12 Different Types Of Puerto Rican Musical Instruments

Written by Dan Farrant

Puerto Rico is a beautiful country where you can find all sorts of eye-catching landscapes. From mountains, waterfalls, and beaches to stunning architecture, this Caribbean island has them.

This makes the country a fan favorite when it comes to tourism and filmmaking as well. In fact, large parts of movies like Captain America: Civil War and Fast Five were filmed in Puerto Rico.

You may ask yourself, “What else could be there?” The answer would be a rich musical diversity full of instruments you may have not even seen before.

In this post, we’re going to shed light on 12 Puerto Rican instruments you should know. If you want to discover what makes them unique, stick around!

1. Puerto Rican Cuatro

Let’s begin this list with Puerto Rico’s national instrument called Cuatro. This is a stringed instrument, a smaller version of the classic guitar that was invented around 400 years ago. Its name, Cuatro, means “four,” which refers to the number of strings that it originally had. But, nowadays, you’ll find modern Cuatros have ten strings in five courses.

The Cuatro comes in various sizes and designs. However, the original instrument resembled a medieval keyhole. It was usually made from a single piece of wood, and the strings were made of gut, though today, they’re made of metal.

It can be played like a normal guitar, but it might take a little time to get used to the lower notes and additional strings.

The Cuatro is used mainly in música jíbara, Puerto Rico’s country music. But it is also played in plena music. This is the genre of music accompanying dancing and political protests. In addition, the Cuatro had been used both for secular and religious purposes.

2. Palitos

Next on our list of Puerto Rican instruments we have the Palitos – a percussion instrument that’s as fun to play as it is to say. In Spanish, “palitos” means “little sticks,” and that’s precisely what they are. A pair of wooden sticks, about 8 to 10 inches long and an inch in diameter, perfect for tapping out a beat. These days, you might even find Palitos made of fiberglass or plastic.

Playing Palitos is as simple as striking them together, creating a sharp, clicking sound. This unique sound makes them a perfect addition to large bands, as they cut through the noise to keep everyone in sync.

But wait, there’s more! You can also use Palitos as beaters, tapping them on drums, the edge of a desk, or even a bottle, producing a variety of intriguing sounds. Talk about versatility!

Palitos play a crucial role in music genres like rhumba and salsa, where they can shine in solos or as accompaniment in ensembles.

Fun fact: Did you know that the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and The Who’s “Magic Bus” both feature the charming sound of Palitos? Who would’ve thought these humble little sticks could make their way into the world of rock ‘n’ roll?

3. Maracas

Next up, we have the beloved Maracas. These little shakers have made their way all over the world, but it’s thought that they actually originated in Puerto Rico!

Some theories suggest that the Taínos, the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, were the first to create them. Regardless of their origins, the Taínos certainly introduced Maracas to the island.

The creative Taínos made Maracas using the round fruits of the native “higuera” tree, prized for their hard shells. They’d bore a hole in the fruit, remove the pulp, and fill the shell with beads or pebbles. Then, they’d attach a stick to serve as a handle.

Playing Maracas is as easy as giving them a good shake. Fun fact: one Maraca usually contains a different number of seeds or pebbles than the other, which means that each shaker has its own unique sound.

Maracas have played a significant role in Puerto Rican culture. Healers known as curanderos used them in their healing sessions, chants, and ceremonies. Additionally, Maracas feature prominently in bomba, Puerto Rico’s native music. In bomba, only one Maraca is used, typically larger than the pairs found elsewhere.

4. Conga

Next, we’re going to take a look at the Conga, a percussion instrument that has found a home in Puerto Rican music, despite its origins in the Congo. This tall and narrow drum, with its single head and barrel-like body made of wood or fiberglass, stands about 30 inches tall and adds a vibrant beat to the music.

While anyone can just slap or hit the, playing the Conga properly is all about mastering three distinct hand movements to produce three unique sounds: the bass, the tone, and the slap.

What’s more, Congas come in four different sizes, each one creating a distinct sound even when hit with the same hand movement. This variety is why you’ll often see multiple Congas played together at Puerto Rican festivals, creating a rich tapestry of rhythmic delight.

5. Tiple

Next up is the Tiple, a charming member of the orquesta jíbara family, which also includes the Cuatro and the Bordonua. The Tiple may be the smallest of the bunch, but it’s also the oldest and highest-pitched of these stringed instruments. Listen to the video above to hear how much it stands out!

One of the unique aspects of the Tiple is that there’s no standard design or number of strings. You might find Tiples with four, five, or even six strings. But those with just one string are quite rare.

Today, the most popular Tiple in Puerto Rico is the Tiple Doliente. Sporting five strings and measuring about 15 inches in length, it has a narrower top than its predecessors. Its distinct shape features a curved bottom half and a square top half.

The Tiple has long held a special place in the hearts of remote communities, where it was traditionally used for sacred songs. In the orquesta jíbara, the Tiple takes center stage, providing the melody. Together with the Cuatro and the Bordonua, these instruments create beautiful renditions of waltzes, mazurkas, and minuets.

6. Güiro

No discussion of Puerto Rican music would be complete without the Güiro, a traditional instrument that’s a staple at Latin American festivals. Just like the Maracas, they were said to be invented by the Tainos.

Crafted from a hollowed-out gourd (although modern versions are made of fiberglass, metal, or plastic) with an open end, the Güiro features parallel notches on one side.

