Tres (instrument)

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For other uses, see Tres (disambiguation).
Tres Cubano
Tres cubano
String instrument
Other names Cuban Tres, Tres Guitar
Classification String instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification
(Composite chordophone)
Developed Cuba
Related instruments
Guitar, Cuatro, Laúd

The tres is a guitar-like three-course chordophone,[1] most commonly seen as either the tres cubano with six strings, or the tres puerto rico with nine strings.


By most accounts, the tres was first used in several related Afro-Cuban musical genres originating in Eastern Cuba: the nengón, kiribá, changüí, and son. Benjamin Lapidus states: "The tres holds a position of great importance not only in changüí, but in the musical culture of Cuba as a whole."[2] One theory holds that initially, a guitar, tiple or bandola, was used in the son. They were eventually replaced by a new native-born instrument, a fusion of all three, called the tres. Helio Orovio writes that in 1892, Nene Manfugas brought the tres from Baracoa, its place of origin, to Santiago de Cuba.[3] Fernando Ortíz asserts a contrary theory that the tres is not actually a Cuban invention at all, but an instrument that had already existed in precolonial-era Spain.[4] There are variants of the instrument in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.[5]

A musician who plays the tres cubano is called a tresero.

The Cuban tres has three courses (groups) of two strings each for a total of six strings. From the low pitch to the highest, the principal tuning is in one of two variants in C Major, either: G4 G3, C4 C4, E4 E4 (top course in unisons), or more traditionally: G4 G3, C4 C4, E3 E4 (top course in octaves). Note that when the octave tuning is used, the order of the octaves in the first course is the reverseof the order in the third course (low-high versus high-low).[6] Today many treseros tune the whole instrument a step higher (in D major): A4 A3, D4 D4, F#4 F#4 or A4 A3, D4 D4, F#3 F#4.

Puerto Rico[edit]

A Puerto Rican tres.

The Puerto Rican tres may have descended from the Cuban tres. Unlike the Cuban variety, which has a guitar-like shape, the Puerto Rican tres is shaped like a Puerto Rican Cuatro, with cut outs.

The Puerto Rican tres has 9 strings in 3 courses and is tuned G4 G3 G4, C4 C4 C4, E4 E3 E4.

Players of the Puerto Rican tres are called tresistas.


The typical tres ostinato is the guajeo. It emerged in Cuba in the 19th century, in the musical genres nengón, kiribá, changüí, and son.[7]


Benjamin Lapidus presents evidence of the "linear view of the son's development from nengón to kiribá and other regional styles, to changüí, and ultimately to son."[8] The nengón has a limited harmonic range, where the tonic and dominant are accentuated, and the tres is usually placed in the traditional octave tuning (G4 G3, C4 C4, E3 E4). The following nengón guajeo is an embellishment of the rhythmic figure known as tresillo.

Nengón guajeo written in cut-time.


When playing changüí, the tres is again usually given the traditional octave tuning. The following changüí tres guajeo consists of all offbeats.[9]

Changüí offbeat guajeo written in cut-time.


Kevin Moore states: "There are two types of pure son tres guajeos: generic and song-specific. Song-specific guajeos are usually based on the song's melody, while the generic type involves simply arpeggiating triads."[10] The rhythmic pattern of the following "generic" guajeo is used in many songs. Note that the first measure consists of all offbeats. The figure can begin in the first measure, or the second measure, depending upon the structure of the song.

