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The Unique Sounds of Puerto Rico’s Cuatro

When the Spanish colonized the Caribbean islands, they brought along with them a number of musical instruments, most notably the six-string Spanish guitar. The much-loved cuatro, a variation of the guitar, is unique to Puerto Rico and has become the national instrument of this fascinating country. The distinctive sound of the cuatro is immediately associated with Puerto Rican music.

The cuatro (which literally means “four”) is smaller than a guitar and originally started off with only four strings that were tuned in a way to give it a unique sound. This four-stringed version of the cuatro is referred to as the “cuatro antiguo” and is still played by some musicians. This later evolved into four double strings and around 1875 the cuatro was modified to five sets of double strings which are tuned in variables of half-octaves. This is the “cuatro moderna” that is most commonly used today.

The cuatro is skillfully carved from a solid block of wood (most commonly laurel) in a graceful violin-like shape. The body is matte finished so that the rich sounds are not hampered by a heavy varnished surface. The cuatro is strung with steel strings which are played with a flat pick, resulting in a sound that some have likened to a cross between a mandolin and a 12-string guitar.

For many Puerto Ricans, the cuatro represents the very essence of Puerto Rico. The cuatro is an integral part of all secular and religious festivities and is seen as an anchor for Puerto Rico’s cultural identity. With this in mind a non-profit organization known as “The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project” has been established with the goal of tracing the history of the cuatro and how it has changed in different parts of Puerto Rico, as well as to establish how it has affected people’s lives and why it is so valued. This project also encourages Puerto Ricans to learn to play the cuerto and to appreciate how the cuatro is linked to their cultural and political history, thereby promoting a sense of unity.

Wherever you travel in Puerto Rico you are sure to enjoy beautiful music played on a cuatro. Many visitors to this culturally rich country take a cuatro home with them – there is no better way to remember your trip to Puerto Rico.


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