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Thread: Portuguese guitar ?

  1. #1
    Registered User steve V. johnson's Avatar
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    Default Portuguese guitar ?

    Hi,

    Are any folks here playing Portuguese guitars, in traditional form and tunings or otherwise?

    I read a fellow here (some years back) who had restrung a couple of them for use with different non-traditional tunings.

    I've listened to some of the fado tradition and it's fantastic. I don't think I'll become
    fluent in it, tho...

    Thanks!

    stv
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    Professional Dreamer journeybear's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    We all are - in Hawaiian. The Hawaiian word for "mandolin" is "kika pukiki," if I recall correctly, or, literally, "Portuguese guitar." I found this out riffling through the paperback Hawaiian-English dictionary I found in our library. I assume the mandolin was introduced to islanders by Portuguese sailors during the Age Of Exploration.

    Ahem.

    As you were ...

    OMG! It does look as though I droned on at length on this subject a few years back. History does repeat itself - or you can link to it.
    Last edited by journeybear; Jan-05-2015 at 11:52pm. Reason: found the missing link
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  4. #3
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    I own a Portuguese guitar. I call mine a cittern, although Ive also heard it referred to as a fado guitar. It was built in 1967 in Lisbon. It was purchased originally by a wealthy roommate of mine who, as legend has it, walked up to a famous fado player immediately after a Lisbon concert in 1968 and made an offer the performer couldn't refuse. It was gifted to me in 1969. It is as finely made as any I have ever seen, and I have seen plenty of them while working in Portugal and the Azores.

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    I used it professionally for about ten years during the 1970s, developing an original music that included elements of Mideastern, Indian ragas, and country blues. I tuned it two ways, either DADGAD or DADF#AD. The fingerboard has the most severe radius I have ever seen on a stringed instrument, and so I often played it bottleneck. It is exceedingly easy to slide along one string at a time without bumping into other strings.

    Until the Internet, it was incredibly difficult to find strings for it. It has a very elaborate version of the so-called "turkey tail" peghead, so strings need loops on both ends and must be of an exacting length or they won't tighten to pitch.

    I dropped the instrument about 25 years ago and broke the scroll. The repair was done well, and the break is almost invisible. More significant, I snapped one of the tuning poles in half about 10 years ago. I tried welding the two pieces together but without success. I am sure a replacement pole could be found in any metal shop, but I haven't done so because i rarely play it anymore.

    About a year ago I tried to sell it to finance a mandolin purchase, but quickly found it has very little market value. What a shame for such a gorgeous looking and playing instrument. I'll probably gift it to one of my children.
    Explore some of my published music here.

    —Jim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Quote Originally Posted by journeybear View Post
    I assume the mandolin was introduced to islanders by Portuguese sailors during the Age Of Exploration.
    I need to find the proof again but the mandolin was indeed introduced and played in Hawai'i before the development of the 'ukulele, maybe by 20-40 years.

  7. #5
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    After posting on this thread the other day, i took out my PG for the first time in 2 years and played it. Amazingly, it was still tuned pretty close to pitch.

    I closely examined the broken tuner, and decided to fix it. Doing some internet research, I came upon the Portuguese guitar site of Ron Fernandez.

    I called Ron in southern California, and had a great discussion about the instrument's history, it's musical cousins, fado music, and best of all...he is sending me a new tuner pole with hook and knob. Sad to say, he verified my hunch that even the best of these instruments aren't worth much because of the low demand. No financial interest, but I do highly recommend you visit the site, and I also recommend anyone looking to own one of these instruments to check his for sale page.
    Explore some of my published music here.

    —Jim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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  9. #6
    Registered User steve V. johnson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Thanks to you all for the great infos! Hawaii! I had no idea...

    Jim Nollman, when you were using the D tunings, did you change strings? From the context of your posts I would guess that you
    did not. I had the idea that for the string tensions to work properly different strings (than standard fado sets) would be
    necessary. Also see PM.

    Thanks!

    stv
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  10. #7
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    I recall that the instrument, as bought, came with 6 or 8 full sets of double loop strings. So, yes I did change strings, but after the sets finally gave out i had a tough time retrofitting normal guitar strings to the correct length with loops on both ends. I never used a mechanical string winder, but just looped and looped until they stayed put. Much easier to accomplish with the thinner strings than with the wound strings.

