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The Guiro (by Nino)

The Guiro (manufactured by Nino)

I was busy drawing musicians playing crazy instruments for a project when the sinking feeling hit me that I would have to scrape together a blog entry for Valentine’s Day. Then it further hit me that I would also have to scrape together an additional post before that. Suddenly, there was the answer, right in front of me: scrape…weird musical instrument…the guiro!

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

The guiro is a percussion instrument with hard ribbed sides which produce an insectoid clicking when rubbed with a little stick. Musicologists classify such a thing as a scraped idiophone. The ratchet sound which the guiro produces doesn’t sound very good when I describe it, but it is delightful in traditional Latin American music (especially music from the Greater Antilles—Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc.). Some sources contend that the guiro has Pre-Colombian roots and is an ancient part of the culture of the Americas, but, sadly, I couldn’t find any unimpeachable examples online (and it’s too late to bang on the Met’s door)—so believe this dubious history at your peril.

Traditional guiros are made with gourds, wood, or horn. Modern ones can also be made of fiberglass and plastic. Although I like the sound which they make, the best part of the guiro tends to be its fanciful appearance. The instrument can be a big utilitarian cylinder, however for aesthetic reasons, it is often made in a fanciful animal shape—particularly that of a colorful fish. During music class in first grade, the teacher would sometimes dump out a huge box of simple percussion instruments—chimes, bells, triangles, castanets, maracas, tambourines, rattles, and clackers of all sorts—and we would each choose one and all play together to make a terrible cacophonous din (maybe the music teacher was trying to scare evil spirits away from Falmouth). Anyway there was always a fight for the magnificent fish guiro—which was then always allocated by the teacher to a student who was not me.

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

Below is a video demonstrating how to play the guiro (although I feel like most individuals could figure this out on their own). It does however present the rasping sound of the guiro. Another one of these little video clips put forth some useful pronunciation advice: the “g” in guiro is a Spanish “g” and is pronounced rather like a “w” in English. “Guiro” should be said sort of like “weirdo” (but with no “d” sound). Hmm…

The fish is colorful and traditional, but it is not the only animal shape which guiros come in. Here are some animal-shaped guiros which include a crocodile, an armadillo, and even a snail!





Snail Guiro!

Snail Guiro!

These are beautiful! I wonder if I added one of these things to my music collection, would my roommates fight for it—or would they just fight me for making such musical scraping noises. Maybe we had better appreciate the guiro from afar for the moment….


2011-08-14-glencoe-bagpiper-2-e1315714718954Imagine you are in the Scottish highlands! Gorgeous mountains surround a glistening lock with strange dark depths. A rainbow shines in the sky above a haunting castle ruin. The crisp air smells of pine forests and peat smoke while in the distance is the evocative sound of…a mastodon with bronchitis? Swans being murdered? An eldritch spirit caught in an industrial machine? No! You listen more carefully and the screech swells into splendid martial music and suddenly your heart is filled with bravery and your eyes with tears. The bagpipes can somehow produce a horrible grating rasp while simultaneously shaping it into the most dulcet melody. The sweet yet troubling dichotomy lies at the core of Gaelic music. Yet bagpipes probably do not originally come from Scotland or Ireland (although you probably should not bring this up to drunken Scots or Irishmen).

If you are wondering where bagpipes originally came from, you are not alone. For a long time musical scholars, nationalists, historians, and classicists have argued about the origins of the distinctive woodwind instrument. The great Scottish bagpipes have been famous since the eighteenth century (and are now nearly synonymous with British marshal might during their ascendant era of world empire). The Scottish bagpipes evolved in a logical progression from a medieval antecedent, the smallpipes, which were played around Europe, the Mediterranean basin, North Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India for centuries. The smallpipes are recognizably bagpipes: a reed instrument is connected to an air reserve in the form of an animal skin bag. Various bones with holes hang from the bag for the purpose of adjusting tone and pitch. You can listen to some pretty musical samples of these medieval smallpipes here. The issue of where these pipes originated, however, becomes more contentious. Various groups proudly assert national origin or fight over obscure textual or visual references. At present, the question has no certain answer, but by going back further and further into history a plausible outline takes shape.

Medieval smallpipes (modern recreation from

Medieval smallpipes (modern recreation from

From the 12th century on bagpipes appeared frequently in art and sculpture from across Western Eurasia. We even have some of the actual instruments! Before that time, during the dark ages, the bagpipes appear to have been largely a peasant instrument and, as such, they are not referenced in the exiguous writings of that era. Unfortunately skin sacks, bellows, and reeds quickly deteriorate but a number of bone pipes have been found in Scandinavia and Western Europe which could have been parts of bagpipes (I have heard Viking re-enactors at the American Museum of Natural History, attach these pipes to bladders and play whistle-ghost tunes on them).


An illumination of a droneless bagpipe

A monastic illumination of a droneless bagpipe

It seems certain that the Romans had a version of the bagpipe, the tibia utricularis, which was a woodwind instrument played from an air-reserve bag made of hide (although it is not clear how close it otherwise was to the medieval smallpipe). The legions carried this intimidating instrument around the empire and it is even referenced in the history of Emperor Nero’s life (it seems the dark autocrat played the instrument and may even have called upon it to save himself from a mob), however we have no pictures or examples of the Roman instrument—only textual citations.


