Pronounced as ‘cooah-troh’, the cuatro Puertorriqueño is known as Puerto Rico’s national instrument. While its true origins and roots are indefinite, the cuatro was brought to the island by Spanish settlers during the late 18th century. It is also believed to have been patterned after the Spanish vihuela poblana (aka the Renaissance guitar) by the Jibaros (local mountain peasants). This guitar-like instrument originally derived from the ancient, four-string version ‘cuatro antiguo’. But sometime around 1875, it has evolved to five pairs of strings. It used to have a key hole shape and then changed to a violin-looking shape in the 1920s, which has also become its prevailing shape.
The contemporary Puerto Rican cuatro is composed of ten strings of five double sets. Its tuning arrangement is by half octaves or fourths, and top to bottom set (B, E, A, D, G). It is made from various types of wood, but normally from slabs of laurel wood, and Yagrumo wood (indigenous to Puerto Rico). For back and the sides, manufacturers usually choose Guaraguao wood. The cuatro Puertorriqueño is finished in matte to avoid altering or sacrificing tone due to varnish. It looks like a violin but a bit rounded like a guitar and pointed at the inside bouts like a violin. Its bridge is similar to a standard guitar but only steel strung.
The Puerto Rican Cuatro is played using flatpick and sounds like a hybrid between a mandolin and a 12-string guitar. Back in the day, the Jibaros played the cuatro when singing aguinaldos (Christmas carols) from door to door. It is also used to offer accompaniment for refrains and accents within the orquesta jíbara band. Though, this flexible instrument has already found its way into Jazz, Ballad and Salsa ensembles. In fact, many modern performers have brought the cuatro beyond its traditional foundations. Jazz artist Pedro Guzman has created many CDs called ‘Jibaro Jazz’ wherein he uses the cuatro as a jazz instrument. Alvin Medina, on the other hand, plays it for classical tunes. The King of Cuatro, Yomo Toro, also launched the cuatro into salsa music. A world-class luthier and an authority in all things cuatro, William Cumpiano, says on his website that the cuatro is even played all the way in Japan!