two feet long . There are also six stringed versions available with the top string being another A. Due to its shape and style of playing the Rajão is often compared to the guitar.
Another Portuguese stringed instrument, the Cavaquinho has four strings, usually wire, but originally catgut. The strings are tuned C, G, A, D with a crisper, more trebly sound than a ukulele, and the instrument looks like a small guitar. There is also a Brazilian Cavaquinho which is slightly larger than the Portuguese version which looks more like a classical guitar and is tuned D, G, B, D.
This is a smaller version of the Brazilian cavaquinho which is played with a pick and used in samba and choro music. The cavaco player plays percussive strumming beats which connect the harmony and rhythm.
This traditional five stringed instrument from the Canary Islands has many forms. For instance on La Palma Island they play a four stringed version similar to the ukulele. The common tuning for the timple is G, C, E, A, D. It has a similar appearance to an elongated ukulele with a prominently bowed back and a larger headstock.
The vihuela was originally a Spanish five or six stringed instrument similar to a guitar but played like a lute.They survive to this day in Mexico where they are used by mariachi players.
The Cuatro is a guitar-like instrument that originates in South America, predominantly Venezuela and Puerto Rico. It looks like a cross between a Spanish guitar and a viola, with just four strings (cuatro means four) it’s very similar to the cavaquinho. There are four stringed and double strung versions available, the double strung ones have the strings grouped together in the same way as twelve string guitars. They vary in size from mandolin-like to similar to a full size guitar. The strings are tuned A, D, F#, B and it is played in a similar way to the ukulele.
Also known as the Ukarere this short necked lute, with frets and eight strings originates from Tahiti and is played in other regions of Polynesia. Fishing line is used to string the Tahitian Ukulele and it resembles the shape of a garden spade. Having no soundbox, the body and neck are traditionally carved from one solid piece of wood with a cone shaped hole drilled through the body of the instrument. That hole is then covered with a thin piece of wood and the bridge is placed on top of that. It works like a banjo with a wood top.
The cak is a four steel stringed instrument from Indonesia. It has three courses of four strings tuned D, D, F#, B which evolved from the banjo but now has a wooden top with many sound holes in a geometric pattern as opposed to a regular sound hole.
This is the three stringed version of the Cak and is tuned G, B, E with thick nylon strings. The design is based on the cavaquinho, with the body being hollowed out of a single piece of wood.
The stick dulcimer is a hard one to describe because there are so many variations. If we had to pin it down we’d have to say it’s any instrument with three or four strings fretted in the same way as a traditional dulcimer which is played like a mandolin or guitar. Usually quite small (similar in size to the ukulele) and tuned to either D,A,D or G, D, G.
Stick dulcimers are built so the frets are all in one key which is known as diatonic which makes it pretty hard to play a wrong note. They also come chromatically fretted which are not only in one scale and more difficult to play. Having said that you don’t need all of your fingers to play the stick dulcimer, just one finger.
Cigar Box Guitar
This is a chordophone constructed from a wooden cigar box and a length of wood, often a broom handle. In modern times there are cigar box guitars with proper fretboards with frets. They usually have three or four strings and are commonly tuned A, D, G for a three string and D, G, B, E for the four string version.
Originally home-made, the cigar box guitar is now produced by some respected luthiers, mainly in the US. Made popular by artists such as Bo Diddley and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame, the cigar box guitar has seen a steady growth in sales in recent years.
Frequently Asked Questions
The ukulele and the mandolin are often referred to as a little guitar.
The charango from South America is a stringed instrument belonging to the lute family and is often referred to as a small Spanish guitar.
A folk size guitar is similar in design and shape to a Spanish guitar but it’s slightly smaller in size.
The ukulele is a similar shape to a small guitar but it is tuned differently, has fewer strings and sounds completely different to a guitar.
The 3 string guitar is most likely to be a cigar box guitar.
A Mexican guitar is called a vihuela; it has five strings and is played in mariachi groups.
A normal size guitar is around 38 inches long, with a scale length of around 25 and a ½ inches.