    I had a gig in the Azores about 5 years ago, and loaded up on string sets while there. But even the commercially sold strings made for the PG are only looped on one end. someone in Lisbon must sell them with double loops, because i once had so many of them. However, Ron Fernandez told me the strings he buys are only looped on one end.

    I tuned it in D, mostly because if I went any higher than D, the .009 strings started breaking. Plus I tuned it modally, because I was playing Mideastern and Indian music at the time, often with a tabla or dumbeck, and when tuned that way, I could play the drone with my thumb on the lowest two pairs and the melody lines on the higher four pairs. The instrument sounds excellent for Asian music.

    Let me also say, that although the tuners look exotic and perhaps fragile, in fact they work great. There's as much leeway for tuning as with standard western tuners. Often performing, right in the middle of a tune, I would sometimes retune a pair from the fourth down to a major third and then up to the fourth again. Very accurate.

    I've owned this instrument for over 40 years, and I have never once tuned it to play fado.
    Explore some of my published music here.

    —Jim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

  11. #8
    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Quote Originally Posted by DavidKOS View Post
    I need to find the proof again but the mandolin was indeed introduced and played in Hawai'i before the development of the 'ukulele, maybe by 20-40 years.
    I would be fascinated to find out more

  12. #9

    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post

    I used it professionally for about ten years during the 1970s, developing an original music that included elements of Mideastern, Indian ragas, and country blues. I tuned it two ways, either DADGAD or DADF#AD. The fingerboard has the most severe radius I have ever seen on a stringed instrument, and so I often played it bottleneck. It is exceedingly easy to slide along one string at a time without bumping into other strings.

    Until the Internet, it was incredibly difficult to find strings for it. It has a very elaborate version of the so-called "turkey tail" peghead, so strings need loops on both ends and must be of an exacting length or they won't tighten to pitch.
    I recently purchased a Portuguese Guitar (Coimbra type) in Lisbon and want to tune it to DADGAD. Would you mind sharing the string gauges that you use?

    Thanks

  13. #10
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    I have no idea about string gauges. I have always used strings sold specifically for the instrument. Right now I don't have any extras, so I can't tell you what they are beyond the fact that the highest pair was sometimes a .009 and sometimes a .010. I can also say that the three lowest pairs are octaves, with the thinner string on top.
    Explore some of my published music here.

    —Jim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

  14. #11

    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    I have no idea about string gauges. I have always used strings sold specifically for the instrument. Right now I don't have any extras, so I can't tell you what they are beyond the fact that the highest pair was sometimes a .009 and sometimes a .010. I can also say that the three lowest pairs are octaves, with the thinner string on top.
    Ok, thanks. I wouldn't expect a standard set of strings to work. You mentioned a "scroll" so it sounds like you have the "Lisbon" type with a slightly shorter scale length where the highest course is traditionally tuned to "B". The Coimbra model has the highest course at "A" and I can't see ratcheting that up to "D" without risk to the instrument or breaking a string. I would think the same dangers apply with the "Lisbon" type. Going from "B" to "D" is quite a bit more pressure.

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    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    I rarely broke a string so tuning it to D was mechanically sound. It was a long time ago when i was playing this instrument every day, often performing with tabla and various horns. I can say that, about a year ago, I took it out of the closet for a few weeks, and played it tuned to a C modal, not a D.

    It was at that same time, that I explored the marketplace, in the hope of selling it along with few of my other dormant mandolins. I thought that, all together, they would certainly be worth enough money to fetch me a decent F mandolin.

    But that guitarron, with all its inlays and scroll, it's gorgeous wood, its sensuous shape, it's amazing radiused fretboard, and especially its achingly superb tone is not even worth the price of a used Eastman. So I have decided to keep it, play it every so often, admire it always, and eventually will it to my grandkids.
    Explore some of my published music here.

    —Jim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

  16. #13

    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    I agree with you. Keep the unique instruments. I've got a quite a few unique instruments with terrible resell but distinct voices. I see no reason to sell them. My favorite is a fretted Turkish Cumbus with a copper bowl. That think just growls and sounds like nothing else.