Playing the Güiro involves using the stick or tines to scrape along the notches, producing a distinctive ratchet-like sound. The player can create long or short sounds by varying the length of the scraping strokes.

The Güiro is a versatile instrument found in various Puerto Rican music genres such as trova, salsa, and son. It also plays a special role in música jíbara, plena, seis, and danza, adding its unique sound to the rich tapestry of Puerto Rican music.

7. Pandeiro

Another percussion instrument to grace our list is the Pandeiro. In Portuguese, “pandeiro” means “tambourine,” and this percussion instrument shares some similarities with its namesake.

The Pandeiro is a frame drum that may or may not have metal jingles. It comes in various sizes, typically between 23 and 28 inches. The drumhead is made of stretched animal skin, although sometimes plastic is used instead.

Playing the Pandeiro involves holding the instrument with one hand while striking the drumhead with the other. Players can use their thumb, heel, fingertips, or palm to create a variety of sounds and rhythms. If the Pandeiro has jingles, shaking it adds even more sonic possibilities.

The Pandeiro plays a significant role in the music genre known as plena. Additionally, it serves as a source of entertainment, often accompanying storytellers to create a captivating auditory experience.

8. Timbales

At this point, it’s clear how important percussion is to Puerto Rican music, and the Timbale is no exception. While not native to Puerto Rico, the Timbale has become an essential component of dance music on the island.

Timbales consist of two single-headed drums mounted on a stand at waist height, featuring metal casings. The drums vary in size, with the smaller one measuring 13 inches in diameter and the larger one 14 inches. To add even more sound options, two cowbells are attached to the stand above the drums.

Playing Timbales is similar to playing a regular drum, with light sticks used to create various sounds depending on where you strike the drums and the bells.

The versatile Timbale is known for its rhythmic patterns that complement Latin American dances. In an orchestra, Timbales can serve as auxiliary instruments or take the spotlight in solo or ensemble works, showcasing their dynamic range and importance in Puerto Rican music.

9. Tambora

Next on our list is the Tambora, a two-headed bass drum also known as the Dominican drum, thanks to its origins in neighboring country the Dominican Republic. With a large Dominican community in Puerto Rico, it’s no surprise that the Tambora has become a vital part of Puerto Rican music.

Traditionally made from salvaged rum barrels, the Tambora is lightweight and portable, making it a common sight in Puerto Rico, particularly in Dominican communities. Alternatively, it can be placed on a stand and outfitted with cymbals for added sound.

The Tambora can be played in many different ways. You can strike both sides with your hands or drumsticks to create different sounds, but the most common method involves using one hand on one side and a drumstick on the other.

The Tambora’s ability to produce a wide range of rhythms and variations makes it a valuable addition to any musical ensemble. Often, it serves as a background instrument, supporting the Congas and the Güiro in creating a rich tapestry of percussion.

10. Buleador

Meet the Buleador, another member of the percussion family with a critical role in the bomba percussion ensemble.

The Buleador boasts a large, concave wooden barrel drum design, measuring 24 inches in length and 13 inches in diameter. Typically, the drumhead is made of cowhide, with a nylon rope wrapped around it.

Additionally, a multi-colored rope is strung around the drum body, connecting the drumhead to the base in five areas. These ropes primarily function to tune the five wooden tuning pegs. When played, the Buleador produces a low pitch.

As a key player in the bomba percussion ensemble, the Buleador maintains the rhythm throughout each song. It also serves as an essential element in Latin American dance music, providing a steady beat for both dancers and other instruments to follow.

11. Bongos

The penultimate instrument on our list is the Bongos. Although not native to the island, (they originated in Cuba), they have become an integral part of the Peurto Rican musical landscape.

The Bongos consist of two unequally sized drums connected by a wooden bridge. The smaller drum is known as the minor or “male” drum, while the larger one is referred to as the major or “female” drum.

When playing the Bongos, they are held between the knees while sitting down, and struck with both hands, often using an eight-stroke pattern called “martillo.” In some cases, mallets can be used, or the Bongos can be placed on stands.

In the United States, Bongos gained popularity thanks to Cuban and Puerto Rican bongoseros, or Bongo players. Puerto Rican musicians learned from their Cuban counterparts and went on to become influential bongoseros themselves, further cementing the instrument’s place in Puerto Rican music.

12. Bordonua

And finally, what better instrument to end our list with than something that is native to Puerto Rico. The Bordonua! This native gem is a bass guitar that comes in various shapes and sizes, and it’s an essential part of the orquesta jibara, sharing the spotlight with the Cuatro and Tiple.

The Bordonua boasts a larger-than-average size, complete with six-inch deep sound boxes. Although its design varies, it generally sports a slender and tapering body towards the top.

Interestingly, the Bordonua’s traditional role wasn’t to serve as bass, but rather as accompaniment. However, times have changed, and modern Bordonuas have stepped into the role of bass guitars, mainly featuring in folk music.

Today, you can find three main types of Bordonuas in Puerto Rico: the 6-string, 8-string, and 10-string versions, catering to musicians with different preferences and styles.

Summing Up Our List Of Puerto Rican Instruments

So there you have 12 of the commonly used musical instruments on the magical island of Puerto Rico. Some of them are native, whereas others originated from other countries but were adopted by Puerto Rico.

One thing’s for sure. These instruments helped shape the culture of this beautiful country. These have become staples of various celebrations and festivals.

Whether you’ve experienced Puerto Rico or not, our aim was for you to appreciate these instruments. And we hoped you did.

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.