About Gambus

The Gambus Melayu

(source: THE FOLK LUTE (GAMBUS), AND ITS SYMBOLIC EXPRESSION IN MALAY MUSLIM CULTURE by LARRY FRANCIS HILARIAN Nanyang Technological University / National Institute of Education, Singapore)

The gambus Melayu is extensively used in zapin music. When compared to the gambus Hadhramaut the gambus Melayu is slimmer, smaller and pear-shaped. This skin-bellied lute is found in Indonesia (Sumatra, the Riau islands, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi), Brunei, Singapore, Johor in Peninsular Malaysia and the coastal areas of Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia.

Malay Gambus and MarwasThere are usually seven lateral pegs attached to a “C”shaped pegbox. The shape of the pegbox head and the shape and designs of the belly of gambus Melayu also differ from one another, largely depending on locality and region. The gambus Melayu pegbox from Indonesia differs from those in East Malaysia, Peninsular Malaysia and Brunei, where they usually have simple, undecorated pegbox designs. The Indonesian gambus Melayu’s pegbox often shows some symbolic representation of birds, flowers or animal heads. These are important mythological representations. Carving the pegbox decoratively into animals, birds or flower shapes seems to be a recent morphological development. The Indonesian gambus Melayu types seem to have a narrower and longer neck or fingerboard tapering from the belly to the pegbox. The fingerboard of the gambus Melayu from Peninsular Malaysia has a relatively short neck, tapering off to the pegbox upward at one end. The other end broadens towards the belly and a protruding tailpiece. The hollowed fingerboard is covered with a separate piece of thin hard wood usually made of teak, keladang or ebony. Some gambus Melayu bellies have Islamic inscriptions written on the skin. Others have been completely painted all in one colour.

All gambus Melayu have a mounted tailpiece to which the strings are fastened at one end. The Malaysian gambus Melayu has a small hole of about 1 cm in diameter on the broader part of the fingerboard. There is also a “soundhole” at the lower vaulted back of the instrument. The Indonesian gambus Melayu also has three to five small soundholes, which are found on the lower face of the neck, with a minor soundhole at the back on the arch.

Measurements and Materials

The overall length of the gambus Melayu of Johor (Malaysia) is about 88 cm. At its greatest depth it is about 13 cm. Its width is 23.5 cm. The face of the neck is flat and the lower portion of the belly is covered with skin to the extent of 32 cm from where the edge of the belly meets the tail-piece downwards (see fig. 1). Most gambus Melayu are made from the Chempedak (Artocarpus integer), Cengal (Neobalanocarpus heimii) and Nangka or jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) tree. This wood is found abundantly in Malaysia. It is preferred since it is a soft wood, which allows one to easily carve out the whole body of the instrument from a single block of wood by hollowing out the interior of the piece of wood. Another factor is that the wood does not shrink when dried. The Sumatran gambus is also made from jackfruit wood with a goat skin belly This confirms the type of wood used in making gambus Melayu

. The gambus of the “Melayu type” is found in East Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah, formally British North Borneo). In these states the word gambus refers only to the instrument that has a similar physical structure to the “Melayu type” lute and not to the arched-back gambus Hadhramaut

The gambus Melayu specimen found in the Riau islands of Indonesia also differs from the ones found in other parts of Indonesia. The gambus from some parts of the Riau islands, especially Pekanbaru, Siak and Bengkalis have been known to favor wire strings as opposed to the ones from all the other areas, which nowadays use nylon. Unlike the Malaysian gambus Melayu, the pegbox head from Indonesia is usually elaborately carved with symbolic representations attached to it.


The tuning of the gambus Melayu is also in “perfect 4ths”23. . In Malaysia and most of Indonesia the gambus Melayu is tuned to: A3-D4-G4-C5 24(3x2+1). In the Riau islands the gambus Melayu, which uses wire strings is tuned to: G3-D4-G4-C. However, the nylon-stringed gambus Melayu is tuned to the Malaysian accordature. The Eastern Sumatran gambus Melayu is tuned approximately to G as the lowest string, then a double course tuned to A, another string tuned to B, followed by three courses tuned to D, A, and E. The double course strings are tuned in unison. The tuning of the double courses, as argued by the practitioners of the tradition, is to strengthen the melodic line relative to the drone