    It looks like .009 gauge works for that high string. This Veillette Gryphon guitar has the same scale length (18.5" for Coimbra) and is meant to be tuned in the same ratio as a guitar, only in D.

    http://www.veilletteguitars.com/strings.shtml

    It's the set at the very bottom.

  17. #14
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    i'd love to hear a recording of your Cumbus. Looks like a 12 string mini-banjo.
    Explore some of my published music here.

    —Jim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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    Registered User steve V. johnson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Hey, Jim,

    Thanks for your great story and for the link to your music! Lovely instrument, too.

    There are two Portuguese dealers who offer instruments and accessories on eBay, including tuner sets and tuner parts, which
    could allow you to make a proper repair of your cittern.

    Also, if you decide you'd like to sell the one you have, please contact me privately?

    Thanks very much,
    stv

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    Registered User Colin Lindsay's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Quote Originally Posted by steve V. johnson View Post

    Also, if you decide you'd like to sell the one you have, please contact me privately?
    LOL he just beat me to it… !
    "Danger! Do Not Touch!" must be one of the scariest things to read in Braille....

  20. #17

    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    i'd love to hear a recording of your Cumbus. Looks like a 12 string mini-banjo.
    I've done quite a few recordings of it in different settings. Here's one that's part of a sci-fi spaghetti western project.

    http://www.shazam.com/track/83482351/dead-man

    Here's a chance to hear it clearly. http://joaquinlopez.bandcamp.com/

    Those were done "live in the studio" with just vocals, cumbus and guitar. The intro to "Ella" is an isolated cumbus solo. The first track makes a lot of use of the dadgad octave capabilities. On track 4, I'm playing it on my lap with a steel bar.
    Last edited by Sabicas; Mar-25-2015 at 4:30am.

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  22. #18
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Sabicas, this is great stuff. One thing that strikes me immediately, is that your Cumbus sound is what I was hoping to encounter when I bought a Gibson mandolin/banjo earlier this year. But the MB turned out to be too sharp and noisy, and I sold it within a few months. Your Cumbus seems made for the smoldering Spanish sound.

    I see you are in Portland. I'm in the San Juan islands It would be fun to get together sometime and explore midwestern sounds with Cumbus and Guitarron. You'd love my octave mandola.
    Explore some of my published music here.

    —Jim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Hello everyone.
    Some time ago I came across one of these instruments on Thomann web page. They wouldn't break your bank (especially the simplest ones) and they look gorgeous. But the original tuning doesn't look like the one I'd ever use because of the music I play in my band. Though restringing it for DADGAD may look quite tempting, as I play in this tuning a lot.
    So what I'd like to know is how does it sound in this tuning? I do a lot of chordal backup for ITM and also play some fusion like Celtic acoustic kinda-rock. Can this instrument be of much use applied to this kind of music?
    And, concerning the strings. Do these guitars have truss rods and is it possible to put guitar strings after looping their ends by yourself?
    These instruments look amazing, and the only two things I'm afraid of are tuners (and strings of course) and fretboard radius. Will it work for strumming?
    Thank you in advance!

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    Mandolin Botherer Shelagh Moore's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Lovely recording Sabicas! I love the eerie sound of the cumbus.

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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    Sabicas, this is great stuff. One thing that strikes me immediately, is that your Cumbus sound is what I was hoping to encounter when I bought a Gibson mandolin/banjo earlier this year. But the MB turned out to be too sharp and noisy, and I sold it within a few months. Your Cumbus seems made for the smoldering Spanish sound.

    I see you are in Portland. I'm in the San Juan islands It would be fun to get together sometime and explore midwestern sounds with Cumbus and Guitarron. You'd love my octave mandola.
    I didn't mean to hijack the thread, but yeah, the cumbus is perfect for eastern and spanish sounds. It's a simple design but resonates differently than a banjo. That bowl is deep and the doubled (all unison) courses seem to never quite be in tune. That's mainly because of the way the neck is actually sitting on an adjustable fulcrum and is primarily held in place by the strings themselves. Also, it doesn't sound nearly as good in standard guitar tuning. The sympathetic string drones are a very significant part of the charm (and the not so great sound of playing in certain keys). It's loud, brash and alive.

