How to Hold, String, and Play the Berimbau

Learning how to hold, string, and play the berimbau may be a daunting task at first glance. One of the fortunate things about the berimbau is that it is a relatively simple instrument to learn. There are few notes, and although the instrument is difficult to hold, anyone can learn to play it.

Although the berimbau is most closely associated with the art of Capoeira, this guide will provide steps to the instrument regardless if playing for capoeira is your goal. In this guide I’ll go over the different parts of the berimbau, how to hold the instrument, how to play all three notes, exercises to hold the berimbau, and a few extra tips to mastering this instrument.

When you first look at the berimbau it might seem like a very odd instrument. It most closely resembles a bow (like in bow and arrows), but it comes from a family of instruments called the “musical bow”. This family of instruments descends from many different cultures such as Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Although the berimbau is a Brazilian instrument it most likely has its origins in western Africa.

Parts of the berimbau

The Verga  (wood)

The berimbau is composed of several different parts. The first is the verga. The verga is a piece of wood that stands a little over five feet tall. There are smaller berimbaus that are for children, but if you’re an adult, this should be the size of your berimbau. Although the wood can be from various  sources, the most traditional one is from the beriba tree. This tree is found all over the Northeast region of Bahia, Brazil, which is part of the reason why it’s widely used when constructing berimbaus. Many other Woods can replace beriba and offering many different varieties of sound.

The Arame (wire)

The second piece of the berimbau is called the arame. The arame is a piece of wire that can be found in a few different places. The most commonly used wire comes from car tires, piano wire, or bike tire wire. The piano wire can be bought online, but  you’ll have to go digging for the care and bike tire wire.

If you travel back a hundred or more years it would be common to see some people using sinew from animals as the wire. Although this is not used anymore, this is an older form of “wire” for the berimbau. The arame connects to the verga via a loop at the bottom and tying it tightly near the top. At the top side of the berimbau, the verga and arame are tied together by a string that is wrapped around the verga and tightened. When you bend the berimbau and tightly tie the arame to the verga, you are stringing the berimbau. Stringing the berimbau means making sure that there is enough tension in the arame that when you play it, the sound will resonate.

Cabaça (gourd)

The third piece of the berimbau is the cabaça. This part is a hollowed-out gourd that is open on one side. This is the resonator for the instrument. Cabaças vary greatly in their size and shape. If you have a smaller cabaça, then you’ll likely get a much higher pitch sound, and when you have a larger cabaça you will generally get a much deeper sound. The cabaça is held together with the verga and the arame via a string. Together these three components govern the majority of the pitch, tone, and volume of the berimbau. They also add a certain flavor to the sound of the berimbau, and depending on how you configure them, it can have a large impact on the sound quality.

Chapeu de couro (leather hat)

At the very top of the berimbau is a piece of leather called “chapeu de couro”. This literally translates from Portuguese to leather hat. The small leather hat is where the wire rests and acts as a buffer to protect the arame(wire) from digging into the verga(wood). Leather can be sourced from many different places and it’s not uncommon to find leather from a shoe used. This small piece of leather is usually held in place by a couple nails at the top.

Dobrão (doubloon)

Dobrão in Portuguese translates to Doubloon. A doubloon is an old coin that is no longer in circulation. These small coins can be found in many different places and it is one of the tools that is used to change the pitch of the berimbau.

When playing the berimbau, you can hold the dobrão against the arame to adjust the pitch of the sound. Although the use of the dobrão is somewhat romanticized, this was not the first tool that was used to adjust the pitch of the berimbau. Originally, smooth rocks, such as the kind you would find by river beds were used. A smooth rock makes it easier to hold and easier to press it against the arame. The rock or “pedra” in this case is the more traditional “dobrão”, although it might not look like it.

The caxixi (shaker)

The caxixi looks like it could be an instrument all on its own. And although some people use it this way, it is actually part of the berimbau. The base of the caxixi is usually the cut-out piece of Gord used for the cabaça. The body of the caxixi is woven together using straw or reeds, and seeds fill it to make sound.

The same hand that holds the baqueta also holds the caxixi. The caxixi is held by placing your ring and middle finger through the loop and palming the body of the caxixi. After you have the caxixi securely in your hand, you can pick up the baqueta and hold it in the same hand. Every time you strike the berimbau, you will hear the caxixi. Although the caxixi can make a lot of noise, it’s important to not let it overpower the sound of the berimbau as you play.

Baqueta (stick)

The last piece of the berimbau is called the baqueta. The baqueta is a very simple stick, usually about a foot long. The baqueta is the tool we use to strike the arame and produce sound. Although the baqueta can be made of many different materials, wood is the most prominent. And the most prominent wood that is used is probably Tucum because of its availability in Northeast Brazil. Tucum is also closely associated with the death of Besouro Mangangá, a Capoeirista who died from a knife made of Tucum. 

