The cuatro is a family of Latin American string instruments played in Colombia, 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.
Modern cuatros come in 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.
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 G4 G3 — C4 C4 — E4 E4 — A4 A4 .
Puerto Rican cuatros
The word cuatro first appears in 1828, when an activity that included stringed instruments was mentioned in a Puerto Rican newspaper. The word cuatro was used to represent the number of strings that the instrument initially had, but a 10 stringed, 5 course cuatro was made in 1887, as shown in a photograph taken in 1916. By 1922, cuatro music was being played on Puerto Rican radio stations, like "Los Jíbaros de la Radio" (1932) and "Industrias Nativas" (1934). After many years of constant rise in popularity, the Puerto Rican government approved a law in 2002 declaring that every year on November 17, the Commonwealth would celebrate "El día del Cuatro y del Cuatrista Puertorriqueño" (Day of the Cuatro and Puerto Rican Cuatro Player). Only a year later, the Puerto Rican cuatro was one of three instruments that were declared the National Instruments of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and important symbols of Puerto Rican culture.
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: B3 B2 — E4 E3 — A3 A3 — D4 D4 — G4 G4 .
The cuatro is composed of several parts that work together to formulate the distinguishable sound of the instrument:
- Clavijero (pegbox): This is found at the head of the cuatro, which allows the instrument's strings to be tuned
- Cejuela (nut or hueso): This is found on both ends of the cuatro, close to the head of the instrument, and in the overall body of it. It helps keep the strings in place as well as aid in the tuning process of the instrument.
- Trastes (fret): There are 18 to 20 frets in a traditional Puerto Rican Cuatro.
- Diapasón (diapason): Diapason is an addition of the cuatro that is placed under the frets, to allow the musician comfort to the hand and a grasp whilst he/she is playing.
- Rosetas (rosette): This is a circular ornament that is present at the mouth of the instrument. Although this is allows cuatros to be distinguishable, the actual function that these serve in the instrument is for feedback prevention.
- Cuerdas (string): The strings are the main element that is in charge of producing sound. By being struck with a pick, they are able to produce various sounds and variations of chords in a cuatro.
- Puente (bridge): The function of the bridge is to be able to maintain the strings in the position they are supposed to be in. In the bridge there is a cejuela, which aids in this task as well.
- Caja armónica (harmonic box): This is the overall body of the cuatro. It helps modify the sound produced and helps spread it to the surrounding air or environment.
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.
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 whole notes, half notes, and tied 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:
- Alegre Vengo
- De la Montaña Venimos
- Saludos, Saludos
- De Tierras Lejanas
- Popurri Navideño
- Caminan las Nubes
- El Fuá
- Seis Mapeyé
- Seis Chorreao
- Seis Celinés
- Seis Fajardeño
The cuatro of Venezuela has four single nylon strings, tuned A3–D4–F♯
4–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 cuatro 5 strings in 4 courses seis cinco 6 strings in 5 courses cinco y medio 5 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 octavo 8 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 Suriname 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.
- "Instrumentos Musicales de Venezuela: Cuatro". Diccionario Multimedia de Historia de Venezuela. Fundación Polar.
- Fredy Reyna (1994). Alfa Beta Cuatro. Monte Avila Editores.
- Alejandro Bruzual (1999). Fredy Reyna – Ensayo biográfico. Alter Libris.
- Tobe A. Richards (2007). The Venezuelan Cuatro Chord Bible: A D F# B Standard Tuning 1,728 Chords. Cabot Books. ISBN 978-1-906207-00-7.
- Tobe A. Richards (2007). The Puerto Rican Cuatro Chord Bible: B E A D G Standard Tuning 1,728 Chords. Cabot Books. ISBN 978-1-906207-06-9.
- Eric F. Milland Ramos (2004). Método Para El Aprendizaje Del Cuatro Puertorriqueño. Ebay. 143899864054.
- "News and Videos about Venezuelan Cuatro".
- "Material and HD Videos to learn how to play Venezuelan Cuatro".
- "The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project". The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project.
- A short history of the Puerto Rican cuatro and its music 
- LexJuris Puerto Rico. Ley Núm. 50. del año 2002.
- LexJuris Puerto Rico. Ley Núm. 154 del año 2003.