    I'm actually in the UK right now ending a two year contract. My wife and I are moving back to Portland on Tuesday, less than a week from now. I've been up to the San Juans a few times, playing gigs at Doe Bay on Orcas. I've also played at some bar on Lopez island where the owner is somehow related to one of the Rolling Stones, I believe. I'd definitely be into coming up for another visit and meeting up with you.

    I haven't even begun getting my Portuguese guitar set up for dadgad as we are too busy preparing our relocation. The bridge and nut need some adjustment and I probably won't get it all together until late April. I'm interested to see how it sounds in that tuning.

  26. #22
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    I've been tuning my own portuguese guitar to nothing besides DADGAD or DADF#AD for many many years. I have never played Fado music, but Indian and North African styles. Always kept a drone going on the Lower DAD.

    Chording the instrument takes a bit of time to get used to, because the fingerboard has a rather severe radius to it. I never played anything beyond three note chords.

    That radius makes it great for playing with a bottleneck, because you can isolate one string at a time with much less finesse than on a flat fingerboard. The real challenge is getting the instrument setup so the strings are at a height that allows both slide playing and fingering.
    Explore some of my published music here.

    —Jim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    I have several portuguese guittaras. two antiques, which I love best, although they may not have the richer modern sound. I have used several "celtic" tunnings on the,. my short scale--lisboa antique by tiexiera, I tuned cgcgcg, gace me lots of bright melody and lower drones to harmonize. I have tried a few other tunings. the cgcgcg worked with standard light guitarra strings, but it's high tension. the traditional Portuguese tunning does work very well for tight chord. few big stretches. and lots of boom. melody can be also easy with few stretches. I just love the drones.

    the the Coimbra lower tuning the bass A can be lowered to a g , with a slightly heavier string. then you go from there is get a very "celtic cittern sound". I usually go higher. the bass b of lisboa up to a c. brighter and more mandolin like. I messed around with several other things. I got my first guitarra in a junk shop, and had no teaching. so I got some mandola and mandolin strings and went wild. I liked a dadgad, up to g.(let me think gdgcdg I think) worked for me as well. but it was a bit slack as I remember, but then I had limited string choices back then. with a low a you could try for an adadad sort of thing. never tried it though and one would want a different step somewhere there to take advantage of the six courses. like adacac, or adgdac--just musing here on that one. my favourite remained the cgcgcg on the short scale. the portuuese tuners will rub your finger raw the first time you tune up from scratch. some of the Portuguese guy I knew used needle nose plyers. (which scared the heck outta me for fear of breaking them) once it is tuned up to pitch. they hold well and adjustemtn isn't hard. the tuners are extra trouble, but to put modern tuners on would create so much weight on the head stock it would be very hard to hold and play.

    the higher tension tunings bring out the true beatu of the antique smaller bodied instruments. the lower tunigs work better for the big bodied newer designs. just my theory. I had two fro sale on the classifieds and might put them up again soon.

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  30. #24

    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    I had a guitarra for a while that had been made by Kim Gracio, of the first family of Lisboa guitarra makers. Interestingly it came (via ebay of course) from the widow of Roy Huskey Jr., the late great Nashville bass player. It was a beauty, with gorgeous brazilian rosewood back and sides, but the top was so thin that it had a host of cleated and splinted cracks. Tried tuning it G-D-G-D-G-A, same intervals as one of my 12-string cittern tunings. It actually sounded pretty great. But the instrument didn't capo well so it wasn't very versatile there. I wound up selling it to Ron Fernandez, the go-to guy for Portuguese instruments in the States.

