The Machetes (Traditional Madeiran musical Instruments)

Herman Vandecauter

actualized 18/6/2023

  Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago located in the Atlantic Ocean, has a rich musical heritage that includes a variety of traditional instruments. 

   One of the most famous Madeiran instruments is the Machete de Madeira. It is a small stringed instrument with a distinct Madeiran style. The Machete has four strings D G B D , with a body shaped like a figure-eight. It is often used in traditional Madeiran folk music and accompanies songs and dances but also melodic parts and solo music.

     Another important Madeiran instrument is the Rajão. The Rajão is a plucked instrument that resembles a small guitar. It has five strings. Like the Machete, the Rajão is used in traditional folk music, particularly in the Bailinho da Madeira, a popular dance style in Madeira.

    The Cavaquinho a cousin , is commonly used in Portuguese folk music.

   Apart from stringed instruments, Madeira also has unique percussion instruments. 

The Brinquinho is a small metal bell often played in ensembles during festive occasions. The Pandeiro is a type of tambourine that is popular in Madeira, providing rhythmic accompaniment to music and dance.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional Madeiran music and instruments, with efforts to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of the archipelago. As a result, you may find contemporary musicians incorporating Madeiran instruments and styles into their music, blending traditional and modern elements.

The oldest known reference to the machete seems to date back to the early 17th century. Most probably, they are direct descendants of the Renaissance guitar, while the ukuleles are directly derived from the machetes from Madeira, created by  Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias

 It is easier to find historical information on Madeiran wines before 1800 than on the machete! One of the finest plucked instruments in Madeira was made by Octavianno Joao Nunes da Paixao (1812–1874).

                                                               The fine Art ukulele page click here.  

          For a nice collection of Madeiran instruments online, you can visit the
                                                                                             "Museu virtual"

 The more I get accustomed to the sound of machetes, the more I find myself leaving the ukuleles closed in their cases. The machete is actually a different instrument, primarily due to its different tuning (DGBD). Only the Rajão has the ukulele (tenor size) tuning with an extra re-entrant D string, which gives it more possibilities for solo playing than on a ukulele.  

   Machetes are delicate, lightweight instruments (only 220 grams) and require fine fingertips or well-shaped and polished nails to bring out the best sound.

   Regarding the repertoire, that's a different story. On one hand, all melodic scores within the range of the tuning can be played, and when combined with a rajão or guitar as accompaniment, they create a pleasant combination. As a solo instrument, the existing repertoire is limited, but that's also the creative aspect of the game.

    I appreciate the concept of the early 19th century, where players mainly performed their own compositions or arrangements on the machete. This approach makes each machete player unique, distinct, and more captivating to listen to.

    To preserve the tradition, private teaching of traditional instruments is available in various Madeiran towns, and classes are offered at the Conservatorium of Funchal with Roberto Moniz, Roberto Moritz, and Pedro Gonçalves, aiming to sustain interest in these plucked instruments.

   Currently, the number of students in Madeira is increasing. Additionally, there are three skilled instrument makers in and around Funchal exclusively crafting Madeiran instruments by hand.

    I forgot to mention the good news: you can bring the instrument on a plane without any issues, and it can even fit in a standard carry-on suitcase with its hard case included.

                     Machete Madeirense  (Braguinha or cavaquinho on the mainland Portugal)

                                                                                                   Made by Scot Trembly CA
                                                                                                   Roseberry guitars

4 strings, traditional tuning dgbd (re sol si re)   
Original gut strings were used, later also steel strings and today mostly fluorocarbon strings.

My new "Machete 
Oitocentista" made by Mário Freitas (Madeira)


   Machinho 4 double strings, 18th century (Funchal)  5 string version did exist as well.

The lady is “Eliza Eleanor Murray”
Doughter of Charles Murray, British consul in Madeira.

Painter unknown
Classical music for machete?

There is also the Collecção de Peças para Machete 1846. 41 pieces ,Valses, polkas, bolero....for machete & guitar accompaniment. The best witness to the level that machete players heralded in the early 19th century.

Catharina Sydney Pratten
One of the finest guitarist 19th century from England (Catharina Josepha Pelzer German origin) wrote some duets for machete and guitar as well! (Maud impromptu) 
                                                         Collection Norberto  Gomes

Guiot 1847 English ( Photographs thanks to James Westbrook)

Empress Elisabeth of Austria "Sissi" playing the machete 1860

Lewis Carroll (Alice in wonderland) 1858

Edith, Ina and Alice Liddell

Alice Liddell

The machetinho was even smaller and tuned a d f a (la re fa la)

The machete de rajão or in short “ Rajão”

5 strings d g C e a (re sol do mi la)
I use only the 5th string re-entrant, trad: 4th end 5th are re-entrant. 

It has lower pitch than the 4 string machete. A very interesting instrument, all the renaissance guitar repertorium can be played on it as well as a lot of baroque guitar music.

                                                              Made by Scot Tremblay     Roseberry guitars 

A mystery from the 16th century detail of a Flemish painting "Pieter Breugel de Ouwe"

                                             1559  'Tussen Carnaval en Vasten'     (5 single strings) 

 Rajão (5 strings)

More recent recordings can be downloaded via BandCamp

My 19th century guitar page!
Augusto Da Costa




  1. You are an excellent musician. Thank you. I have one question: How was the 1880's Portuguese Machete tuned?

  2. Congratulations Herman, I liked your Blog. Good images, good text, simple but illuminating. Thank you for spreading the Madeiran cordophones.


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