gambus Melayu

Also:       gambus Lampung      gambus Hijaz       

Title: Music of Indonesia v.11: Melayu Music of Sumatra and the Riau Islands--Dayung Duabelas; N. Sani Burhan, gambus (field recording by Philip Yampolsky--see Bibliography). Label: Smithsonian/Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SFW 40427. Track: 2.

Contextual Associations

The gambus Melayu is a plucked bowl-lute chordophone of central and southern Sumatra, Indonesia. It can be played solo, used to accompany singing, or played in instrumental ensembles to accompany dancing at Muslim domestic and community celebrations. It carries a strong association with Muslim identity in the Malay world.


The pear-shaped body of this lute is carved from a single piece of jackfruit wood. Its hollowed-out resonator is belly-shaped, the open face of which is covered with a soundboard made of stretched goatskin that is attached with tacks. The instrument's short neck is also hollowed out. It is rounded in the back and its front covered with a thin flat piece of hardwood that serves as a fretless fingerboard. The pegbox at the top has a C-shaped profile with a flat rectangular face. Its front and back are open with seven diamond-shaped friction tuning pegs passing through its sides--four from one side, three from the other (it appears the instrument could have at one time been outfitted with one additional string). Its four courses of strings (three double, one single) are anchored at the base of the resonator to a wooden rod on the backside of the protruding square foot, pass over a low wood bridge that rests on the soundboard, continue up the length of the instrument and over a nut at the top of the neck before being wound around the tuning pegs, with which the performer sets their individual tension. 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The instrument is held nearly horizontal across the chest of the performer who plucks the strings with his right hand fingernails or with a feather quill. The fingertips of the left hand are used to depress the strings against the fretless fingerboard. Strings in a double course are tuned to unison. Kartomi reports that the courses are called, in descending order of pitch, kuwin, genda, goro, and tala (p. 10). Hilarian gives the following open string tuning (in ascending order) as common for both Indonesian and Malaysian gambus Melayu: A3 - D4 - G4 - C5 (p. 76).


All sources agree that the gambus Melayu is derived from Arabic precursors such as the Yemeni qanbus. When and in whose hands the qanbus and other similar Arabic lutes arrived in what is now Malaysia and the western region of Indonesia is far less certain. It may have been introduced anytime between the 9th century, when Persian and Arabic traders started operating in and around Malaysia, to the 15th century, a period during which the powerful trading state of Malaka was undergoing Islamization. Regardless of when it was introduced, the instrument became indigenized locally as it was further distributed throughout the Malay-speaking world of insular Southeast Asia. The central and southern parts of the island of Sumatra, from where the instrument described here originated, is one local realization of this varied and widespread instrument.

Bibliographic Citations

Hilarian, Larry. 2005. "The Structure and Development of the Gambus (Malay-Lutes)," Galpin Society Journal 58: 66-82, 215-216.

Kartomi, Margaret. 1984. “Gambus” NGDMI v.1: 9-10.

Kunst, Jaap. 1973. Music in Java. 3rd ed. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Poche, Christian. 1984. "Qanbus" NGDMI v.3: 168-169.

Yampolsky, Philip. 1996. Music of Indonesia v.11: Melayu Music of Sumatra and the Riau IslandsCD with liner notes. Smithsonian/Folkways SFW 40427.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: Southeast Asia

Nation: Indonesia

Formation: Malay (Malayu)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - integral

Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with membrane soundboard

String courses: single, double at unison

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretless fingerboard)


29.5 in. length 6.9 in. width 4.5 in. deep (resonator)

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
string - synthetic

Entry Author

Roger Vetter