    Jim, You don't say who made yours, but it kind of looks like a Gracio--is it? I have a Kim Gracio mandolin, very Portuguese in style, which is a pretty spectacular instrument.
    Joseph

    Quote Originally Posted by ollaimh View Post
    I have several portuguese guittaras. two antiques, which I love best, although they may not have the richer modern sound. I have used several "celtic" tunnings on the,. my short scale--lisboa antique by tiexiera, I tuned cgcgcg, gace me lots of bright melody and lower drones to harmonize. I have tried a few other tunings. the cgcgcg worked with standard light guitarra strings, but it's high tension. the traditional Portuguese tunning does work very well for tight chord. few big stretches. and lots of boom. melody can be also easy with few stretches. I just love the drones.

    the the Coimbra lower tuning the bass A can be lowered to a g , with a slightly heavier string. then you go from there is get a very "celtic cittern sound". I usually go higher. the bass b of lisboa up to a c. brighter and more mandolin like. I messed around with several other things. I got my first guitarra in a junk shop, and had no teaching. so I got some mandola and mandolin strings and went wild. I liked a dadgad, up to g.(let me think gdgcdg I think) worked for me as well. but it was a bit slack as I remember, but then I had limited string choices back then. with a low a you could try for an adadad sort of thing. never tried it though and one would want a different step somewhere there to take advantage of the six courses. like adacac, or adgdac--just musing here on that one. my favourite remained the cgcgcg on the short scale. the portuuese tuners will rub your finger raw the first time you tune up from scratch. some of the Portuguese guy I knew used needle nose plyers. (which scared the heck outta me for fear of breaking them) once it is tuned up to pitch. they hold well and adjustemtn isn't hard. the tuners are extra trouble, but to put modern tuners on would create so much weight on the head stock it would be very hard to hold and play.

    the higher tension tunings bring out the true beatu of the antique smaller bodied instruments. the lower tunigs work better for the big bodied newer designs. just my theory. I had two fro sale on the classifieds and might put them up again soon.

  31. #25
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    Default Re: Portuguese guitar ?

    I'm mucking around in Portugal for a few weeks waiting for a decision on a contract job elsewhere, and after a couple days in Porto I picked up a PG from a shop downtown called Porto Guitarra. I'll do a thread on them soon since they're really worth a visit for any strings player visting Porto (PGs, mandos, mandolas, mandocellos, all kinds of Portuguese small steel string guitars and nylon uke-cousins). I bought a Coimbra-style (shield head vice scroll) PG for €258, which seemed a great deal for a new, Euro-made instrument.

    I'd encountered photos of the PG back in the 1990s probably, thought it looked really cool, and appealed to me as a handier/cheaper equivalent to a cittern. Speaking of which, the owner of the guitar shop was unfamiliar with the whole Stegan Sobell cittern story, and that the "Irish bouzouki" only dates back 50 years, so we chatted about that and I showed him some photos online of Sobell with the Portuguese guitar he bought in Leeds which got him into cittern. See Sobell's article http://www.sobellguitars.com/how-i-s...first-cittern/

    Like a lot of folks here, when I first became aware of the PG, my ambition was to tune it to a tuning I'm already familiar with, something mando or CBOM-related. It seems a little tricky to get full fourths or fifths stringing across six courses without adding too much tension, but I can totally see DADGAD working. My Coimbra is (bass to top) CGADGA, so all you'd need to do is get a slightly lighter string on the lowest, then remove the low G, slide the rest over one space to the left, and put some extra-light strings on the highest course to make a D.

    However, I'm finding it pretty engaging in the standard Coimbra tuning; having strings tuned a second apart is a little odd, but in some places really useful for quick runs or change a chord by changing courses vice moving a finger. I'm no stickler for tradition, but I do appreciate trying a tuning outside my comfort zone rather than trying to make the PG an ersatz mando. I'm playing in C the vast majority of the time so I can use that bass note open, so fingering 3 frets up that middle A course as my key note. I'm doing vaguely the Portuguese way of playing, using only the thumb and forefinger on the right, but I'm using my pads vice my nails, since I do that on ukulele. My nails aren't quite long enough, and the strange PG-specific fingerpicks they use feel awkward.

    In the bigger picture, I'll see if I keep and and keep using the Coimbra tuning, or tune to something more CBOM-like, or just sell it along to another musician since I got it so affordably. Really worth picking one up if you're ever in Portugal; the radiused neck and the low string tensions give a rather different feel to it, and that tuning with seconds really changes the approach to harmonies.

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