Generic son-based guajeo written in cut-time. About this sound Play 


Tres solos were first constructed by grouping guajeo variations together, a melodic/rhythmic approach relying on subtle variation and repetition, that maintains a "groove" for dancers. According to Lapidus, tres solos in changüí typically sound "melodic/rhythmic ideas twice before moving on. This technique allows the soloist to set up a series of expectations for the listener, which are alternately satisfied, circumvented, frustrated, or inverted. The practice has its analogue in what Paul Berliner labels 'a community of ideas,' as motives from these sequences are frequently returned to throughout the course of any given solo."[11]

By the mid twentieth century, tres solos began incorporating the rhythmic "vocabulary" of quinto, the lead drum of rumba.[12] The counter-metric emphasis of quinto-based phrases break free from the confines of the guajeo, which is normally "locked" to the clave cycle. Thus, quinto-based solos are capable of creating long cycles of tension—release spanning many measures. The following excerpt is from a tres solo played by Nelson González in the guaguancó “LP Theme" (1976).[13] This solo has a definite quinto influence.

Excerpt from tres solo by Nelson González.

The passage above can be broken down into five connected phrases:

  1. Measure 1: Consecutive offbeats grouped in three’s, but only the first two offbeats of each group are sounded. This is a classic quinto cross-rhythmic phrase.
  2. Measures 2 and 3 are locked with clave. This is a common guajeo pattern known as ponchando, which consists of block chords, rather than the arpeggiated melody typical of guajeos.
  3. The two measures are followed by consecutive offbeats (e and ah pulses) from 4e of measure 3 to 3e of measure 5.
  4. Next, a displaced main beat cycle on the ah pulses occurs from 4ah of measure 5 to 1ah of measure 7.
  5. The excerpt ends by returning to playing two out of three offbeats as it began. The phrase begins on 3e of measure 7 and ends on 1ah of measure 9.
The solo contains several block chords, but harmonically it maintains a state of suspension; it does not suggest a regular progression. By measure 4 the sounding of chords on offbeats begins to obscure the metric scheme. Three consecutive ah pulses—2ah, 3ah, 4ah (measure 6) can be mistaken for main beats.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Stringed Instrument Database
  2. ^ Lapidus, Ben (2008). Origins of Cuban Music and Dance; Changüí p. 18. Lanham, MA: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-6204-3
  3. ^ Orovio, Helio (La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, [1981] 1992). Diccionario de la Musica Cubana. p. 481.
  4. ^ Ortíz, Fernando (1952-1955) Los instrumentos de la musica afrocubana v. 2 p. 313.
  5. ^ Lapidus (2008). p. 18.
  6. ^ Pena, Joel; Fun With Cuban Tres; Mel Bay Publications; Pacific, Missouri: 2007. ISBN 978-0-7866-7292-9
  7. ^ Lapidus (2008). p. 16-18.
  8. ^ Lapidus (2008). p. 96.
  9. ^ Moore, Kevin (2010). Beyond Salsa Piano; The Cuban Timba Piano Revolution v.1 The Roots of Timba Tumbao p. 17. Santa Cruz, CA: Moore Music/
  10. ^ Moore, Kevin (2010). Beyond Salsa Piano v.1 p. 32. Santa Cruz, CA: Moore Music/ ISBN‐10: 1439265844
  11. ^ Lapidus (2008). p. 56.
  12. ^ Peñalosa, David (2011) Rumba Quinto. p. xiv. Redway, CA: Bembe Books. ISBN 1-4537-1313-1
  13. ^ Valdés, Carlos “Patato” "LP Theme" Authority LPV CD 103 (1976).
  14. ^ Peñalosa, David (2009). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins p. 204. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.

Further reading[edit]

  • Richards, Tobe A. (2007). The Tres Cubano Chord Dictionary: C Major Tuning 648 Chords. United Kingdom: Cabot Books. ISBN 978-1-906207-03-8.  — A comprehensive chord dictionary instructional guide.
  • Richards, Tobe A. (2007). The Tres Cubano Chord Dictionary: D Major Tuning 648 Chords. United Kingdom: Cabot Books. ISBN 978-1-906207-04-5.  — A comprehensive chord dictionary instructional guide.
  • Griffin, Jon (2007). El Tres Cubano with CD (Audio) (Book & CD) (Paperback). Omnibus Press. ISBN 978-0-8256-3324-9.  — An instructional guide (in Spanish and English)

External links[edit]