How to string the berimbau

Stringing the berimbau is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of learning to play the berimbau. The berimbau itself is not very simple to put together and can be difficult if this is something you’ve never done before. Here is a list of steps to help guide you through this process. 

1. Remove the cabaça from the verga. This will avoid the cabaca falling to the ground as you string the berimbau.

2. Make sure the arame is looped onto the bottom portion of the verga. This will make sure tension is held once the berimbau is strung. 

3. Place your hand just below the chapeu de couro (leather on top of the berimbau)

4. Place your knee somewhere in the middle of the berimbau. This does not have to be exact. Your knee will act as the fulcrum as you bend the berimbau. 

5. Pull the berimbau towards you. This may be difficult depending on the qualities of the wood. If the verga is thicker or of a less pliable wood, then this might be a bit of a challenge. Be careful, because many people have broken their berimbaus in this step. If this is the first time you string your berimbau, er on the side of bending less. When you get more comfortable stringing your berimbau, you’ll have an idea of how much it needs to bend to be properly strung. 

6. While you bend the verga, place the wire on top of the chapeu de couro and secure it with the thumb of the hand holding the verga.  

7. With the same hand that placed the arame on the chapeu de couro, tie the arame around the around the verga tightly. Loop the string attached to the arame around itself a couple times to secure the arame in place. 

8. Place the cabaça back on the berimbau, sliding it up from the bottom. You may have to press the arame in to make room for the cabaça. The cabaça is usually moved up the berimbau about the distance from your pinky to the thumb.

In most cases you want to make sure to have no more than five fingers of distance between the arame and the verga at middle point. If you have more than five fingers worth of distance, you can loosen the wire by holding the arame and string that is looped around the verga, and turning it slightly. The reason we do this is to preserve the Integrity of the wood and make sure that we can play the berimbau for many many years to come. After you’ve adjusted the height of the cabaça to play the sound you want, you’re ready to pick up the berimbau and start playing.

How to hold the berimbau

One of the more difficult aspects about learning how to play the berimbau is how to hold it. Take your non-dominant hand. This is the hand that will be holding up the berimbau. Place your Pinky underneath the string that holds together the cabaça, the verga, and the arame. Your pinky will be the base of support for the berimbau. This might seem difficult at first because your berimbau might  heavy, however this is something that takes time to adjust to. This is similar to learning a guitar where your fingers need to Calais before you can play for extended periods of time. Likewise, your pinky will need to get a little bit stronger so that you can hold the berimbau for longer periods of time.

Balancing the weight of the berimbau

Now that you’re pinky’s safely securing the weight of the berimbau, you can wrap your middle and ring finger around the Verga. These two fingers will provide stability and keep the berimbau from falling off to any side. The thumb side of your palm can rest a bit on the verga for added support. The same goes for the pinky side of your palm on the cabaça. The last two fingers, the index finger and the thumb are going to hold the dobrão. This coin or rock will be pushed against the Arame to change the sound of the berimbau. The thumb and index finger provide minimal added stability for the berimbau.

Should you hold the berimbau at your stomach or chest?

Whether you should hold the berimbau at your chest or your stomach depends on who you ask. To be clear, there is no standard height you should hold the berimbau at. Some people prefer to hold the it closer to their stomach, while others see it as a sign of respect to play the instrument closer to the heart. In terms of the sound quality, this is almost no difference.

When playing the berimbau, there are two basic positions that you hold the berimbau in relation to your body. The first is with the cabaça by the stomach or chest. This will mute the sound as your covering the opening of the resonator (the cabaça). The second position is to have the cabaça away from the stomach or chest. This allows the sound to travel much further. Note that the distance you have the cabaca from your chest will change the flavor of sound you will produce with the berimbau. You can try playing with this to see how the sounds differ.

Berimbau holding drills – Improve your berimbau balance

It is difficult to play the berimbau for longer than a few minutes before your pinky starts to hurt. Muscles that control the dobrão and the palm can also fatigue as you play for extended periods of time. Here are some useful exercises that will increase the amount of time you can hold the berimbau.

Start by holding the berimbau against your stomach. Bring the berimbau up and out, and then down and back to your chest in a circular motion. Repeat this in both directions. Try to do this slowly. You want to work on your control and maintaining balance throughout the movement is important. Try as hard as you can to not let the berimbau sway from side to side.

Next, hold the berimbau upright at the height of your chest. Extend your arm so that it is straight. This might already be very difficult for you. If so, feel free to do a few holds in this position or with your arm slightly bent to make the hold easier. If you are able to hold the berimbau with your arms straight, then the next level is to turn your wrist and lean the berimbau to each direction. This means, turning your wrist so the berimbau is parallel with the ground. Do this to your right, to the left, and finally straight forward. 

