10 Traditional Peruvian Musical Instruments You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Latin American culture has always been thought of as exotic. This exoticism stems from the melting pot of cultures in the region. When most people think of Peru, they probably think of Machu Picchu and the Inca Empire.

But did you know that Peru is also home to a vibrant and diverse music scene with a number of traditional Andean instruments that have been used for centuries and spread all over the world!

In this post, we’re going to take a look at 10 traditional Peruvian musical instruments that you may or may not have heard of. Let’s start off with the Charango.

1. Charango

Due to the rich history that follows the Charango, it’s unsurprising that it earned the title of Peru’s national instrument.

It dates back to the early 18th century when it was developed in Altiplano, an area of the Andes that spans, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.

It’s thought that it developed out of thevihuela, bandurria, or thelute which were brought over by the Spanish invaders.

Its appearance resembles what most people will recognize as a ukulele but it has 10 strings, unlike the ukulele which only has 4.

One of the most exciting features of the Charango comes when you turn it over to its back. If you happen to find an older version of this instrument, you’ll notice the distinct shell of an armadillo.

But, they’re not as common nowadays and you’ll probably see a wooden back instead.

2. Cajón

Percussion instruments are a staple for Latin American music, especially Peruvian ones and the Cajón is probably one of the most well-known.

Interestingly, it actually originated in Peru and it’s thought to have been developed by slaves brought over from central and west Africa.

They would use the shipping crates from ports and hit them like drums.

To look at, theCajón is a simple box, made from wood that the musician hits with their hands.

But, what’s different from other drums is that theCajón also doubles as a seat and the musician sits on top of it while playing.

If you’re trying to listen to some Cajon beats, we recommend checking out Brazilian percussionist Rubem Dantas.

3. Tarka

Small Decorative Artesanal Inca Tarka Peru Wooden Quena Flute

If you’re in search of an ancient-looking flute in this list, the Tarka is your best bet.

Believed to have originated from the Aymara people of the Andes, the Tarka almost looks like a decorative ornament more than an instrument with its colorful and creative engravings.

These handcrafted fipple flutes (similar to a recorder) are made from wood and have six finger holes to change the pitch.

Although similar to recorders, they sound a lot darker with a soft, mellow sound and are used in ceremonies and to mimic the sounds of birds.

4. Quena

Like the Tarka, the Quena is also a traditional end-blown flute from the Andes that’s also known as the flute of the Incas.

The Quena is usually made from bamboo although in Peru they sometimes make them from bones of llamas or condors meaning they’re completely white!

Like the tarka, quena are made with six finger holes drilled into the body that the musician covers with their fingers to change the pitch.

Although it’s been used for 500 years in festivals and events, in the 70s and 80s the Quena had somewhat of a revival and is used a lot in new age music as well in soundtracks and documentaries.

If you’re interested in listening to some quena tunes, we recommend listening to Tito La Rose, a Quechua Indian descendent, or famous quena player Facio Santillan playing some traditional Andean music.

5. Bombo

Although the Bombo originated in Argentina, it’s become a feature in Andean and Peruvian music.

Typically these drums are made out of a hollowed-out tree with the drum head being made of animal skin.

Unlike other drums, however, Bombo drum heads usually have the fur of the animal still on which gives them a very deep and unique sound

If you were to describe the sound of the Bombo, you might say it almost sounds like a heartbeat.

6. Bandola

Next, we have the Bandola which is a type of string instrument that is related to the mandolin.

There are lots of different variations used in South America, with having four strings, some having 6 and most having double courses much like a traditional mandolin.

With their recognizable pear-shaped body, bandolas are made of wood and normally will have anywhere from 7 to 21 frets.

The strings which are made out of gut or nowadays nylon, are then played with a plectrum.

7. Tinya

Tinya Drum by Lombards Museum (CC BY 3.0)

Like the bombo and cajón, the Tinya or Kirki is also a Peruvian percussion instrument. It’s a type of frame drum that is found all over the world in different cultures.

The drum frame is usually made of wood with animal skin for the drum head. The head is then tightened by wool and straps.

The Tinya is usually hand-held or wrapped around the musician and banged with drumsticks or soft-headed mallets.

Interestingly, the Tinya is played during Los Danzantes De Levanto, or Wari, which are both types of traditional Peruvian dance. It’s usually played by women.

The musician will often play it at the same time as a Pinkullo much in the same way as a pipe and tabor are played around the world.

8. Huancar

The Huancar, also called a Wankara, is another percussion instrument that is common in various South American countries, such as Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador.

It originates from the people aboriginal people known as the Quechua and Aymara who lived in the Andean regions around Peru and the surrounding countries.

Much like a bass drum, it’s made with a wooden frame with animal skins for the drum head. These are then struck using mallets.

While the Tinya is usually played by women, the Huancar is usually played by men. It has a neck strap and is carried in front of the musician like a bass drum is in a marching band.

9. Pinkillu

The Pinkillu is a type of flute that originated from the Andean area and is common in South American countries like Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

The Pinkillu is an instrument that can be played only played with one hand, and so the musician will often play a Tinya (that we looked at earlier) with the other hand.

Similar to the Quena, they are usually made out of cane, bamboo, or bone and come in a variety of sizes, ranging from 20cm to anywhere up to 1 meter long and will have six finger holes.

They are usually played during the rainy season and are sometimes even played wet. This is to honor the rain and hope that it enriches their lands.

10. Siku

And finally, we have the Siku which is a type of panpipe from the Andean region that like the tinya, the Siku is usually played by women

Due to the difficulty in traveling around the Andes, lots of different varieties of Siku exist as different people had their own variations.

Usually, Sikus are made out of bamboo shoots but like lots of the other flute instruments on our list, they can also be made out of bone. They’re then strapped together using cane.

You can also try crafting yourself your own siku with this handy guide!

Summing Up Our List of Instruments from Peru

These instruments all speak a different part of Peruvian history and spark cultural connections, whether it’s from Europe or Africa.

Although most of these instruments are considered ancient, today’s world celebrates their cultural significance.

Have we missed out any instruments from Peru? Let us know and we’ll add them in.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.