A modern interpretation of a Roman bagpipe (by David Marshall)

A modern interpretation of a Roman bagpipe (by David Marshall)

Most Roman musical instruments came originally from Greece, and it seems the tibia utricularis was no exception. In his 425 BC play The Archarnians, Aristophanes (apparently) references a bagpipe-like instrument. One of the bombastic characters orders the band to play by shouting, “Musicians from Thebes, pipe with your bone flutes into a dog’s rump.” Seemingly this device consisted of a sewn-up dog skin which was attached to a reed and to various bone chanters (“flute” being a famous translator’s shorthand for the ubiquitous woodwind reed pipe of classical antiquity). Classics scholars generally agree that this was a reference to a bagpipe and not just a ribald insult to Thebans and dogs.


Whereas the contemporary Greek bagpipe is made of a sheep...

Whereas the contemporary Greek bagpipe is made of a sheep…

The very first (possible) references to the bagpipe however long predate 5th century Greece and go back to the Fertile Crescent where civilization itself first rose from the mud. The Hittites, the bellicose masters of the chariot, may have been the first people to leave a record of the bagpipes. A weathered Hittite carving from Eyuk appears to show a musician blowing into a sack. Additionally there are illustrations of military divers breathing from skin sacks which date back to that era. A clever reader will note many conditional words strewn through the previous paragraph—the evidence is not 100% compelling—but it is what we have.

Hmm? Surely that poor Hittite isn't just blowing into a stomach?

Hmm? Surely that poor Hittite isn’t just blowing into a stomach?

Before their empire collapsed in the great crisis of the 12th century, the Hittites got around. They could have appropriated the bagpipes from Sumeria, Egypt, the Mycenean palace kingdoms, Persia, or even the Harappans. Maybe they invented it themselves when they were thinking up the chariot. We have gone as far as we can without more archaeological evidence. The mystery of where bagpipes come from goes cold about three (and a fraction) millennia ago. Considering how dismissive literary sources have been about the peasant instrument, perhaps bagpipes were being played before civilization arose—or maybe the Greeks invented them (like so many things). What is certain is that the plangent music of the bagpipes has appealed to people for a long time. Relax, think about the mysterious vicissitudes of history and enjoy some bagpipe music!

A Conch Used as a Trumpet

Conches are large sea snails.  True conches are from the family Strombidae, but there are a number of other large marine snails which are also colloquially called conches including horse conches (Fasciolariidae), crown conches (Melongenidae), and the “sacred chank” (a member of the Turbinellidae family).  These powerful marine snails are fascinating organisms in their own right—but today’s post is not about biology, rather it concerns music. When properly prepared, conches can be made into lovely and powerful wind instruments. Such shell trumpets have been found in use by cultures from around the world and specimens have been found dating back to the Neolithic era (although the musical use of shells might predate even that).

3000 year old Strombus galeatus shell modified as a musical instrument by pre-Inca people of Peru

Different cultures obviously use different shells for their trumpets and the instruments also serve varying purposes.  The magnificent big pink queen conch (Lobatus gigas) from the Caribbean was used as a trumpet by the Carib, the Arawak and Taíno peoples.  In India, the shell of the big predatory sea snail, Turbinella pyrum has long been crafted into the shankha, a religious musical instrument emblematic of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu (who last appeared in Ferrebeekeeper slaying the demon of Lake Lonar).  The shankha (also known as the sacred chank in English) can be intricately carved.  Though initially used as a charm to ward off the dangers of ocean travel, it long ago came to be associated with Vishnu worship and with nagas—water serpent deities.  Buddhists from the subcontinent also esteem the same instrument  as one of the eight auspicious symbols of that faith.  The Tibetan Buddhists call such a trumpet a “Tung.”

Vamavarta shankhas, c. 11-12th century

The Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is used as a wind instrument throughout its Pacific range.  In Polynesia the instrument is called a “pu” whereas in Japan the horn is known as the horagai.  Likewise the Triton’s shell is a military instrument in traditional Korean music (where it is known as a nagak).

A Korean Bugler plays a Nagak

The cultures of the Mediterranean also made extensive use of conch-horns as foghorns and signaling devices and it is through Greek art and literature that conch horns made their way into mainstream Western art of the last two millennia.

Triton blowing on a Conch from the Bailey Fountain in Brooklyn

There seem to be two major ways of crafting a wind instrument from a large gastropod– both of which essentially involve creating an aperture in the whorl of a large gastropod shell. Mitchell Clark summarizes them with admirable clarity in his excellent article about shell-trumpets writing:

 There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire…. In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added.

The sound of such a trumpet is a rich rumbling primal roar—but it is usually only one note in one key.  Although pitch can be modified with finger holes or embouchure, such an approach is unusual.  But enough talk about shell trumpets!  Below is a Youtube video of a um…contest-winner playing one.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2023