The tiple (tee-pleh) is a small, guitar-like instrument that has been played throughout Latin America for nearly 500 years. Tiple means 'treble' in Spanish, and indeed the first tiples were thought to have been small treble guitars brought by Spanish sailors and colonists to the New World during the 16th and 17th centuries. Because of their compact size, they were easy to make, cheap to produce, and perfect for stowing in the small confines of a ship. The instruments quickly became established in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil, evolving in unique ways over the years.
All traditional Latin American tiples have 4, 5, or 12 strings, and the name actually refers to any one of a number of different instruments of varying sizes, shapes, construction, stringing, and tuning. The modern tiple, however, is about the size of a ukulele, and has ten steel strings arranged in four courses. The courses are strung double-triple-triple-double, and the inner string of each triple course is one octave down from its neighbors.
The 10-string tiple made its first North American appearance in 1924, when it appeared in the Martin catalogue. In the early 20's, a friend of Fredrick Martin III sent him an Argentinean tiple with 10 gut strings. Ukuleles were extraordinarily popular parlor instruments at the time, and Martin must have seen the opportunity to capitalize on the craze. The original tuning was changed to match the ukulele (A D F# B), but the stringing was kept more or less the same with two outer double courses and two inner triple courses. It is still made in small quantities today.