Cuatro (instrument)

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Venezuelan Cuatros
Venezuelan Folk Cuatro Venezuelan cuatro.jpg
Venezuelan Folk Cuatro
Venezuelan Concert Cuatro Cuatro Ramon Blanco.jpg
Venezuelan Concert Cuatro

The cuatro is a family of Latin American string instruments played in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and other Latin American countries. It is derived from the Spanish guitar. Although some have viola-like shapes, most cuatros resemble a small to mid-sized classical guitar. In Puerto Rico and Venezuela, the cuatro is an ensemble instrument for secular and religious music, and is played at parties and traditional gatherings. [1]


Cuatro means four in Spanish; the instrument's 15th century predecessors were the Spanish vihuela and the Portuguese cavaquinho, the latter having four strings like the cuatro.

Modern cuatros come a variety of sizes and shapes, and number of strings. Cuatros can either have single-strings, like a guitar, or double- or triple-coursed strings like a mandolin, and vary in size from a large mandolin or small guitar, to the size of a full-size guitar. Depending on their particular stringing, cuatros are part of the guitar or mandolin subfamilies of the lute family.

Cuban Cuatro

The Cuban cuatro (cuatro Cubano, or tres cuatro) is similar to a Cuban tres, but with 4 courses of doubled strings, instead of the usual 3 courses. It is usually tuned G4G3C4C4E4E4A4A4 .

Puerto Rican cuatros

The word cuatro makes its first apparition in 1828, when an activity that included stringed instruments was mentioned in a Puerto Rican newspaper. The word cuatro was used to represent the amount of strings that the instrument initially had, but later on, a 10 stringed, 5 course cuatro made its way into our culture in 1887, and was later shown in a photograph that was taken in 1916. By 1922, the cuatro music arrived to Puerto Rican radio stations, like "Los Jíbaros de la Radio" (1932) and "Industrias Nativas" (1934). After many years of constant rise in popularity, on April 11, 2002, the Puerto Rican government approved a law declaring that every year on November 17, we would celebrate "El día del Cuatro y del Cuatrista Puertorriqueño" [2] (Day of the Cuatro and Puerto Rican Cuatro Player). Only a year later, on the 23 of june of 2003, it was established that three instruments, among them the Puerto Rican Cuatro, were declared the National Instruments of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and important symbols of Puerto Rican culture [3] (Eric F. Milland Ramos).

A Puerto Rican Cuatro Traditional style cuatro of Puerto Rico.jpg
A Puerto Rican Cuatro

The Puerto Rican cuatro is shaped more like a viola than a guitar, and is the most familiar[ clarification needed ] of the three instruments of the Puerto Rican orquesta jíbara (i.e., the cuatro, the tiple and the bordonua). The Puerto Rican cuatro has ten strings in five courses, tuned in fourths from low to high, with B and E in octaves and A, D, and G in unisons: B3B2E4E3A3A3D4D4G4G4 .

The cuatro is composed of several parts that work together to formulate the distinguishable sound of the instrument:

Several sizes of the instrument exist, including a cuatro soprano, cuatro alto, cuatro tradicional (the standard instrument, also called cuatro tenor), and cuatro bajo (bass): All have 10 strings and are tuned in fourths. There is also a cuatro lírico (lyrical cuatro), which is about the size of the tenor, but has a deep jellybean-shaped body; a cuatro sonero, which has 15 strings in 5 courses of 3 strings each; and a seis, which is a cuatro tradicional with an added two-string course (usually a lower course), giving it a total of 12 strings in 6 courses. [4]

The Puerto Rican Cuatro is played with a pick, and the cuatrista will strike downwards on the string with the pick in order to generate the sound that the person wants to produce. The most popular technique used to play the cuatro is called tremolo , which occurs when a cuatro player continually strikes the same chord multiple times to generate a sound for a longer period of time. The tremolo is used to play longer lasting notes, like the whole note, the half note, and ligated eighth notes and sixteenth notes.

Musically, the Puerto Rican cuatro, although it is used throughout the year, it is mostly heard during Christmas time ("The short history of the cuatro"). The genres of music where the cuatro's presence is really known in Plena, the Trova, the Aguinaldo and the Seis that were created in Puerto Rico. Sometimes, it is integrated in salsa and other genres of music like the waltz. Some of the aguinaldos and seises created in Puerto Rico are:

Venezuelan cuatro

The cuatro of Venezuela has four single nylon strings, tuned A3D4F
B3 .
It is similar in shape and tuning to the ukulele, but their character and playing technique are different. It is tuned in a similar fashion to the ukulele's traditional D tuning, but the B is an octave lower. Consequently, the same fingering can be used to shape the chords, but it produces a different inversion of each chord. There are variations on this instrument, having 5 strings or 6 strings.

