Cavaquinho vs. Ukulele – A Feud in the Family

Cavaquinho vs. Ukulele

The Portuguese cavaquinho is small 4-stringed instrument in the guitar family. A version of the cavaquinho, the machete, is considered the direct precursor to the modern Ukulele.

(As a side note, the braguinha, another version of the cavaquinho, is considered the precursor to the machete.)

Are you trying to decide between buying a Cavaquinho or a Ukulele? Or maybe just curious about the differences between these two 4-stringed instrument relatives?

Either way, you’ve come to the right place.

What are the Main Differences Between the Cavaquinho and the Ukulele?

The two most significant differences between the Cavaquinho and the Ukulele are their tuning systems and string materials. The Cavaquinho is traditionally tuned to DGBD with linear tuning, while the Ukulele’s standard tuning is GCEA with a high (re-entrant) G string. For string materials, the Cavaquinho uses steel strings, while the ukulele uses nylon strings.

The Shared History of the Cavaquinho and the Ukulele

The name Cavaquinho means “little wood splinter” in Portuguese. It came about as a smaller member of the lute and guitar family in Portugal.

When the Portuguese arrived in Hawaii, they brought this easily-portable stringed instrument with them for entertainment. According to legend, the native Hawaiians, seeing how fast the players’ fingers and hands moved while playing, called the instrument the “ukulele”, which means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian.

In Hawaii, a version of the Cavaquinho, the machete, underwent small changes and eventually became what we know as the modern ukulele in the 1800’s.

Here’s a video which discusses some of this History as well as some comparison points between the two instruments:

Tuning, Playing, and Sound Comparison Between the Cavaquinho and the Ukulele

What are the Tuning Differences between the Cavaquinho and the Ukulele?

The standard tuning system for soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles is GCEA with a high (re-entrant) G string. The C is middle C and the G, E, and A are those notes just above middle C.

Ukulele Re-entrant C Tuning (High G String)

The Cavaquinho is most commonly tuned with a DGBD setup, with the first D, G, and B being those notes just above middle C, and the last D being an octave above the first D. This tuning is linear, meaning from lowest to highest, as opposed to the ukulele’s traditionally re-entrant tuning.

Here’s a video demonstrating the Cavaquinho’s tuning pitches as reference.

Both Instruments also have many alternative tuning systems.

For the Ukulele, this includes baritone tuning (DGBE linear), low-G Tuning (GCEA linear) and D tuning (ADF#B re-entrant tuning one step higher than standard).

For Cavaquinho, this includes CGAD tuning (popular in Portugal), DGBE (for soloing), GDAE (mandolin tuning), and many others.

Are the Ukulele and Cavaquinho played similarly?

In my opinion, Yes. Both instruments seem to generally be played with a very “strum-focused” technique.

The Cavaquinho might be played with slight more emphasis on complex strumming patterns compared to the generally simple strums of the typical ukulele player, but complex strumming is also pretty common on ukulele.

Sound Differences Between The Ukulele and the Cavaquinho

Both instruments share the same light, bright, and whimsical tone due to their relatively similar sizes and high tunings.

Though the Cavanquinho might be slightly lighter. brighter, and more whimsical due to its standard tuning (DGBD) being one step higher than the ukulele’s standard tuning (GCEA).

The main noticeable sound difference is that the ukulele has a hollower, flatter, more mellow sound, due to its softer nylon strings. While the Cavaquinho has a sharper, crisper sound due to its steel strings.

Fretboard Comparison Between the Cavaquinho and the Ukulele

Here’s an image showing the fretboard notes of the Ukulele with standard GCEA tuning:

ukulele fretboard notes

And here’s one showing the fretboard notes for the Cavaquinho with DBGD tuning:

cavaquinho fretboard notes

Physical & Construction Differences Between the Cavaquinho and the Uke

What’s The Difference Between Ukulele and Cavaquinho Strings?

Ukuleles traditionally use gut or nylon strings.

The Cavaquinho, on the other hand, uses steel strings.

As mentioned above, this gives the uke a more mellow, flat sound as compared to the Cavaquinho with its sharper, crisper sounding steel strings.

The Construction of the Cavaquinho vs. the Ukulele

The Cavaquino generally has a thinner body compared to the ukulele.

It also traditionally has a fret-board which is flush with the top panel of the body, whereas the ukulele’s fret-board usually sticks out from the body of the instrument.

Head-Stock and Tuning Mechanism Comparison of the Cavaquinho and the Ukulele

The Cavaquinho traditionally has a cut-out head-stock with laterally installed friction tuners.

The Ukulele, on the other hand, traditionally has front-to-back installed friction tuners without a cut-out head-stock. However, on modern ukuleles, geared tuners are probably more common, and cut-out head-stocks ,though rare, are available.

Availability of the Cavaquinho vs. the Ukulele

The Ukulele is much more readily available than the Cavaquinho. Especially in English-speaking countries and on English websites. This means there is a much wider selection of Ukuleles and accessories to choose from compare to the Cavaquinho.

Because of this wider availability, you can be more selective in your choosing of an instrument and find more of a range of quality, options, and materials with Ukuleles.

Which Instrument Do You Prefer, Cavaquinho or Ukulele?

Coming Soon Cavaquinho vs. Ukulele - A Feud in the Family
Which Instrument Do You Prefer? Ukulele or Cavaquinho?
Which Instrument Do You Prefer? Ukulele or Cavaquinho?
Which Instrument Do You Prefer? Ukulele or Cavaquinho?

Cavaquinho vs. Ukulele: The Conclusion

Well, there you have it.

These two relatives, though very similar, do have their differences.

The ukulele is tuned differently, uses different string materials, has some small differences in construction, and has a generally different sound due to these differences, compared with the Cavaquinho.

Thanks for reading and be sure to leave a comment if we missed anything!

Happy Strumming!

4 Replies to “Cavaquinho vs. Ukulele – A Feud in the Family”

  1. I would like to nuy a cavaquinho but am having trouble finding a store that has this instrument Tried the Guitar Center in SF — none. Any suggestions other than flying to Rio?
    Thank you!

    1. I’d have no idea where you could buy them in your local area, but for online, ebay.com might be your best bet. Definitely not a large selection available in the anglo-sphere. Good luck!

    2. If you know anything about guitar playing or playing any stringed instrument, you may want to actually try one before you buy. I know it’s hard in US so there is no option.
      A good idea though, is to buy from someone who actually plays the instrument. I think there is a much better chance of getting a decent axe than ebay or amazon. The Rozini brand is made in brazil, good one and very popular as the instruments are well made. If you can find a used one on ebay that is such brand, consider it carefully.

  2. Just a note about the fretboard being flat with the top: that is the Portuguese cavaquinho; on the Brazilian cavaquinho, the fretboard is higher than the top.

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