As you get strong, try to turn your hand more and more until the berimbau is able to touch the ground. At first you may want to try this exercise without the dobrao. Using the dobrao will make this exercise harder, but will work out your hand in a way that resembles how you will play the berimbau. A fun exercise you can try to do is tap different things around our room using the berimbau. Do this in as many directions as you in as many creative ways you can think of. Explore what is easy for you and especially what is difficult.

Holding the Baqueta

The baqueta is a simple piece of wood that resembles a wand from Harry Potter. One of the most common mistakes people make when learning to play the berimbau is using the baqueta. The way you hit the arame with the baqueta can drastically change the quality of the sound you get from the berimbau. This is why it’s important to know how to hold and use the baqueta.

The way you hold a baqueta can vary greatly, however for most people I recommend holding the baqueta the way you hold a pencil. Squeeze the baqueta between your middle, index finger, and thumb, close to the end. You can even place the baqueta on top of your ring finger for added support. The baqueta should feel somewhat loose in your hand. If the hold I gave you feels too tight, then try something that you’re comfortable with. Find a goldie locks area where you hold the baqueta not too hard and not too soft. This will be important as we start playing.

How to hit the berimbau with the baqueta

Striking the arame with the baqueta is an art unto itself. The most important things to keep in mind is that you want to strike the arame as low as you can. When playing the open note, this means striking right above the string that holds the cabaca in place. When you play the scratchy or closed notes (notes described below), strike the arame right above the dobrão.

The second most important thing to keep in mind is that the baqueta needs to bounce off the arame when it is struck. When the baqueta doesn’t bounce off the arame it mutes the sound the berimbau makes. You should see the baqueta visibly bounce off of the arame. Play around with how much pressure you use to hold the baqueta. It will take some time, but eventually you can get into the goldie locks zone of holding the baqueta. It should be loose enough so the baqueta bounces off the arame, and hard enough so the baqueta doesn’t fly out of your hand.

The three fundamental notes of the berimbau

In portuguese, the three notes of the berimbau are Arranhado (scratchy), Solto (open), and Preso (closed). Groups will vary in how they call their notes, however the number of notes does not change. There are ways to play these notes that add flavor and variety, however these all stem from the three basic notes.

How to Play the Solto note (open)

The solto note is the easiest of the three to play. Strike the arame with the baqueta without letting the dobrão touch the arame. As mentioned earlier, try to strike the arame close to the string that holds the cabaça. The solto note is generally played with the cabaça away from the stomach, although there are plenty of ways to bend this rule.

How to play the Preso note (closed)

The preso is a note that utilises the dobrão. By placing the dobrão hard against the arame, you make a higher pitched sound than the solto. The preso is usually a half step up from the solto note. So if the solto is in the key of A, then the preso is in the key of A#. You don’t need to know this, but music theorists might like that information. Also, having some basic understanding of music theory does help when learning to play the berimbau in a bateria (percussion band). In the majority of cases, the preso is played with the cabaça away from the body to allow the sound to travel further. As with the solto note, this rule can be bent.

How to play the arranhado note (scratchy)

The last note is similar to preso in that it also uses the dobrão. Instead of pressing the dobrão hard against the arame, you will press the dobrão very gently against the arame. This sound is very distinct and is referred to as the scratchy note. This sound is what happens when the arame vibrates against the dobrão when you hit it. These fast little taps of the arame against the dorão is what makes the unique sound. The arranhado note is almost always played with the cabaça against your chest or belly.

Additional notes

The berimbau is an instrument that allows for a lot of creativity. Just like how Jimi hendrix can make a guitar sound like a different instrument, in the hands of a master player, the berimbau can sound like it has many more than three notes. Some concepts that allow you to produce a different sound are the following. Try to play with these ideas and see what you can come up with.

  • Hold the cabaça to your body when playing a preso or solto note
  • Quickly moving the the cabaça from against the body to away from the body
  • Quickly moving the cabaça away and towards the body repeatedly and quickly
  • Tapping on the cabaça with the baqueta
  • Shaking the caixi harder or softer
  • Allowing the baqueta to bound along he arame (like when a rubber fall falls bounces quickly on the ground)

Capoeira music inspiration (click the image for amazon link)

If you’re interested in Capoeira music, then I recommend you check out Mestre Acordeon’s CD. The music of Capoeira. This is one of the more accessible Capoeira CDs. Use this CD as a model. Listen to it, pause and try to recreate the sounds you hear in the CD. This is how many people started learning Capoeira music, and is still a great way to learn new things and get inspired.

For the Berimbau Afficionados I highly recommend CDs by Contra Mestre Rafael de Lemba and Mestre Pernalonga. They are are both students of Mestre Ananias and masters in their ability to play the berimbau. CD’s will be difficult to find because as of yet there are no digital copies, but if you do find one, then buy it!