Other Venezuelan cuatro variants include:

cinco cuatro5 strings in 4 courses
seis cinco6 strings in 5 courses
cinco y medio5 normal-length strings and an extra, 6th short string from the top of the body
cuatro y medio 4 normal-length strings plus an extra, 5th short string
octavo8 strings in 4 double-string courses

Cuatros in other countries

Certain variants are considered the national instrument of some countries (e.g., Venezuela). The cuatro is widely used in ensembles in Jamaica, Mexico, and Surinam to accompany singing and dancing. In Trinidad and Tobago it accompanies Parang singers. In Saint Lucia the cuatro is used as an accompanying instrument in traditional Sewenal music at Christmas time.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Ukulele Member of the guitar family

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The tres is a three-course chordophone of Cuban origin. The most widespread variety of the instrument is the original Cuban tres with six strings. Its sound has become a defining characteristic of the Cuban son and it is commonly played in a variety of Afro-Cuban genres. In the 1930s, the instrument was adapted into the Puerto Rican tres, which has nine strings and a body similar to that of the cuatro.

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The cavaquinho is a small Portuguese string instrument in the European guitar family, with four wire or gut strings.

The term requinto is used in both Spanish and Portuguese to mean a smaller, higher-pitched version of another instrument. Thus, there are requinto guitars, drums, and several wind instruments.

Tiple Fretted string instrument

A tiple, is a plucked-string chordophone of the guitar family. A tiple player is called a tiplista. The first mention of the tiple comes from musicologist Pablo Minguet e Irol in 1752. Although many variations of the instrument exist, the tiple is mostly associated with Colombia, and is considered the national instrument.

Guitar tunings

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Russian guitar

The Russian guitar (sometimes referred to as a "Gypsy guitar") is an acoustic seven-string guitar that was developed in Russia toward the end of the 18th century: it shares most of its organological features with the Spanish guitar, although some historians insist on English guitar ascendancy. It is known in Russian as the semistrunnaya gitara (семиструнная гитара), or affectionately as the semistrunka (семиструнка), which translates to "seven-stringer". These guitars are most commonly tuned to an open G chord as follows: D2 G2 B2 D3 G3 B3 D4. In classical literature, the lowest string (D) occasionally is tuned down to the C.


The Bordonua (Bordonúa) is a large, deep body bass guitar which is native to Puerto Rico. They are made using several different shapes and sizes.

Reentrant tuning

On a stringed instrument, a break in an otherwise ascending order of string pitches is known as a re-entry. A re-entrant tuning, therefore, is a tuning where the strings are not all ordered from the lowest pitch to the highest pitch.

Ten-string guitar

There are many varieties of ten-string guitar, including:

William R. Cumpiano Puerto Rican master guitarmaker

William Richard Cumpiano is a builder of stringed musical instruments and is known for his writing and teaching of the art of luthiery. He has been involved in the preservation and understanding of the fading musical and musical craft traditions of his native Puerto Rico. Cumpiano was instrumental in the development of the first feature-length documentary about the cuatro and its music, Our Cuatro: The Puerto Ricans and Stringed Instruments, Volumes 1 and 2.

Guitarrón chileno

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Puerto Rican cuatro Musical instrument

The Puerto Rican cuatro is the national instrument of Puerto Rico. It belongs to the lute family of string instruments, and is guitar-like in function, but with a shape closer to that of the violin. The word cuatro means "four", which was the total number of strings of the earliest Puerto Rican instrument known by the cuatro name.

Cuatro (Venezuela)

The cuatro of Venezuela has four single nylon strings, tuned (ad'f#'b). It is similar in shape and tuning to the ukulele, but their character and playing technique are vastly different. It is tuned in a similar fashion to the traditional D tuning of the ukulele, but the A and B are an octave lower. Consequently, the same fingering can be used to shape the chords, but it produces a different inversion of each chord. A cuatro player is called a cuatrista.

Colombian tiple

The Colombian tiple, is a plucked string instrument of the guitar family, common in Colombia where it is considered one of the national instruments. About three-fourths the size of a classical guitar, it has twelve strings set in four triple-strung courses. It is played as a main instrument or as an accompanying instrument to the guitar.

Tiple (Puerto Rico) Smallest of the three string instruments of Puerto Rico

The tiple is the smallest of the three string instruments of Puerto Rico that make up the orquesta jibara. According to investigations made by Jose Reyes Zamora, the tiple in Puerto Rico dates back to the 18th century. It is believed to have evolved from the Spanish guitarrillo. There was never a standard for the tiple and as a result there are many variations throughout the island of Puerto Rico. Most tiples have four or five strings and most tiple requintos have three strings. Some tiples have as many as 6 strings and as few as a single string, though these types are rare.


  1. "C". Stringed Instrument Database. Retrieved 2018-03-20.
  2. "Leyes de Puerto Rico de 2002 en LexJuris". Retrieved 2021-05-16.
  3. "Leyes de Puerto Rico de 2003 en". Retrieved 2021-05-16.
  4. "Interesting". The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project.

Further reading