8 Tango Musical Instruments You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

The wonderful and mysterious Tango originated in Argentina and Uruguay’s Rio de la Plata region and found popularity in Buenos Aires as a sensual and rhythmic genre of music.

Depending on the arrangement, a tango orchestra can include over a dozen members or a single musician. As more instruments joined the ranks of the tango orchestra, tango became Argentina’s most popular dance music. Tango music tends to be aggressive, passionate, and sensual.

In this post, we’re going to explore 8 of the musical instruments used in tango music and their roles. Let’s start off with the iconic sound of the Bandoneon.

1. Bandoneon 

The primary instrument in tango music is the Bandoneon, a bellows-based free-reed instrument similar to an accordion or a concertina. Unlike the concertina, it is square in shape.

Although the bandoneon is originally from Germany, created by Heinrich Band in the mid-19th century it has become the central instrument in most tango orchestras or ensembles.

A bandoneonist plays the instrument with both hands to create air pressure in the bellows while thier fingers manipulate the buttons. Unlike a traditional accordion, the tango bandoneon has 71 buttons instead of a keyboard.

The bandoneon is bisonoric, which means that depending on whether the bellows are expanding or contracting, each button plays a different note. This feature differentiates the bandoneon from the accordion since it has 71 “opening” notes and 71 “closing” notes. 

Bandoneons are made only in Germany, and the models used for tango in Argentina and Uruguay are exported from there.

2. Guitar 

The Guitar most likely originated in Spain and derived many of its features from the vihuela and the lute.

Early guitars in the 16th century had only four strings. As centuries passed, the guitar became five-stringed, then finally evolved into the six-stringed instrument we know today.

Although it is not one of the main four instruments featured in a tango sextet, the guitar often appears in a larger tango orchestra, or an orquesta tipica.

Lots of traditional tango music can be played on a single guitar or by a guitar duo.

This instrument can add a unique rhythm to tango music that is harder to achieve with woodwind instruments or percussion alone.

3. Double Bass 

The Double Bass is a large string instrument with a deep sound. Its origin is unclear, but it is typically thought to be part of the viola de gamba family, a group of instruments that emerged in 15th century Europe.

The bassist (or bass player) can play the double bass either sitting or standing and choose to play using a bow or by plucking the strings with their fingers.

The double bass is not one of the usual instruments for a tango quartet, but it plays a role in a tango sextet, along with two violins, two bandoneons, and a piano.

4. Violin

The Violin originated in 16th century Italy and is one of the most easily recognizable stringed instruments. It is the smallest instrument in the violin family and has the highest pitch.

The violin is usually played by drawing a bow across its four strings, but it can also be played pizzicato, by plucking the strings.

Both a tango sextet and an orquesta tipica will usually include two violins. The range of notes afforded by a violin can increase the drama of any tango song.

5. Flute 

The flute is a woodwind instrument that has been around for thousands of years probably originating in China.

Through the centuries, flutes have been made from animal bones, reeds, and carved from wood. In modern times, the flute is made from metal like silver-plated nickel. 

Although it is not usually included in a tango quartet or sextet, in a bigger ensemble like the orquesta tipica, you may hear the birdlike tones of the flute. The flute provides the soprano voice to the tango ensemble.

Some musicians will substitute it with a clarinet for this genre of music, but the flute adds a unique sound and range of notes that any other instrument can’t quite achieve.

6. Clarinet 

The Clarinet is another type of woodwind instrument sometimes used in tango music but unlike the flute, it uses a reed mouthpiece to create the sound and has a trumpet-like bell shape at the bottom.

During the Baroque Era, it was originally created to play in higher registers that a trumpet couldn’t quite reach. The register was called clarion, hence the name of the clarinet.

Sometimes a clarinet is included in a tango orquesta tipica, and is often played by the same musician who plays the flute.

Along with the guitar, the clarinet is an optional instrument for tango music.

7. Piano 

The Piano was created in Italy around the year 1700. Bartolomeo Cristofori wanted an alternative to the harpsichord that allowed for more volume control.

Instead of plucking a string, Cristofori substituted a mechanism to hit the strings with small hammers that corresponded to keys on a keyboard. For this reason, a piano is generally considered a type of percussion instrument!

There is usually a piano in a tango sextet and an orquesta tipica.

Along with the bandoneon, the violin, and the double bass, the piano is one of the most common tango instruments.

8. Vocals

Many people may not associate tango music with singing, but a strong Singer can be considered a great instrument to accompany any band.

Singing isn’t essential for tango music, but a tango with vocals is called a vocal tango, or a tango cantado. Tango cantado usually integrates the vocals into the music.

A song that only uses the music as a background for singing runs the risk of being too overpowering. Some tango dancers don’t like to dance to cantados.

It Takes More than Two to Tango

Tango music has evolved from a fringe musical phenomenon to a popular genre played at many wedding receptions.

Not bad for a sound that “respectable” people used to turn their nose up at. 

The sounds of all of these instruments combined create an energetic, passionate atmosphere, no matter how many people are dancing.

If you have the chance to see a tango orchestra in person, pay attention to what instruments they use and how they all work together to create a dramatic vibe.

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.