If you’re into world music like I am and love the ukulele, you may have seen musicians from Central and South America playing a stringed instrument that looks very much like the ukulele but is something completely different. It’s actually the cuatro! So, let’s talk about this battle royale: Ukulele vs Cuatro!
These instruments may seem similar at first glance, but they each have their own unique characteristics, history, and musical traditions. While some cuatros look almost exactly like a ukulele, there are some regional differences between the ukulele and the cuatro, and even among different types of cuatro! You may decide that you want to branch out and acquire one of these instruments and broaden your musical horizons. Let’s take a look at ukulele vs cuatro and find out more about these traditional instruments.
History of the Cuatro
The Cuatro is a traditional stringed instrument originating from Latin America, particularly popular in countries such as Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Colombia. Its name, “Cuatro,” translates to “four” in Spanish, which refers to the instrument’s four strings. These strings are usually tuned in a specific way, creating a distinct sound that is instantly recognizable.
The Cuatro’s history dates back several centuries, with its roots firmly planted in the indigenous cultures of Latin America. Similar to the ukulele, the Venezuelan cuatro evolved from a 16th century Spanish classical guitar. Two strings were removed (similar to the ukulele), and the modern four-string cuatro was born. Over time, Spanish influence introduced elements such as the use of European woods and craftsmanship techniques.
The traditional Cuatro is a small, guitar-like instrument with a body made from various types of wood, including mahogany, cedar, or rosewood. Its soundboard often features intricate designs or rosettes, adding to its visual appeal. The Cuatro’s four strings are typically made of nylon or gut.
Read More: What Ukulele Chords Go Together?
Masters of the Cuatro
Throughout its history, the Cuatro has been wielded by countless talented musicians who have become masters of the instrument. One such figure is Cuatro virtuoso Yomo Toro, whose innovative style blended traditional Puerto Rican music with elements of jazz and other genres. His virtuosity on the Cuatro earned him international acclaim and cemented his legacy as a pioneer of the instrument.
Another influential Cuatro player is Edwin Colón Zayas, whose work in preserving and promoting Puerto Rican folk music has had a profound impact on the instrument’s popularity. His dedication to teaching and passing on the Cuatro’s traditions to younger generations ensures that the instrument continues to thrive.
The Cuatro in Contemporary Music
As Puerto Rican culture has spread across the globe, so too has the Cuatro. Its unique timbre and versatility have made it a sought-after instrument in the world of contemporary music. Musicians like Jose Feliciano, who became an international sensation with his rendition of “Feliz Navidad,” have incorporated the Cuatro into their performances, adding a touch of Puerto Rican authenticity to their music.
Preservation and Education
Efforts to preserve and promote the Cuatro’s legacy are ongoing. Organizations and schools dedicated to the preservation of Puerto Rican music and culture offer courses and workshops for aspiring Cuatro players. These initiatives aim to ensure that the instrument continues to be passed down to future generations.
In recent years, the Cuatro has gained recognition as a national symbol of Puerto Rico, and efforts to protect its heritage have intensified. The instrument’s cultural significance has been officially recognized by the Puerto Rican government, further solidifying its place in the country’s identity.
Similarities and Differences Between the Ukulele vs Cuatro
Despite the geographical differences in the history of the ukulele and cuatro, here are some of the similarities between the cuatro and the ukulele:
- The Venezuelan and Puerto Rican cuatro usually has four strings, which can be tuned in different ways. The most common tuning is A D F# B, which is very close to the tuning of a ukulele. In fact, you can easily tune most GCEA ukuleles to this tuning! In addition, but the ukulele and the cuatro are believed to have been created from 6-string instruments from Spain and Portugal.
- One difference between the cuatro and the ukulele is re-entrant tuning. While there are many ukuleles that use re-entrant tuning with a high G, the cuatro is tuned with a linear tuning, meaning that the notes go from low to high from fourth string to first string.
- Cuatros come in a variety of body shapes, but most often feature a compact, guitar-like body with a small sound hole. Most four-string cuatros are the same size or smaller than a tenor ukulele. Cuatros are now made using the same woods that you will find in your favorite ukulele like cedar and mahogany, but the cuatro is also made with rosewood. The sound hole on a typical cuatro is usually embellished with intricate rosettes and fabulous designs are burned or otherwise painted onto the sound board.
- The tone of the four-string cuatro is a warm, mellow tone that is perfect for traditional Latin American music styles like joropo, merengue, and salsa. While the ukulele can also be used for these kinds of music, the ukulele is synonymous with the tropical, lush sounds of traditional Hawaiian music. Both instruments originated with strings made of gut (usually sheep), and now use nylon. While some ukuleles use strings made from fluorocarbon now, most cuatro players stay with nylon strings that sound closer to the original gut strings.
- Techniques used to play the cuatro are very similar to what you would use to play the ukulele. Fingerpicking and strumming techniques are used to play both instruments, with the addition of more percussive techniques used on the cuatro. Many ukulele players are now including more percussive strumming techniques in their playing, and they’re very similar to what you would learn on the four-string cuatro.
- Both the ukulele and the four-string cuatro are compact in size and smaller than a guitar, making them easy to transport and accessible for everyone to play.
The Cuatro is not just a musical instrument; it is a living testament to the vibrancy and resilience of Puerto Rican culture. Its journey from the Spanish guitar to the unique and cherished instrument it is today mirrors the island’s own history and evolution. Just like the ukulele has become the symbol of the spirit and joy of Hawaii and the people of Hawaii, both instruments have become representative of just how important music is in cultural traditions around the world.
As the Cuatro continues to enchant audiences everywhere, it remains a source of pride for Puerto Ricans everywhere. Its ability to transcend genres, bridge generations, and express the soul of a people makes it a cultural treasure of immeasurable value. The Cuatro’s legacy will endure, ensuring that the heart and spirit of Puerto Rican music continue to beat strong for generations to come.
Similarly, the ukulele also continues to be a source of pride for the Hawaiian people as it finds its way into the hands of professional and amateur musicians around the world.
Are you ready to explore more in the world of ukulele? Make sure you take a look at all the online courses available at the Terry Carter Music Store! You’ll find online courses for all levels, from complete beginner to almost pro, and everything in between. Level up your ukulele skills with a new online class!